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  • Beeb’s £250k secrecy bid

    Posted on June 8th, 2009 admin No comments

    I wrote this for the newspapers this weekend (you may have seen it already) but I thought I could give it an airing myself.


    A battle by the BBC to keep the salaries of Top Gear and EastEnders’ stars secret from the public has helped clock up legal bills of almost £250,000.

    The BBC has been calling on high paid lawyers in a bid to wriggle through a legal loophole which allows it to avoid answering questions under the Freedom of Information Act.

    While BBC presenters quiz MPs on their expenses top lawyers are looking to protect exactly the same type of information being disclosed about Auntie’s top shows and stars.

    In one expensive court action, which ended in failure for the Beeb, it shelled out £41,530 employing barristers in a bid to keep the costs of EastEnders, Top Gear and Newsnight secret.

    It had also used a total of 55 man-days of its own internal legal team to assist the case. Despite defeat the BBC refused to reveal the details, and is now set to risk even more licence payers’ money by appealing the case to the High Court, where a hearing is scheduled to take place at the end of the month.

    The BBC is subject to the Act but was given a special “get-out” which it has now used to avoid answering more than 1,200 questions since the law came into force in 2005.

    Under pressure Gordon Brown has suggested that he will strengthen Freedom of Information laws and force the BBC to disclose more.

    Legal experts take differing views on whether the BBC is interpreting its “get-out”, called a derogation, correctly to avoid answering so many questions.

    But if the BBC eventually loses its battle, as many think is inevitable, then hundreds of the secrets of the BBC will get revealed for the first time.

    Among the information the BBC currently refuses to disclose saying it is covered by its get-out is:

    • How much it spent on accommodation for its staff sent to cover the Olympics in China last year,
    • What private companies the corporation’s massive pension fund has invested in,
    • The precise number of telephone votes that each couple got in Strictly Come Dancing,
    • How much it paid failed England manager Steve McLaren to act as a pundit during Euro 2008,
    • How much the BBC spent on the rights to broadcast Formula 1,
    • The cost of BBC News maintaining offices all around the world, and
    • The cost of flying competitors for BBC’s Total Wipeout to Argentina where the show is filmed.

    But the BBC has revealed it spent almost £12,000 on top legal advice before the Act came into force working out which questions it could avoid answering.

    Since then it has spent a total of £173,458 trying to keep a sensitive report on its news coverage in the Middle East secret. The case went to the House of Lords and has now been sent back to a lower court for a final decision.

    A Freedom of Information expert said: “The BBC has long fallen back on its ‘get-out’ saying that anything for journalism or programming doesn’t fall under the Act.

    “But higher authorities have come out with a string of rulings against this leaving the BBC fighting a desperate rear-guard battle.”

    A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC notes that the intention behind limiting the inclusion of the BBC under the Act is to protect the independence of the media and to ensure that public service broadcasters are not disadvantaged as against commercial broadcasters.”

    If the BBC losses the legal battle it is unlikely it will have to disclose exact details of individuals salaries but it could have to reveal the total cost of wages on a show.

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