Balen 2

Who’d have thought that journalists who wish to investigate, uncover and expose scandals and injustices without compromising their freedom or exposing their pet whistleblowers, would be subjected to the whims and fancies of the Supreme court in the course of its earnest deliberations over such things as the meaning of the word ‘predominantly’.

Who knows what was on the minds of Lord Phillips and pals as they grappled diligently on behalf of the BBC with the tricky business of defining what is or is not in the public interest.

The Freedom Of Information Act is supposed to

“promote an important public interest in access to information about public bodies.”

But when the unstoppable Freedom of Information Act collides with the immovable Data Protection Act, there’s bound to be trouble.Thankfully, the judges know what’s good for you. For your own good the BBC and a few other bodies enjoy a special exemption
(safeguard) so that you, the public, can’t poke your snoopy noses in.The safeguards are there

“to prevent interference with the performance of the functions of the BBC in broadcasting journalism, art and literature.”

So in certain circumstances

“……………the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”

And who decides whether disclosing information outweighs the BBC’s public accountability?

“……………the disclosure of which, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person (which in the case of the BBC is the corporation itself, acting by its governors)…”

Eureka! The BBC itself is qualified to decide!
However, the judges are aware that this doesn’t look brilliant in terms of PR. They must rationalise the notion that concealment trumps transparency, and secrecy is more ‘in the public interest’ than accountability.

“ In this case, there is a powerful public interest pulling in the opposite direction. It is that public service broadcasters, no less than the commercial media, should be free to gather, edit and publish news and comment on current affairs without the inhibition of an obligation to make public disclosure of or about their work in progress.”

Excellent excuse! But his honour is still slightly apologetic:

“ I would add that I am conscious that this interpretation of the limitation may be seen as conferring on the BBC an immunity so wide as to make the particular statutory redemptions redundant, and leave the BBC almost free of obligations under FOIA.”

It certainly pans out that way, and sweet of you to notice.

“On a broad definition, it could be argued that all of the activities of the BBC are for the purposes of journalism, art and literature, as these are broad descriptions of a substantial part of its broadcast output . . .”

Go on. Why not make the BBC exempt from the FOIA altogether and be done with it? Even the the judge is wondering this:

“However, if a very broad definition was intended, there
would be little point in including the BBC in Schedule 1, Part VI of
FOIA. The BBC could have been omitted altogether from the scope
of the Act.”

However, here comes ‘the chilling effect’.

“The BBC submitted that disclosure of the Report (and any other information held for the purposes of journalism) would have a chilling effect upon their right to freedom of expression;”

The same phrase was uttered by a journalist in respect of the Leveson Inquiry. This monstrous chilling effect, this inhibiting, this compromising, this…..cramping the BBC’s style, evidently justifies concealing the contents of the Balen report for ever and ever. Does this apply to Murdoch’s journalists too?
The BBC’s desire for secrecy almost puts their internal workings in the same category as certain trials being beyond the reach of the open court for fear of revealing secret counter-terrorism information.

The appellant (Mr. Eicke QC,) has the temerity to think accountability is a reasonable request.

“(The appellant) not only disputes that the release of the Report would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression but submits that only the need to protect journalistic sources – or perhaps, indeed, more narrowly still, the need to protect sources who might otherwise be deterred from assisting journalists – would constitute an overriding requirement of the public interest sufficient to justify this interference with the citizen’s article 10(1)right of access to information.”

Quite so. since the Balen report was originally carried out in 2004, can the contents really still be for the purposes of journalism? Balen’s recommendations, if there were any, would surely have been implemented by now, if they were deemed worthy of implementing!
Despite the fact that during the period in question there was a reshuffle of BBC management personnel at the top, certain recommendations were put into effect, one of which is said to have been the appointment of Jeremy Bowen. Perhaps the Balen report concluded that they weren’t biased enough against Israel?

