BBC dodges yet another FOI re DH communications

A few weeks ago I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the BBC concerning communications between its Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh and the Department of Health. The aim of the request was to uncover whether the government has exerted any undue pressure on the BBC to limit its coverage regarding the consequences in the NHS of the damaging Health & Social Care Act, and whether the BBC agreed to collude in keeping these consequences out of the public awareness.

I knew in advance that the BBC might well use the ‘purposes of journalism’ exemption of the FOI Act to avoid providing the information, but felt we have to try every avenue to uncover misdeeds by the government and public bodies, especially on such a critical issue as the NHS – which the Tories are clearly intent on destroying, as evidenced yet again by yesterday’s appointment as Health Secretary of a man who is on record as stating that the NHS is a 60-year-old mistake and now an irrelevant institution.

Well, I was right in my suspicion. Here’s the response I received from the BBC (emphases mine):

Thank you for your request to the BBC of 10th August 2012, seeking the following information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000:

“Under the Freedom of Information Act, I wish to receive a copy of all emails and meeting/telephone conversation notes between your Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh (or on his behalf) and the Department of Health, from 1 Dec 2011 to 31 July 2012.”

To the extent that we still hold the information you request, 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 this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion. Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA 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.

You may not be aware that one of the main policy drivers behind the limited application of the Act to public service broadcasters was to protect freedom of expression and the rights of the media under Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). The BBC, as a media organisation, is under a duty to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest and the importance of this function has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights.

Given the BBC’s clear and lamentable failure to report on the NHS and its evident and ludicrous opinion that the destruction of the NHS is not a matter of public interest, it’s absolutely laughable that they are appealing to an exemption that is designed to protect the freedom of journalists to provide information on important matters free from pressure.

The very aim of my request was to uncover whether the government has applied pressure to compromise that freedom. So, more on principle than in the hope that it will actually achieve anything, I’ve complained to the Information Commissioner as follows:

The BBC advises that it does not offer an internal review procedure, so I have no other recourse but to complain to you.

The BBC has refused my request on the grounds that it is for the purposes of journalism. The aim of my request was to uncover whether the government has applied pressure to the BBC to suppress journalism on a specific topic. According to the BBC, the ‘purposes of journalism’ exemption is to protect journalistic freedom. As my request is to discover whether journalistic freedom has been compromised, the information requested should not be exempted from disclosure on those grounds.”

I doubt that my complaint will be upheld, even though it clearly should be. However, just as the government’s veto of the release of its ‘risk register’ regarding the NHS Act proved that they had plenty to hide, the BBC’s refusal to disclose information is the scent of gunpowder it not a smoking gun. If there was nothing compromising in the information I’ve requested, why refuse to disclose it?

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