Media law: 'FoI has made the BBC rethink its spending'

The BBC could be ‘the Freedom of Information Act’s first major scalp’ as its spending is made public, Press Gazette’s media law conference heard this morning.

Matt Davis, director of news agency DataNews, said the corporation will cut budgets as more largesse is revealed.

He cited the BBC’s accommodation bill during the 2006 World Cup in Germany – £1.6m – which was released under FoI laws.

“Do you think that sort of accommodation will be rubber-stamped next time?” he asked.

Davis also cited the BBC’s Christmas party bill.

“Every year the figure has been headline news,” he said. “In 2007, the bill was £250,000, with a £50 per head limit.

“This year, it was £60,000, with a £25 per head limit. Do you think that level of cutback would have come about without Freedom of Information?”

Davis said the BBC had embraced the FoI law, creating a team to answer questions, and setting up an FoI blog.

But he said the BBC had, initially, stopped much of its own information becoming public by citing “journalistic, artistic or literature” reasons.

Even the cost of running the Blue Peter Garden, Davis said, had been kept secret under this exemption.

But, gradually, what it keeps secret has been chipped away by a number of rulings – springing “leaks in the dyke”.

The corporation could be “clinging to its information jewels with water gushing round its wellies,” Davis said.

“If the BBC thought the level or scrutiny it gets now is bad, just wait,” he added.

“It won’t be long before we can look at the sums and work it out ourselves. Wait until we get hold of the costs of making programmes like HIV and Me, and Dog Borstal.

“[There will be] an inevitable trimming of its budget, or a root and branch discussion of how the BBC is funded… [it] could be the Freedom of Information Act’s first major scalp.”

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