If the Balen report found bias against Israel in 2004 it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s biased in 2012. By this time surely the BBC could have got away with another of those ‘the-bias-was-all-in-the-past’ mea culpas and saved the £300,000. They must have thought it was worth spending the dosh to ensure they could continue to go about their business in any way they see fit, unfettered by scrutiny and without the threat of exposure.

Meanwhile, simmering away on the back burner is the detrimental effect the media’s self-interested or partial reporting has had on society. The BBC’s anti-Israel bias has consequences. One small example; the comments below an article about Iran’s nuclear ambitions on an official BBC blog by Robin Lustig, which boasts the strap-line ‘Trying to make sense of the world’ clearly demonstrates they’ve failed. They’ve only succeeded in making nonsense of it.

“And another thing, how is it that Israel is a ‘stabilizing’ influence on the region while Iran is a ‘destabilizing’ one? One of these countries is a theocratic violent terrorist state that refuses to abide by international law, while the other is a theocratic state that hasn’t invaded another nation in a thousand years? Satire cannot do justice to this hypocrisy”

The moral equivalence given to Iran and Israel elicits neither challenge nor counter argument, and is evidently deemed acceptable by the moderators.
This assumption reared its head on Question Time, which Melanie Phillips discusses here.
The BBC charter stipulates impartiality – not that such a thing is realistically achievable, but balance could reasonably be expected ‘over time’. If this is not happening, someone should intervene. Bias by omission, by emoting, and by overt propaganda are all against the rules, but who will enforce them? It’s not usual to trust bodies to self-police – not even the police – and especially the BBC who won’t or can’t recognise their own bias or admit they get anything wrong.

These legal appeals gather more and more moss the longer they drag on, and each time they’re re-appealed the entire legal history has to be reviewed and reconsidered. The procedure has to scrutinise previous hearings, till it begins to resemble that game where each player has to recite a shopping list from memory, adding another item one by one; as the the list grows longer, the harder and more tedious the task. The judges weren’t memorising shopping of course, they were seeking loopholes and cracks in previous hearings. Looking for hooks on which to hang excuses to keep the Balen Report in the family.

They seemed genuinely worried about creating a precedent that would fetter the BBC, and conscious that the Balen report’s qualification for exemption was tenuous. Did it really come into the category of “for the purpose of journalism art or literature? They admitted they were virtually gifting the BBC complete immunity from the FOIA. They saw that determining what was in the public interest could be stretched and squeezed, describing it as ‘elastic’.
In short they dallied over whether they liked the idea of civilians knowing the content of the Balen Report or not, and having pre-decided ‘not’, excreted copious verbiage in rationalising their fancy.

It boils down to a simple reality. The BBC, or the BBC Trust can continue as before. If there is bias, so be it. Like it or lump it.
The fear that ‘internal frankness’ would be damaged if ‘the public’ had ‘the right to know’ outweighs the fear that biased reporting has a corrosive effect on ‘the public.’ External frankness, external critical review and external analysis of output can get stuffed

On the BBC they refer to Israel as “Iran’s arch enemy.” Is that upside-down description even-handed, logical or accurate? What is the likelihood of an internal review correcting that?

I think I rest my case.

Balen Out

After dancing on the head of a pin for pages and pages, the conclusion is that “The Balen report was held for purposes of journalism. On the premise that it was also held for purposes other than those of journalism, it was not predominantly so held. That is why I consider that the report lay beyond the scope of the Act; and why I agree that the appeal should be dismissed. LORD PHILLIPS”
Read the full judgment through the link at the

The Protection of Information Act

Everybody who frequents this site will know that the BBC has spent lashings of our telly tax on legal fees to safeguard the secrecy of a report they themselves commissioned. The subject was their coverage of the Middle East, and the question was: is the BBC biased against Israel?
The legal battle took many twists and turns, and Steven Sugar, who steadfastly fought for the release of the Balen report, very sadly and inopportunely died at the age of 60, shortly before another stage of the unfolding court case was due to be heard.
No-one knows whether Malcolm Balen’s findings confirmed the BBC’s anti Israel bias, but one thing’s for sure, the battle to keep them secret certainly gives the impression that they did. So, in some ways, the BBC’s intransigent refusal to let us take a peek works against them almost as much as the revelation of its contents might have done.

