Appeal to ICO on BBC refusal

TO: Richard Thomas
Information Commissioner
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Cheshire SK9 5AF

13 April 2005

APPEAL AGAINST BBC�S REFUSAL TO RELEASE MINUTES FROM GOVERNORS� MEETING JANUARY 16-31, 2004

Dear Mr Thomas

I would like to appeal the decision made by the BBC to refuse my request for all minutes from meetings held by the BBC Board of Governors during the time period January 16-31, 2004. This was the time period just after the Hutton report when both Gavin Davis and Greg Dyke resigned.

My initial request was made via the BBC�s online FOI site and therefore they hold the original copy of my request. I have attached the BBC�s final response which I received 17 March 2005. The letter states that �Given the decision was taken by the Board of Governors it is not possible to offer an internal review.� I have exhausted all means of resolving the issue within the BBC, and now appeal to the Information Commissioner.

The BBC cites section 36 (prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs) as reason to withhold the minutes from the 28th. Section 36 is a �catch-all� exemption that the Government promised would be rarely used. During the House of Lords debate on the FOIA, Lord Mackay summed up the exemption�s sole purpose: �Obviously the draftsman decided, just in case something escaped and there is one last fish in the sea, let us get it with a grenade; and this is the grenade.�

As you will know, section 36 is a qualified exemption, meaning information can only be withheld when it is in the public interest. The default position in such a balance is for openness, so a public authority must show how secrecy overrides the need for transparency. The BBC makes the claim that if the minutes were made public it would hinder discussion in future meetings and possibly hinder minute taking.

The belief that open meetings hinder vigorous debate is bogus. Secrecy in no way promotes good decision-making, in fact just the opposite. In secrecy, people can make decisions based on nothing more than personal prejudice, unsubstantiated opinion, favouritism or political gain. Good decision-making, like good policy making, must be based on reason that can stand up to public scrutiny.

The BBC was dealt a major blow by the Governors� decision to accept offers of resignation from Davis and Dyke. Some would say, the BBC was irreparably weakened by the loss of its top two champions. Would we be seeing such massive cuts in staff if these two were still in power? The governors� actions set the ball rolling on what could be the destruction of the BBC. Therefore, it is clearly in the public interest to know why the governors acted as they did. The BBC is a public service paid for with public money. The public have a direct interest in its operation.

I also question whether such monumental decisions as were made on the 29th took place without any record. Without minutes, a public authority lays itself open to accusations of dodgy dealing and incompetence, surely the last thing the BBC Governors would want to be faced with at this time.

I look forward to your decision on the matter.

Regards,
Heather Brooke

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