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BBC: Freedom of Information Legislation

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to amend Freedom of Information legislation to ensure that the British Broadcasting Corporation is more transparent.

My Lords, the BBC is a public authority for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act. As with other public service broadcasters under the Act, the right of access extends to all information held other than that held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature. There are no plans to amend this provision.

My Lords, the BBC is a huge institution that took £3.5 billion from the public last year, yet it is the least transparent in its attitude toward freedom of information requests, using, as the Minister has just said, journalism as a broad way of getting out of FoI. BBC Northern Ireland is particularly bad: it even refused an FoI request to tell us what it paid the polling company LucidTalk, which it employed when it could have used other existing polls. The BBC is unaccountable, and now that GB News is established and it has some rivalry, when will the Government change the FoI rules to ensure that the BBC becomes more transparent and more accountable for our money?

As I said in my initial Answer, there are no current plans to amend the rules. As I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, requesters have the right to complain to the Information Commissioner if they believe that a public authority has not complied with the Act. However, my understanding is that in no recent decisions has the Information Commissioner upheld any appeals against the BBC based on journalistic and other exclusions.

My Lords, I think the Minister agrees that FoI exemptions are afforded to the BBC and other PSBs so that they can correctly maintain editorial control. Does she also agree that nothing should be done that might prejudice journalistic integrity, and that BBC journalists should have exactly the same protection of their sources as those working, for instance, for the Daily Mail?

I hear the noble Baroness’s point. What is perhaps behind the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, is perceptions of impartiality concerning the BBC. The noble Baroness will be aware that both the new chairman and the new director-general have made addressing those perceptions a priority.

My Lords, the BBC has to be held to account and to deliver high standards, particularly because of the unique way in which it is funded. Although there is a requirement for the BBC to publish information on salaries of more than £150,000, should the threshold not be further reduced to, say, £100,000 in order to further inform and provide even greater transparency and clarity, which would help to satisfy the general public that more is being done?

A very clear objective in the last charter review was to deliver greater transparency on the part of the BBC. The first step to which my noble friend refers, in terms of those paid above £150,000, was part of that. As she knows, there will be a mid-charter review starting next year, which will look at whether the governance mechanisms are indeed fit for purpose.

Ministers have repeatedly said that the BBC’s mid-charter review into the corporation’s governance and regulation will be a transparent process. Can the Minister tell the House whether the review will be a health check on how the new Ofcom regime is operating, or something more fundamental?

I can only repeat what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said about this, which is that the review will focus on the governance and regulatory arrangements of the BBC. I know that my right honourable friend has gone further and said that there will be no knee-jerk reforms and the mid-charter review will be used to determine whether further reforms are needed.

My Lords, I am all in favour of transparency with regard to the BBC, but transparency surely has to be applied across the broadcasting sector as a whole—and to the Government. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be transparency in the decision-making process relating to Channel 4 as a public service broadcaster and any moves to privatise the channel? When will the Government publish the rationale behind any changes they wish to make to its status, given how successful it is in its current form?

The consultation we recently announced on the ownership structure of Channel 4 and the potential regulation of video on demand services is forward-looking and aims to ensure the long-term success of Channel 4 into the future. As for transparency, we will of course publish the government response to the consultation.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s emphasis on, and welcome for, the initiatives taken by the new chairman and director-general to increase transparency and freedom of information within the BBC. I wish her well in resisting knee-jerk reactions from her own Benches, and from strange places on this side, in reviewing the future of the BBC.

I think the majority of my colleagues on these Benches have echoed the sentiments of the Secretary of State and my right honourable friend the Minister for Media and Data when they have said, again and again, that the need for a strong PSB system and trusted journalism has never been stronger.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the success of global Britain requires support and celebration of those things that the rest of the world most values in the UK, which provide soft power and promote bonds of affection and trust? Will she then congratulate BBC News on the finding in the most recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report that it is among the most trusted news brands in the United States, Canada, India and South Africa? In most cases, it is more trusted than domestic news providers.

I am delighted to echo the right reverend Prelate’s congratulations to BBC News on that recognition.

My Lords, if the new team at the BBC want to return it to the British Broadcasting Corporation we have been so proud of, and are sincere in their wish to draw a line under the past, does the Minister agree that they should also apologise for spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds keeping the Balen report secret? This report was commissioned to investigate biased BBC reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are they hiding and what are they afraid of? Will she urge the BBC to be completely transparent and honest and publish the findings?

I absolutely acknowledge my noble friend’s wish to see transparency in all regards. The Government absolutely agree that the BBC should be a beacon in setting standards and that the recent Dyson report, in particular, showed that in some instances it has fallen far short.

Does the Minister agree that misunderstanding and misuse of religion is one of the greatest causes of conflict in the world today? When a BBC fundamentalist Christian producer tries to stop a Sikh presenter on “Thought for the Day” speaking about Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, or Guru Tegh Bahadur, who gave his life standing up for the right of freedom of belief of those of another faith, such arrogance should be open to challenge and scrutiny.

Sadly, I think religion has been a source of misunderstanding over many centuries. The noble Lord will be aware that the BBC is editorially independent so I cannot comment on the rest of his question.