Freedom of Information is a funny thing – some of it is more free than others. We recently asked you to send us your suggestions for FOI requests to the BBC: one of the central goals of ourBeeb is seeking accountability and transparency from the BBC we all pay for. Taking advantage of the BBC’s compliance with the 2000 Freedom of Information Act seems like a useful short-cut to tackling the ‘openness deficit’ that affects many of their biggest decisions.
Before the idea of crowd-soucing FOIs came to us, we submitted a couple of our own. One of them concerned the recent BBC Radio 1 'Hackney Weekend' – it seemed that a lot of people watching the extravagant event on TV, described proudly by the Beeb as "the UK's biggest free ticketed event", were asking the same question: with 100,000 people paying nothing to attend across the weekend, six stages, 100 acts, and a glittering line-up featuring the biggest names in global pop music – Kanye West, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Dizzee Rascal, Nas – who was paying for all this? So we filed a FOI, as follows:
What was the amount of licence fee money spent on the Hackney Weekend 2012?
We just got the answer back. The answer was ‘we’re not telling you’:
“Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for ‘purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The BBC is not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities.”
So the BBC is exempt from FOIs looking into its creative activities, its programme making, indeed anything related to journalism, art and literature? This leaves what exactly? Spending on biscuits?
There is an interesting and somewhat notorious precedent here: the case of the BBC’s internal Balen Report, commissioned to look into accusations of bias in coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. After FOI requests were turned down for the same reasons as our own – ie that the report concerned the BBC's 'output', so they weren’t compelled to share it with the licence fee payers – the BBC was challenged by Steven Sugar, and pursued through the courts, all the way to the House of Lords and Supreme Court. Despite appeals and counter appeals, he never found out the answer. The Daily Mail – unsurprisingly, given their persistent, often unsavoury hostility to the Beeb – pointed out that “the BBC's own website boasts of 69 stories that it says it has broken with the help of the Freedom of Information Act”. It’s a fair point. They also raised questions about how much this epic court case protecting the Balen Report had cost, quoting Conservative MP David Davis:
"An organisation which is funded partly to scrutinise governments and other institutions in Britain appears to be using tax-payers money to prevent its customers from finding out how it is operating. That is absolutely indefensible."
The Mail went on to quote "a source close to the case", who "believed that the BBC had spent in the region of £200,000 on the case so far, while another legal expert claimed the cost could be as much as £300,000."
We're not going to take the BBC's spending on the Hackney Weekend all the way to the House of Lords, but we shouldn't have to: this is a basic accountability issue, and we'd like to know why the BBC won't publish the information that many of their funders, the British people, would like to know. Are they afraid the answer will cast them in a bad light? I’m not sure it would - it may well be a perfectly defensible figure - and I wonder if they’re hiding behind the FOI Act unnecessarily.
Here are a few tidbits I've managed to find out from insiders (though again, this is not how it should work). Several people who work for the BBC have told me the festival's superstar headline acts – some of whom can command fees around £1m – waived their performance fees, as if the Hackney Weekend were a charity event (which is odd, since it isn't). Others told me that BBC employees working on the weekend itself did not receive overtime, and were merely enthusiastic volunteers, which seems a bit unfair on them, though anecdotally they all seemed happy enough to be part of it.
Despite the rain, the Hackney Weekend looked like a great event to be at, from my position on the sofa – and as a writer on ‘urban’ music, I’m bound to say that acknowledging hip-hop and r’n’b’s place at the heart of British popular culture is exactly what the BBC should be doing. (That’s not a politically correct sop to ‘inclusivity’ or ‘diversity’ – it’s simply the most popular music in the country.)
But is this part of the BBC’s public service remit? To inform, educate and entertain, sure – but does entertaining mean putting on colossal mega-concerts for 100,000 people? Arguably the provision of free tickets is where the public service aspect comes in: though opinion seems to vary on how many young people from the poorer parts of Hackney - people who might not have been able to afford £50 to see Jay-Z and Kanye at a regular show - were beneficiaries.
The BBC, via Radio 1, have been putting on big free summer concerts like this for some years – last year saw Lady Gaga and the Foo Fighters headlining in Carlisle. I’m not opposed to them in principle. But I think for us all to make a judgement about whether the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster should incorporate the organising of free music festivals, we ought to at least know how much they cost.