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  • Beeb and Bernie - Part II

    Posted on December 1st, 2011 admin No comments

    I'm afraid there is no trophy. Sorry.

    You may well be away that the BBC has found itself at the centre of a sexism row involving its nominations for Sports Personality of the Year.

    All the ten candidates are men and it has been disclosed that for some obscure reason people from “respectable” pornography magazines just as Nuts and Zoo were tasked with picking the nominees.

    The BBC has said it will look again at how the process should be managed, but isn’t going to change anything for this year.

    So, with that in mind I have decided to right a wrong. I will now announce to a fanfare of applause the FoI News Freedom of Information Officer of the Year Award 2011, otherwise known as the “Poison Chalice” award.

    The award, which consists of no cash and no actual prize (so don’t bother to see if it is declared on any gift register) goes to Rachael Ward of the BBC.

    “Why her?” I hear you cry. I’m sure she probably will not thank me for this, but it is awarded for displaying courage under fire from superiors. I’ll try to explain more fully.

    After a considerable wrangle I eventually wrote a story based upon the fact that the BBC gave a set of Wimbledon men’s final tickets to multi-millionaire Bernie Ecclestone.

    Having taken some time to extract this from the Beeb I suspected something might be amiss and sent off the dreaded “meta-request” – a request about a request – or the request of last resort.

    When the response came back not only did it give a full account of how the details of Bernie’s tickets were released but also how FoI officer Ward stood firm in front of pressure from her superiors.

    Her boss Dominic Coles e-mailed her saying: “Rather than naming Bernie Ecclestone specifically, can we not say two tickets were offered for use by Formula One Management?”  

    She could have crumbled under the pressure of the six-figure pay packet, but she didn’t. She held on to the principles of FoI, buttressed by the law itself and sent me out Bernie’s name – much to Bernie’s initial annoyance.

    The “cover-up that wasn’t” story appeared in the Mail on Sunday. For those of you interested the full BBC disclosure can be seen here. [RFI20111231 ].




  • My love-match with “Mr E”

    Posted on October 31st, 2011 admin 1 comment

    Is that Matthew Davis on the line?

    Every year I send an FoI request to the BBC to see how many free tickets the Corporation gets for Wimbledon.

    Over the years the request has been modified to discriminate between tickets for No.1 and Centre Court and most recently who had received the tickets.

    This year after a little bit of misunderstanding with the lovely people in the BBC’s FoI office I was eventually handed the names of the people who got the prize tickets, those for the men’s final on centre court.

    Imagine my surprise when I see on the letter that one pair went to F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. I knew I had a story and as you can see below it made a nice show in the Sun.

    But then things took a turn for the worse when my phone rang on the morning the story was published. The conversation went a bit like this.

    Caller: Is that Matthew Davis?

    Me: Yes.

    Caller: Mr Ecclestone here.

    Me (in high voice): What Mr Bernie Ecclestone?

    Caller: Yes, that’s me. Listen, I don’t like people who write lies about me. I didn’t get any freebie tickets for Wimbledon. Why would I have to accept freebies?

    As you can imagine at this point I was getting a little concerned. Images of my bankruptcy, being forced to live in the street with my children foraging in dustbins flashed before my eyes.

    I told him that I hadn’t made it up but had been provided with the information by the BBC, and seeing as it was a FoI response I was happy to forward it on to him. You can see a copy here Beeb’s FoI reply.

    Later that day I got another personal call from Mr Ecclesstone, where he admitted being reminded by one of his staff that he did accept a pair of tickets from the BBC, but handed them on to the President of Valencia.

    It all ended quite amicably and I had quite a nice chat with ‘Mr E’.

    As a part-time media law lecturer one of the things that has always appealed to me about FoI is how the answer should always act as a justification against any potential legal problems, as long as your interpretation of it is correct. Hence the need to make your question as crystal clear as possible.


