Solicitor close to forcing release of report on BBC MidEast bias

By Simon Rocker, February 12, 2009

The BBC is under new pressure to publish a five-year-old report into the fairness of its Middle East coverage after a decision this week by the Law Lords.

Steven Sugar, who has been campaigning for four years for the corporation to disclose the Balen Report under the Freedom of Information Act, overturned one of the main obstacles against its release.

After his 3-2 victory in the Lords, Mr Sugar, a commercial solicitor from London, said that there was now a strong case for issuing the report — written by the senior BBC editorial adviser, Malcolm Balen.

“They have lost their best point,” Mr Sugar said. “And there is renewed interest in the report. It has recently been claimed that the report concluded that the BBC’s Middle East coverage had been biased against Israel and that the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the charity aid appeal for Gaza was influenced by this.”

But the extraordinary legal ping-pong is not yet over: the BBC still has an outstanding High Court appeal which could yet prevent the document’s publication.

“It is sad that the BBC felt it necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money fighting for three years to try to load the system against those requesting information from it under the Freedom of Information Act,” Mr Sugar said.

“I hope that the BBC will now stop the legal argument and will immediately publish the Balen report. If not, I am confident that my superb legal team will win the whole case in the end.”

When Mr Sugar originally applied to see the report early in 2005, the BBC countered that documents relating to its journalism were exempt under the FoI Act. The Information Commissioner then ruled in favour of the BBC, but Mr Sugar successfully appealed to the Information Tribunal which backed the report’s release.

The BBC then won a High Court case arguing that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the complaint — a decision subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal when Mr Sugar contested it.

But this week the Lords agreed with arguments put by Mr Sugar’s pro bono team of three barristers and two solicitors, that the Information Tribunal did have the right to make a ruling.

In a statement, the BBC said: “The Law Lords have not ruled that the Balen Report should be released. What they have done is clarify the law around the jurisdiction of the Information Tribunal.

“Public service broadcasters like the BBC are not required to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act if it is for the purposes of ‘journalism, art and literature’. The Law Lords have ordered that the issue of what is meant by ‘journalism, art and literature’ in this instance is now a matter for the High Court.”

A spokesman for the corporation dismissed “as complete nonsense” any suggestion that the Balen Report had influenced its decision not to broadcast a charity appeal for Gaza.

He added that the publicly available Thomas Report into its coverage of Israel and the Palestinians in 2006 had concluded “that, apart from individual lapses, there was little to suggest deliberate or systematic bias”.

Last updated: 2:19pm, February 12 2009