The BBC’s senior compliance officer has backed his team’s decision not to disclose details about the recruitment of 23 high-profile journalists.
The corporation came under fire in June when it appeared to indicate that two external recruits had been taken on through a closed process.
The appointments of ITV News’s Lucy Manning and ITN’s Ed Campbell came shortly before head of BBC News James Harding announced that 415 jobs were to be lost across the division.
The timing was criticised by the National Union of Journalists, with national organiser of broadcast Sue Harris describing the announcement as “really, really upsetting”.
A BBC insider told Press Gazette at the time: “There is only one recruitment process that me and my colleagues know is competitive and that's a recruitment process.
"There is widespread outrage in the BBC Newsroom about the BBC's cavalier disregard of its duties to be open and fair in its recruitment. This is nothing less than cronyism."
A BBC spokesperson said: "We ensure we fill roles competitively using a variety of different recruitment methods. On occasion, on-air reporters or other key editorial staff have been recruited in a different way, but always within the proper recruitment process."
The BBC gave the same response when asked about the recruitment of more than 20 other staff members.
Press Gazette then asked for details about the recruitment of the journalists: whether their positions had been formally advertised for, whether there had been a formal interview process and what salaries they are paid.
Here is the request:
Could you please provide me with details on how the following BBC employees were recruited. Have their current positions (which have all been taken up over 2013 and 2014, I believe) been formally advertised for? And have they had to go through a formal interview process? If not, please provide details of how the employees were recruited and who made the final decision to hire them. Please also provide the salary (or salary band) each employee receives.”
The journalists, and their new positions, asked about are (internal moves asterisked):
- Nick Hopkins (investigations correspondent, Newsnight)
- Duncan Weldon (economics correspondent, Newsnight)
- Keith Blackmore (managing editor, BBC News)
- Laura Kuennsberg (presenter and chief correspondent, Newsnight)
- Robert Peston (economics editor)*
- Mishal Husain (presenter, Today)*
- Paul Royall (editor, BBC News at Six and Ten)*
- Ian Katz (editor, Newsnight)
- Ceri Thomas (acting editor, Panorama)*
- Jon Sopel (North American editor)*
- Mark Mardell (presenter, The World This Weekend and The World at One)*
- Kayta Adler (Europe editor), Ian Pannell (international correspondent)*
- Mark Wray (head of BBC College of Journalism)*
- Penny Marshall (education editor)
- Hugh Pym (health editor)*
- John Mullin (Scottish referendum editor) – Press Gazette now understands Mullin was taken on after a competitive recruitment process
- Jim Gray (head of BBC TV current affairs and deputy to the head of news programmes)
- Helen Boaden (director, BBC Radio)*
- Peter Rippon (editor, BBC Online Archive)*
- James Harding (director of news and current affairs)
- Lucy Manning (special correspondent)
- Ed Campbell (editor, special correspondents)
The BBC rejected the FOI request, saying:
We ensure we fill roles competitively using a variety of different recruitment methods. On occasion, on-air reporters or other key editorial staff have been recruited for in a different way, but always within the proper recruitment process.
“We are withholding information on the recruitment processes that the individuals list were subject to, under section 40(2) (personal information) of the Act. Under section 40(2) of the Act, personal information about identifiable living individuals is exempt if disclosure to a third party would breach one or more principles in the Data Protection Act 1998. The individuals concerned would not expect their employment/salary data to be disclosed to a third party. To do so would be unfair; therefore, disclosure would breach the First Data Protection Principle (fair and lawful processing).”
In response to this, freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke, who helped break the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, told the Evening Standard: “The Data Protection Act isn’t supposed to be about keeping everything completely private… If you work for the BBC, a publicly funded body, then there are expectations that the process by which you got the job was acceptable.”
She added: “The corporate types are erring on the side of secrecy but it does them a disservice: it makes them look like they have something to hide.”
After consulting the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Press Gazette asked that the decision be subject to an internal review, making clear that the FOI was to find out about positions the individuals hold rather than them personally and that this meant personal information was not relevant.
Simon Pickard, the BBC's senior compliance office, disagreed. In response to Press Gazette's appeal, he said:
The ICO’s guidance ‘Determining what is personal data’ explains that in many cases, data may be personal data simply because its content is such that it is ‘obviously about’ an individual. As the applicant has requested information about specific positions, the information requested is ‘obviously about’ the relevant individuals and falls within the definition of personal data. It is noted that in the applicants original request the names of the post-holders was provided, and that when asking for this internal review the applicant re-phrased their request by asking about the post and referencing who was currently in each post. Either way, this request stills falls under the ‘obviously about’ definition.
“Section 40(2) provides an exemption where an applicant is asking for someone else’s personal data. This exemption is used in situations when disclosing information would contravene the first data protection principle in Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998. As the applicant is clearly requesting information about living individuals, Section 40(2) applies and the BBC would need to consider if this breached any of the data protection principles.
“The first data protection principle (fair and lawful processing) is the most relevant in this case. The first consideration of this principle is to consider whether it would be fair to the data subjects to disclose their personal data, which in this case is in respect of their appointment into their current post of employment. If disclosure would not be fair, then the information is exempt from disclosure.
“I consider that details regarding an individual’s recruitment into their current post can be considered as personal data. I therefore uphold the original findings of the request.”
Press Gazette will now be appealing to the Information Commissioner.
In a separate FoI submitted by Press Gazette, the BBC has revealed that 13 members of staff work full-time on its information and compliance (FoI) team. There is one additional FoI worker on the Television Licensing Management team, it said.
Between January and July this year, it recieved 1,246 FoI requests. In total, 123 requests were returned late – after the 20-working-day deadline – and 49 were subject to internal reviews.
In 2013, the BBC received 1,993 FOI requests. Some 459 – 23 per cent – were returned after the 20-day deadline, and 99 were subject to internal reviews.
The BBC said it did not hold information on how many times rejected FoI requests had been taken to the Information Commissioner.
But court records on the Baili website show that the Information Commissioner has ruled over 54 complaints on the BBC's handling of FoIs in 2013 and 2014. The corporation was found to have breached FoI rules on eight occasions for not responding within the 20-day limit.
In the FoI response, the BBC asked that this statement be put into any subsequent story: “The BBC received over 3,000 Freedom of Information Act requests from January 2013 to July 2014. Each request is considered individually and every effort is made to answer as fully as possible, often volunteering more information than the Act requires. However, sometimes the information requested is out of the scope of Freedom of Information legislation or protected by an exemption under the Act.”