  • Taxi for the Beeb

    Posted on January 11th, 2011 admin No comments

    BBC bigwig Jana Bennett could have saved the Corporation thousands if she'd mastered how to use the tardis.

    Imagine you are an employee at the BBC and you need a taxi for yourself or a guest who is going to appear on your show.

    The procedure would appear to be that you contact a company called One Transport. They arrange the taxi for you, they pay the taxi for you and then send the BBC a bill not just for the taxi ride but also for them arranging it.

    More than a year ago I asked the BBC how much they spent on providing taxis for staff and guests in the 08/09 financial year – the answer came back at around £14million.

    But to my surprise the BBC wouldn’t say how much of this went into the pockets of One Transport, so I appealed.

    The BBC which had claimed the information was exempt under S.43(2), refused my appeal and I have ended up at the Information Commissioner’s door yet again.

    He, I thought unsurprisingly, sided with me saying there was no evidence shown of how prejudice to the BBC or One Transport could be likely to occur by releasing the figure.

    But then the BBC appealed and now I find myself looking down the barrels of another Tribunal with the Information Commissioner and myself on one side of the argument and the BBC and One Transport on the other.

    A hearing has been pencilled in for February 17 and 18. What will be interesting from my point of view as a journalist is the BBC will not only have to show that S.43(2) (Commercial Interests) is engaged but that the public interest is in favour of non-disclosure.

    Particularly as the BBC’s taxi bill caused controversy recently after it was revealed that Match Of The Day pundits Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson are regularly chauffeured home to the North-east and Merseyside at licence payers’ expense.

    Also April last year it was disclosed that three top BBC bosses spent £12,000 on taxis in 12 weeks. This included £4,862 racked up in fares - £75 per day - by its £515,000 then director of Vision, Jana Bennett (pictured).

    As an Additional Party to the Tribunal hearing I had to get my skeleton argument in by yesterday so went through some of the arguments put down by the BBC and One Transport.

    I have to say that if there can be a category of vexatious requestor there should also be a vexatious public authority – one which refuses to release information even in the face of overwhelming odds.

    If there was such a category I feel the Beeb would be in line for the award in this case as some of their arguments are preposterous.

    One of them was that if the information I had asked for was released other companies in the same market would know what the winning bid price was (this I consider to be a good thing!). Anyhow the BBC argument goes on that rivals would then bid under that price in a bid to win the contract when it is up for renewal (again I think this is a good thing!).

    But in their eagerness to undercut their rivals the BBC fears the new lower bidders risk going bust – meaning the BBC are in danger of not having anybody left in business to provide its taxi service.

    It is good to know, I suppose, that the BBC sees itself as an organisation that has to save private businesses from committing commercial suicide – or is it?

    Anyhow as you can probably tell I’m pretty confident and if the BBC manage to win this appeal I’ll buy myself the Strictly Come Dancing DVD box set.

    You can see the original Decision Notice [here].

  • Boris Johnson coy over his EastEnders’ fee

    Posted on December 8th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    When Boris Johnson appeared in EastEnders I realised the clash of two public authorities was too good an opportunity to miss.

    The BBC, forever hiding behind its “artistic and journalistic derogation” has never given out any info on its most famous soap.

    Despite the theatrical nature of the new London mayor “BoJo” cannot avail himself of the same get out clause, so I was hoping to use City Hall as my entrance ticket into the murky world of EastEnders.

    I basically asked for everything City Hall held on Boris’ appearance on the show and I received (15 days late) a very complete record of e-mails that bounced around between the two organisations.

    But what I didn’t get were two e-mails that related to how much the fabulously wealthy Eton-educated Boris got paid for his brief appearance.

    The e-mails from the Beeb say that everybody who appears on the show has to be paid and Boris’ team seem happy with that and agree the cash should be donated to charity.

    At that point one would think there was nothing controversial about the matter – but City Hall refuse to release the charity or the amount claiming S.43 (commercial interests).

