BBC TV Centre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Far from the Jimmy Savile scandal, the director of BBC News Helen Boaden took the witness stand in London today.
A squad of Beeb legal staff, including two barristers, crammed into a small court room to support the £354,000-a-year news chief against her opponent, a North Wales pensioner who was accompanied only by his wife. The case is a six-year freedom of information battle in which the BBC is refusing to disclose who attended a seminar it held in 2006.
This seminar is historically significant. The BBC's global reputation for news reporting stems from its unshakable impartiality; even in wartime its commitment to maintaining evenhandedness has occasionally enraged British politicians (and sometimes servicemen). Following that 2006 seminar, however, the corporation made a decision to abandon impartiality when covering climate change - and that's according to the BBC Trust. This was an unprecedented decision for the BBC in peacetime.
On what basis was this made? In June 2007, the Trust, which governs the gigantic publicly-funded broadcaster, published a report with the gnomic title From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel [PDF]. That document gives us this clue:
The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus [on anthropogenic climate change].
Blogger Tony Newbery was curious as to the identity of these "scientific experts", and filed a Freedom of Information Act request, as he outlines here in an introduction to the saga.
The BBC merely confirmed to Newbery that the seminar took place but not who attended. Rather surprisingly, the "best scientific experts" - who you may think would want the world to know who they are - have not volunteered the information. This baffled our blogger.
"Advising such a body − or in the BBC’s words, providing training − at a formal seminar with a title such as 'Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting' can in no way be considered to be a private matter of the kind that could reasonably fall within the scope of the Data Protection Act," he argues. "It is a very public act and those involved could hardly be unaware of this. It is a very long way from the kind of privacy concerning medical records or personal finances that the Data Protection Act is intended to safeguard. It is unreasonable for anyone who embarks on such an exercise to expect to be anonymous."
The BBC disagreed and, at great expense, continues to refuse to disclose the names of the participants. All we know is that in Boaden's words, the 28 "external invitees" were "representatives from business, campaigners, NGOs, communications experts, people from the 'front line', scientists with contrasting views and academics".
To cut a long story short, and fast forwarding to today, Newbery's probing has reached an Information Rights Tribunal; the case heard is titled Tony Newbery vs the BBC and the Information Commission.
'Individuals wanted to share their views but didn't want it widely known that they were there'
The corporation has refused to hand over the requested information, defending its inaction using two arguments: one is that the refusal is justified for the "purposes of journalism", the other is that the attendees of a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule must not be named. [A more usual interpretation is that no quotes, statements etc can be individually attributed to such people - Ed*]. Newbery maintains that the BBC, as an organisation bankrolled by the public and operating under a Royal Charter, must reveal its guest list as a matter of legitimate public interest. Boaden took the witness stand at shortly after 10am today.
The two BBC arguments appear to be contradictory, Newbery argued. The BBC insisted that the details of the seminar "cascaded down" the organisation but Boaden claimed on the witness stand that there was no information to disclose: "There was no collective note," she said. This is a paradox that needs unraveling.
Boaden explained that she had approved of the 2006 meeting in order to broaden the experience of Beeb hacks so that "journalists remain curious and are up-to-date".