One slightly ironic bonus of this ongoing legal tussle is that the public gets to discover a bit of extra information for free, namely that the BBC is virtually exempt from the obligations of the FOI act, because of a cunning exclusion clause concerning ‘journalism art or literature,’ for the purpose of, yer honour m’lud.
Anything in that category is ‘out with’ the FOI act. In other words the entire BBC output can, if it likes, shelter under the same get-out umbrella.
So are we up in arms at the arrogance of the BBC for wallowing in a unique all-embracing exemption from scrutiny, which flies in the face of the ultra desirable, most-wanted virtue du jour – *transparency* – the essential quality that all organisations long for, and the one thing that makes everything come good? (WikiLeaks, anyone?)
Bear with me.
As well as (and to a large extent because of) the media – the dinner-party set, socialists, trade unions, celebrities and the Muslim community – all currently bask in a toxic climate of pro Palestinian advocacy and anti Israel activism. It’s a kind of global man-made antisemitic climate-change, and it is alive and well, flourishing even, in our universities. You can virtually get a doctorate in hating Jews.

The Arab sourced funding that some of our universities currently rely on has led to the alarming ascendancy of Islamic studies departments set up by Saudi Princes at places like Exeter, where anti Israel polemicists Ilan Pappé and Ghada Karmi prevail, and the LSE, Oxbridge and various other renowned academic institutions. I vividly recall reading with dismay this 2008 article about Aberystwyth University. It implies that if a student won’t toe the line they will probably fail their degree.
So here’s my point.
I found a FOI request that I am glad the BBC refused to deliver. It’s in the public domain, and there’s no super injunction preventing me from knowing about it. I found it on Google, by accident, as I was looking for something else.

I have no idea what this Palestinian gentleman from Strathclyde University intended to do with the information he requested. Ideas that ran through my head ranged from: *write a learned dissertation on Hasbara, *organise a troll blitzkrieg on B-BBC, and sadly, but inevitably, *kill infidels.

Why would I be grateful that the BBC refused to give details of the complainants and complaints about anti-Israel reports to a post graduate student who might be doing some important academic research? Because the student is a Palestinian activist with links to some very hostile people. Because we live in a culture of intimidation. Because B-BBC is number 12 on the list. Because because because.

I hesitated before posting this. I sought advice. They said “publish!” which I hereby do, sincerely hoping that B-BBC and I won’t be damned. What a sorry state I’m in to have such worries. It’s regrettable that some of us, because of our particular circumstances, are conscious of the need to take limited steps to preserve our anonymity, just because we dare to defend Israel.

Are You Being Served?

In today’s (friday) Telegraph, tree version only, Neil Midgley has an article entitled “BBC’s £1/4m to keep Israel report secret.”

“The BBC spent more than £270,000 on legal fees to keep a report on its coverage of the I/P conflict out of the public eye, it disclosed yesterday. The sum was among nearly £400,000 of spending on outside advice about FOI requests.

The 20,000 word internal document was written in 2004 by Malcolm Balen, a senior journalist. Steven Sugar, a solicitor, asked to see it under the FOI act, and sued when the BBC refused. The case went all the way to the House of Lords. The courts eventually found in favour of the BBC and the report was never published.
In figures released under the FOI, the BBC has now disclosed that it spent £264,711 on barristers’ fees defending the case and £6,156 on other legal advice. […]On the Balen report a BBC spokesman said “If we are not able to pursue our journalism freely and have honest debate and analysis over how we are covering important issues, then our ability to serve the public effectively will be diminished.”

Mark Thompson, the D.G. complained last month about the burden of spurious FOI requests. He said questions had included the number of lavatories in Television Centre and the policy on biscuits. However, requests have also elicited less trivial facts, such as information about executive pay.”