    City Hall says in its response: “The two e-mails covered by the request constitute commercially sensitive information.

    “The detail and naming of the charity involved in way of receiving the appearance fee for the Mayor’s appearance in EastEnders would be likely to be detrimental to the charity itself as information within the e-mails is not factually correct.”

    It goes on: “In this case disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental impact on the reputation of the charity in receipt of funds apportioned from the Mayors appearance fee from appearing on EastEnders due to the inaccuracy of some of the facts contained within the e-mails.

    “The degree of prejudice to be suffered is likely to be far-reaching to a third party given in particular it is a charity and less likely to have the resource available to cope with the adverse publicity, therefore having a great impact on their commercial interests.”

    What is amazing about this decision is the fact that disclosure appears to have been blocked based on the fact there are errors in the e-mails – which is no excuse for non-disclosure. My understanding is they should be released with adequate commentary explaining what in them is wrong.

    Also I wonder what charity he decided his fee should go to? (Any suggestions please mail them in). But why be so coy about where the money was directed to? And surely there is a public interest in knowing where he wanted the fee to go to, considering his cameo in EastEnders only came about by virtue of his public office.

    You won’t be surprised to know that I’m in the process of appealing it – and I also hope they refuse again and make an issue out of it.

    For those that missed Boris lock horns with Peggy at the bar of the Queen Vic I’ve added the clip from YouTube.

    UPDATE: I managed to unearth a story from the e-mails that were sent through.



    UPDATE: 4.2.10: My appeal to the GLA was successful. On review they accepted that S.43 was not applicable as here we were talking about a charity and not a commercial organisation. Boris’ fee from the Beeb was £362 and he passed it straight on to Friends of Classics, a charity devoted to keeping Latin and Greek ‘flourishing in our schools’.

  • Commissioner blows out the Beeb

    Posted on November 9th, 2009 admin No comments
    Can't see Christopher Graham anywhere

    Can't see Christopher Graham anywhere

    The new Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has had to turn down a plush trip to the Last Night of the Proms after finding himself in an embarrassing conflict of interests.

    In July this year Graham responded to an invitation from the BBC’s Vice-Chairman Chitra Bharucha to free tickets at the BBC showpiece at the Royal Albert Hall for himself and a guest. He e-mailed the BBC to say he would be “delighted” to accept the “kind invitation”.

    It appears that new to the job Graham didn’t realise just how at loggerheads the BBC and the Information Commissioners office were.

    Ten days later he e-mailed his contact at the Beeb to say: “I am very sorry to have to cancel for the Last Night. I do apologise and thanks to Chitra for the kind invitation.

    “One month into the job, I realise that there is quite a bit of unfinished business between the Information Commissioner and the BBC.

    “Under the circumstances, I don’t think I should be accepting invitations of this kind. What a shame!”

    The initial invite had been in a private box at the concert with ten others starting at 7.30 with drinks served in the interval.

    The exchange of e-mails was released by the Information Commissioner’s Office following a Freedom of Information request to [link].

    You can read the full redacted transcript here. CG and BBC e-mails

    Are they X Factor or Strictly fans

    Are they X Factor or Strictly fans

    It will be interesting to know if the BBC will be inviting Graham, a former BBC employee, next year. Because of course the picture looks a lot rosier for both organisations now.

    The decision of the High Court to prop up the BBC derogation means the BBC is happy that it can cling on to its financial secrets.

    But the verdict can’t be too disheartening for Graham either – he was not responsible for the previous line on the derogation – but now he can immediately clear-up dozens of troublesome appeals that were adding the Commissioner’s embarrassing backlog.

    Break out the bubbly.

    During Richard Thomas’ tenure at the Information Commissioner’s Office there was a strict policy of making sure all gifts were pooled and then distributed among staff via a raffle.

    I wonder if any of the £18k case workers the Commissioner is advertising for will be hob-nobbing with the great and the good at next year’s Proms?

