BBC bids to suppress study on Middle East 'bias'

By Ciar Byrne,Arts,Media Correspondent
Saturday 26 January 2008 01:00

One man's battle to force the BBC to disclose an internal report on its coverage of the Middle East has been dealt a further blow.

Three Court of Appeal judges rejected a challenge by Steven Sugar, a commercial solicitor from Putney, south-west London, to overturn a High Court ruling which rejected his claim that the contents of the report should be made public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Sugar may now decide to take his case to the House of Lords. He argues that the 20,000-page report by Malcolm Balen should be published as part of the debate about a perceived anti-Israeli bias at the BBC.

But the BBC argues that, under the Freedom of Information Act, it is exempt from disclosing information held for the purposes of "journalism, art or literature". The broadcaster contends the report was always intended as an internal review to help shape future policy on its Middle East coverage and was never intended for publication.

Mr Sugar initially took his complaint to the Information Commissioner, who agreed with the BBC that although it is named as a "public authority" under the Act, it should not have to disclose material relating purely to its journalism. Mr Sugar appealed and won the backing of the Information Tribunal. But a High Court judge, Mr Justice Davies, concluded the tribunal had no authority, because the case fell outside the scope of the Act. Lord Justices Buxton and Lloyd and Sir Paul Kennedy have now upheld that conclusion.

Mr Sugar argues the Act has been badly drafted and maintains the contents of the report should be in the public domain.

In 2004, Richard Sambrook, who was the BBC's director of news, commissioned Mr Balen, an editorial adviser, to compile the report on the BBC's Middle East coverage. Mr Balen examined hundreds of hours of BBC television and radio broadcasts.

The BBC's reporting of Middle East affairs has often been accused of anti-Israeli bias. In 2004, the BBC correspondent Barbara Plett attracted criticism when she admitted she had been moved to tears by the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In 2006, however, a study for the BBC governors led by Sir Quentin Thomas, the president of the British Board of Film Classification, found that the BBC's coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict implicitly favoured the Israeli side. It concluded that the deaths of Israelis received greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities and made reference to "identifiable shortcomings".

The study group looked at a period between August 2005 and January 2006 during which 98 Palestinians were killed in conflict compared to 23 Israelis. Overall, the study concluded there was "little to suggest deliberate or systematic bias" in the coverage of the conflict. "On the contrary, there was evidence of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial," it said.

The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke suggested the BBC has become an unfair target for FoI requests. "My real issue is secrecy of the government rather than media organisations," she said. "I almost feel the BBC has taken the brunt of these disclosures. It's the vulnerable organisation and not the Cabinet Office or the Treasury, which will fight everything."

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