LONDON (JTA) One lawyer’s attempt to force the BBC to release a report into the broadcaster’s reporting bias against Israel has reached Britain’s High Court. London lawyer Steven Sugar requested the release last year of findings from an internal inquiry, completed by BBC senior editorial advisor Michael Balen, after he reviewed hundreds of hours of BBC tapes. The findings of the report ostensibly respond to allegations that the public broadcaster shows pro-Palestinian bias in its Mideast reporting. Responding to allegations of anti-Israeli bias in its coverage of Arab-Israeli conflicts, the BBC commissioned an independent panel last year to review the case for bias charges. The panel said it found “no deliberate or systematic bias” in the BBC’s reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that report also said the BBC’s approach had been “inconsistent” and was “not always providing a complete picture.” Sugar has contended that the independent panel report did not look closely enough at the reporting from some of the most volatile moments in the conflict, especially with regard to the violent Palestinian intifada that began in 2000, and therefore wants the findings of the Balen report made public. Sugar has said his initial motivation for pursuing the case was his feeling, along with other members of Britain’s Jewish community, that the BBC’s coverage of the intifada was “seriously distorted.”After Sugar’s initial complaint last year, the Information Commissioner first backed the BBC, agreeing with them that they were not obliged to release the findings of an internal report. Sugar appealed, and the decision was overturned by the Information Tribunal. Since Sugar’s appeal victory, the BBC has not released the Balen report and instead is appealing the tribunal’s decision, reportedly on the grounds that public broadcasters do not have to disclose material that is held for the purposes of “journalism, art or literature.”Sugar continues to allege that the BBC’s guarding of the report’s findings constitutes a violation of the British Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – which, ironically, the BBC routinely invokes to obtain information critical to its reporting. “The reason I’m pursuing this case is BBC accountability, which is purpose of the FOI act,” Sugar told JTA. “That’s why everyone is entitled to request information – to make agencies public and accountable.”In fact, other broadcasters are closely watching the case, as it could have far-reaching implications for all broadcasters and the future workings of the FOI Act.There has been much speculation about why the BBC is intent on keeping the Balen report away from public scrutiny, and Sugar himself told JTA he “prefers not to speculate.” But it’s generally believed that the report is highly critical of the corporation’s Mideast coverage. The BBC remains mum on the subject.”The Balen report was always intended as an internal review of program content to inform future output. It was never intended for publication,” the BBC said in a recent statement. In addition, the BBC contends publication of the document could be damaging to the future of journalism in Britain. Earlier this week, a BBC spokesman told the New Statesman, “If the application of the act changes, it could result in a sudden increase in Freedom of Information requests, requiring significant additional staffing and therefore a further burden on the license fee,” the fee to fund the BBC that every household in Britain must pay. It’s a good thing the BBC has licensing fees to fall back on: As the case reached the high court, British media reported that the publicly-funded broadcasting corporation has already spent in excess of $400,000 to block the release of the report’s findings. Sugar’s own costs are minimal, he told JTA, since he is representing himself in the case and thus has no legal fees to pay. Ideologically, however, Sugar is not flying solo, having received numerous votes of confidence from individuals both within and outside the Jewish community.So far things look good for the BBC. After one recent hearing, according to the BBC statement, “the judge found in favor of the BBC’s appeal that the Information Tribunal did not have jurisdiction to hear second appeals in cases where the Information Commissioner did not believe the FOI Act should apply.”But the case isn’t closed yet. Sugar told JTA that a final ruling will not be released until the beginning of the next legal term later this spring, and if the High Court judge does decide in the BBC’s favor, Sugar will continue to appeal all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights.In addition, Sugar says there’s a second part of the case on which the judge is still deliberating, over Sugar’s judicial review claim against the information commissioner’s judgment.
BBC fights to keep report secret