  • High Court saves the BBC

    Posted on October 9th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    This post has upset me so much that it has taken me a few days to bring myself to write it.

    The BBC’s derogation from the Freedom of Information Act which was first weaked by the Commissioner and then put in limbo for the last year now appears to have been settled. And its not good news for those of us who were lobbying for greater transparency at the Beeb.

    The judge has effectively stiffened the derogation by saying if the information requested has any link to “arts or journalism” then it falls outside the Act. The previous position that had been adopted, but was was taken to appeal by the BBC was that it depended on what the information “prodominant” purpose had been.

    Sadly I have already been contacted by the Information Commissioner’s Office and have been forced to throw in the towel in relation to three of my appeals - how much the BBC spent on accommodation at the Olympics; how much was spent on accommodation at the Open Golf; how much it spent buying the rights to Formula 1. All of those along with dozens of others I suspect have now been cleared off the Commissioner’s desk.

    However, I refused to budge on two others. One relates to the BBC’s pension fund and the other relating to a taxi contract the Beeb has with a company was refused on the basis of S.43 (commercial interests) so it would be rich if the Beeb now said it was covered by its derogation.

    Two points on the whole sorry saga. Firstly the judge, with all due respect as they say, has clearly misjudged the matter. The derogation is now so wide that it virtually covers everything the broadcaster does - can that have been what the legislators intended?

    Secondly as we all hunker down for the huge public service cuts that will follow the forthcoming election is it right that the BBC - one of the deepest pits of taxpayers’ money - should be free from public scrutiny? Especially when the BBC are such enthusiastic users of the Act. I don’t see the storm over BBC costs disappearing any time soon and with a predicted change in Government soon perhaps the tide will swing back against the BBC.

    For your amusment, and to illustrate the point that the BBC’s use of its own resources will continue to be  a thorn in its side I have added a clip of Paxman v Boris. You may have seen it but as Boris gets more and more exasperated at Paxman questioning him about his drunken university exploits he responds by asking Paxman how much he gets paid.

    I’m optimistic. I don’t think this will be the last post I write about BBC costs. For those of you who want to read the judegment I’ve linked to it [here].


  • £3m cost of BBC’s FoI team

    Posted on September 11th, 2009 admin No comments

    I have reprinted below an article that appeared in the Guardian. I have to say that personally I feel no sympathy for the BBC as most of this money appears to be spent hiding behind its ‘artistic’ derogation. If they were more open then perhaps they would ultimately get fewer questions. Also if the do the maths it appears the entire BBC FoI team could be funded every year from about seven weeks of Jonathan Ross’ salary. If you read further down I think that I may be the anonymous journalist in the Top 10 of people making FoI requests to the Beeb. I say ‘name and shame’ me.


    The demands of complying with the Freedom of Information Act have cost the BBC more than £3m since the act was introduced in 2005, according to figures obtained through an FOI request by the Guardian.

    FoI requests to the BBC have risen since 2005, from 971 in the first year to 1,141 to the end of July this year. The act has led to a number of newspaper revelations, including disclosures about the salaries and expenses of senior BBC executives, which the corporation published in June, partly because of the large number of requests on the subject and the cost of processing them.

    The questions have include a breakdown of the number of English presenters appearing in the BBC’s Scottish programmes or the number of times a wheelchair user has appeared on the BBC show Bargain Hunt in the last 18 months.

    In 2008/9, staff costs for the BBC’s Information Policy and Compliance team –whose main job is to supply the public with information under the Act – were £614,000 with a further £22,000 for costs including accommodation and telephony and £42,000 legal costs.

    This compares with a total of £648,000 total costs for 2007/8 and £655,000 for 2006/7. In 2005/6 the costs were £683,000 while 2004/5 the cost was £495,000. This means that in total the cost of the IPC has been £3.16m since 2004/5.

