Richard Thomas, speaking at the Society of Editors conference in Manchester, said that, under a Government consultation launched by the Prime Minister last month, the two broadcasters could ‘in theory’be brought in.
A public consultation remains under way until 1 February and Thomas urged journalists to take part – not least the meeting’s chair Simon Bucks, associate editor at Sky News, and the Society of Editors’ incoming chairman.
The Commissioner said: ‘We could move to cover broadcasters. Channel 4 is in, the BBC is in. But these are private broadcasters and there is a debate to be had about that.”
He also said the part of the Act that refers to public broadcasters could be reviewed. Under the Act as it stands, public broadcasters are covered only for the purposes of journalism, art or literature. Using this exemption the BBC has refused to publish the so-called Balen Report – a 20,000-page document on the corporation’s Middle East coverage.
Thomas said the Government had previously tried – unsuccessfully – to get one public body, Network Rail, covered under the Act, but used environmental information regulations. Network Rail appealed its case to an information tribunal, which ruled in its favour.
Under the current consultation ministers will use Section Five of the FoI Act to bring public bodies under the its terms.
Thomas described the Act as a ‘success story’and said there had been 200,000 requests since it became law in January 2005, although he admitted the current waiting time for answers to requests – often six months – was unacceptable.
Thomas said Gordon Brown’s recent speech on liberty had ‘sent a strong message to Whitehall and the rest of the public sector that [FoI] is now an important part of the constitutional settlement”.
He said the lobbying of journalist organisations, particularly the Society of Editors, had a crucial role in securing the policy u-turn on FoI. Under Tony Blair, the Government had proposed to limit the number of applications news organisations could make in a year and to set stringent cost limits on requests.
The conference meeting focused on the legal framework of information. Sir Ken Macdonald QC, director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, said juries should be trusted to make decisions, regardless of press coverage.
He said. ‘The responsibility of what gets published should be with the journalists. I believe in ‘publish and be damned’. It gives you a great responsibility but it’s better than running the risk of [regulation].
On contempt of court laws, Macdonald said the starting position should be that the ‘jury will judge the case on the evidence they hear in court and nothing else. That is not to say there is no prejudice – it is possible to pre-judge things before they start… but I am a strong believer in the public right to know”.