News-watch is battling the Information Commissioner and the BBC about the Corporation’s refusal to release basic information about how it collects data about impartiality and the subjects of complaints made by the public about programmes.
The long drawn-out fight was the focus this week (2 February) of an appeal before a first-tier tribunal by News-watch against the Information Commissioner. A ruling on the matter is expected within 28 days.
The process began in March 2020 when News-watch requested further information about a survey contained in the BBC’s annual reports and accounts for 2018/19 showing that 52 percent of respondents to an IPSOS MORI poll commissioned by the BBC thought the Corporation provided ‘impartial news’ but only 44 percent turned to the BBC if they wanted impartial news.
The extra information requested under FoI included the details of the brief given to IPSOS Mori, the nature of the sample who were asked and the details of how the results were collated and interpreted. This was considered by News-watch to be a matter of major public interest because such data is used by BBC as proof that its output – despite claims to the contrary – is indeed impartial.
In parallel, News-watch also asked for the release of all complaints made to the BBC from 2015 to the present about impartiality on the ground that the Corporation only makes public the topics of those which it deems fit to do so.
The BBC refused the application point bank, principally on the ground that it has a derogation from the FOI Act which allows a refusal if the material involved is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’. News-watch appealed to the Information Commissioner against the ruling, but he broadly upheld the BBC’s stance and it was at that stage that News-watch appealed against him.
David Keighley, Managing Director of News-watch, commented:
“The BBC claims to be making efforts to be more impartial, so it is a matter of huge concern to licence-fee payers that it is so secretive about how it gauges that it is not biased, and also will not tell the public the content of the majority of complaints it receives about impartiality.
“News-watch has demonstrated that the BBC complaints process as it currently operates is not fit for purpose and stonewalls the vast majority of audience concerns. The purpose of this legal action is to force the Corporation to become more open and to stop this absurd claim that this sort of data should be confidential.”