    The BBC has insisted that the IPC team “have other responsibilities” which include overseeing the BBC’s policies on data protection.

    However, according to a senior BBC source the bulk of the IPC’s work is taken up with meeting the demands of the Act.

    “The vast majority of IPC work is taken up with FoI and they mainly collate the information,” said the source.

    “These costs also don’t cover all the work of the individual departments, some of whom have people working all the time collating information. Sometimes there are stacks and stacks of paper that have to go out to requestees which is very time consuming.”

    An unnamed Times journalist has topped the list of the most overall requests with a Mail on Sunday journalist being the second most regular requester of information under the Act which was introduced by Tony Blair’s government with the intention of opening up public bodies to wider public scrutiny.

    Other requesters in the top 10 include a freelance journalist, members of the public and a Sunday Times journalist in seventh place and a Sun journalist in 10th place. The BBC has declined to name the individuals concerned.

    Questions asked of the BBC include supplying “correspondence relating to the estate of Lawrence Olivier and the Olivier Awards” and the number of Scottish, English and ethnic presenters who appear on Scottish TV and radio and the number of English, Scottish and ethnic presenters are there on English TV and radio. One question also asked how many times a wheelchair user had appeared in Bargain Hunt.

    “We are happy to comply with FOI but it could be argued that this time and money could be spent on programmes,” added the source.

    However the act has seen a number of newspaper revelations that may not otherwise have appeared.

    These include the disclosures about the salaries of senior BBC staff and their expenses which the Corporation revealed in bulk earlier this summer due to the large number of requests on the subject.

    Revelations included the hiring of a Cessna jet by director general Mark Thompson to make an emergency return from holiday in 2004 and his purchase of a £99.99 bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée champagne as an 80th birthday present for Bruce Forsyth in February last year.

    The BBC has also promised to publish the expenses of Thompson and the other eight members of the BBC executive board, as well as the corporation’s non-executive directors, every six months in order to cut the staff time and money spent on dealing with FOI requests.

  • 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.

  • Has the BBC’s derogation died…? Or is it just asleep?

    Posted on June 2nd, 2009 admin No comments
    Is the parrot dead or just waiting for his 20 day limit to expire?

    Is the parrot dead or just waiting for his 20 day limit to expire?

    A Freedom of Information request which has hit the headlines this week has left me somewhat confused - and perhaps somebody out there can explain it to me.

    The Independent broke a story on Monday (June 1) (link) that was followed up by most other media organisations. It was a story about how the BBC had almost ditched Monty Python because they thought it too ‘disgusting’.

    The basis for the story is said to be a Freedom of Information response from the BBC.

    My confusion stems from the fact that the BBC gives out zero information about ‘programming’ and always applies its derogation saying it is exempt from the Act.

    Yet in this case it appears to have given out documents about BBC bosses’ discussions in relation to the future of the programme and the costs associated with it from meetings held in 1970.

    If the BBC is now saying that information relating to programming that is more than 30 or 35 years does fall within the scope of the Act then shouldn’t we be told?

    Also the memos allegedly state that the cast of Monty Python got £160 per show and £10-a-day during filming. Veteran comic Barry Cryer was paid £26 to warm up the crowd. Isn’t this all personal information subject to a S.40 exemption? I doubt John Cleese or Michael Palin care but if the BBC are opening up the pages of its wages ledger from the 1970s there might be some people who would complain.

    I can’t find a copy of the Freedom of Information response on the BBC’s disclosure log, so if anybody can shed any light on why the Beeb felt able to release this info I’d be keen to know.

  • BBC v MPs - Who takes the taxpayer for the most cash?

    Posted on May 13th, 2009 admin No comments

    I saw this video clip on the BBC and had to post it up. It looks as if MPs have been backed into such a corner about the way they have been taking the taxpayers to the cleaners for so long that they are fighting back. And who is in their sights - the BBC - that other great British institution that is paid for by the taxpayer but less than open about how it spends the money.