Freedom of information: a smokescreen of accountability

If the entire BBC is protected from answering requests under the Freedom of Information Act who exactly does it remain accountable to?

Ben Hayward
20 February 2015
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In September 2014 I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) Request to the BBC regarding their programming around the Scottish referendum. The Beeb had really delved new depths in providing coverage and, for whatever reason, incessantly tried to predict the outcome of what many respected political analysts were convinced would be a result  too close to call

We were treated to a kaleidoscopic tidal wave of polls, graphs, pie charts and predictions reminiscent of the training montage from Rocky – all that was missing was footage of Alex Salmond shadow boxing his way up the Royal Mile to the sound of Big Country. 

Of course, Scotland voted to remain part of the Union by a margin of 55 to 45 per cent with a voter turnout of nearly 85 per cent – one of the highest ever in the UK. 

It made me think back to the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum of May 2011 and how much coverage it received in the mainstream media. Surely the AV referendum carried as much if not greater significance to the UK as a whole? 

It proposed changes to our electoral system that had the potential to directly upset the balance of power at Westminster, a change that could make the political system more accessible to minority parties and the government more representational of the public view. 

The AV referendum could have led to one of the biggest single shifts in our political system in over 300 years and yet the turnout was just over 42 per cent, less than half that of the Scottish referendum. 

I tried to remember the onslaught of information I was provided with in the lead up to the AV vote, the experts enlightening and informing me with their views on how the country would be affected by this landmark referendum… 

I tried, but I could not recollect much at all. Certainly nothing like the Factor 50 levels of exposure experienced during the Scottish campaigns. Could the levels of voter turnout be linked to the amount of coverage the campaigns received in the mainstream media?

The answer is I don’t know. I submitted a FOI request to the BBC asking how much programming time they had dedicated to coverage of each of the campaigns. They declined to provide me with any information.

Ian Small, Head of Public Policy and Corporate Affairs for BBC Scotland informed me that: 

The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide the information to you. The BBC is not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBCs output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities.

This response seemingly exonerates the BBC from answering FOI requests at all. For starters, surely they can class almost anything they undertake as being for the purposes of journalism, but, just in case there is a loophole that might allow a paying member of the public to find out any information about a public service broadcaster, they slam those doors shut too.

It seems that the Corporation doesn’t like being asked to justify its editorial output or the process behind it. I am sure a lot of media organisations feel the same way – but they have to justify themselves to their shareholders and advertisers and ultimately their viewers – if figures aren’t acceptable, programmes are scrapped.

The fact that one avenue of accountability in the form of FOI requests is merely a smoke screen is not in itself the fault of the BBC. It is not solely responsible for the wording of the Act. It is however responsible for how it chooses to interpret it and this use is indicative of an attitude of entitlement exuded from the Corporation.

Either it cannot be bothered to answer the request, which shows a complete lack of regard for the public who fund its existence or, there is a reason to hide the motivations behind its editorial decisions. Either way it does not paint the picture of a responsible public broadcaster, but one that is comfortably resting on its laurels in a state of digestive malaise.

I am not against the existence of the BBC. I think it is important to have an unbiased national broadcaster that is not reliant on advertising income and does not live in the pocket of commercial backers. It has been responsible for some fine programming over the years and it remains an important and influential source of news and current affairs.

But come on BBC, at least make the effort to appear responsible and accountable by answering a simple request for information without hiding behind the broad shield of exemptions that has been granted to you. They are like lifts – just because it’s easier to use them doesn’t mean you have to.   

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