About pursuing your journalism freely and having honest debate and serving us effectively. When can you start?

Try, Try and Try Again

The interminable legal wrangle over the non-release of the Balen report seems to hinge on whether it’s covered by an exemption from the FOI act on the grounds of being “for the purposes of journalism.”

The argument over whether ‘for the purposes of’ is the same as ‘actual’ journalism seems like dancing on the head of a pin.

Why does the BBC want to keep it secret? Surely it can only be because it harbours doubts about its own good practice at that time.

In any case much water has passed under many bridges since the BBC commissioned the report from Malcolm Balen in 2004.

It could be that they disagreed with the findings in the report and regretted commissioning it.

It could be that the BBC did stealth change their policy in some way in accordance with Balen’s findings, and hoped that would do. After the report they did create a new post. Middle East Editor. We all know what good that did.

It could be that the report wasn’t particularly conclusive, in which case the BBC’s efforts to conceal it would be more propitious as a grievance we can complain about, Palestinian style, than a revelation of whatever bias was detected by Mr. Balen.

There have been other detailed analyses of the BBC’s middle east coverage that have been ignored because they come from people who are regarded as having a vested interest. (Jews.)

One of the things people are particularly incensed about is the amount of the licence fee that the BBC has squandered in concealing it, thus drawing inordinate attention to the whole fiasco as well as wasting our money.

Pressure should be applied to the BBC to instigate a fresh report on the subject, framed in such a way that the outcome couldn’t be sheltered, either by the data protection act, an exclusion clause from the FOI act, or by or any silencing order devised by the likes of Carter Ruck.

Steven Sugar hasn’t given up. He’s contemplating an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Bye Bye Balen Report

BBC report to stay confidential

The report looked at the BBC’s news coverage of the Middle East
A bid to force publication of a review by the BBC of its Middle East coverage has been rejected in the High Court.
London lawyer Steven Sugar wanted the Balen report, which was drawn up in 2004, to be revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.
But Mr Justice Irwin ruled that, as the material was held “for the purposes of journalism, art or literature”, the corporation had no duty to disclose it.

Balen Out?

We may well be one step closer to seeing what’s inside the notorious Balen report, but the appeal process may succeed in dragging it out forever and a day. Whatever happens, the fact that they’ve gone to such lengths to keep it quiet speaks volumes, probably far more than actually revealing what’s in there. It’s been concealed for long enough to have gathered mythical status.

Some say it’s not all that damning of the BBC in any case, and even if it is, people will discredit it as they always do. There are already several outfits monitoring anti-Israel bias such as Honest Reporting, Just Journalism and so on, and they are routinely dismissed as biased by those who don’t like their findings.

Everyone is bound to wonder what’s in a report that has been kept so secret. Protestations that it contains inner workings of BBC procedure and is none of our business just make one think ever more suspicious thoughts. What is going on in this mysterious BBC? It’s not the flipping Magic Circle, is it? Are there secrets that, if let out into the open, will destroy some vital mystique forever and ever? And then, abracadabra, the BBC will wither and die. That’s ridiculous, surely.

Too much water has gone under the bridge now since the Balen report was first prepared. There has been another onslaught of bias since then, so we need another Balen report.

Anyone who has ever been personally involved in an event that gets into the newspapers will know that as soon as it goes into print it appears distorted and acquires handfuls of errors.
Anyone who reads a wonderful book and then sees the film is usually hugely disappointed. Or they may find it okay, but not in the same way as the original. Someone else’s interpretation can’t be anything but someone else’s interpretation.

Jeremy Bowen can make as many Panoramas as he likes. He is a man with a partisan view, and that’s his business. But the BBC must provide balance. It must counteract the damage done by biased reporting by people with a grievance. Because the ‘wrong-is-right’ acceptance of Islamist alien cultural norms together with ever increasing waves of antisemitism are a tinderbox, and like a bush fire, we mustn’t say we didn’t see it coming.