March 11th, 2020
Information Commissioner’s Office
Last year ELF was contacted by an affiliate of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, frustrated by the lack of prominence given by the BBC to climate change issues. ELF, instructing Nina Pindham of No 5 chambers and once an ELF intern, sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the BBC.
The BBC is a hybrid public authority for the purposes of the 2000 FOI Act and our questions had to relate to the BBC only in relation to its management, operational running and compliance with public duties. Our request would be refused if it related to any information held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature.
When the BBC initially refused our request on the basis that all our questions were excluded because they related to “journalism, art or literature”, we were surprised as we had been careful to draft them, with the exclusion in mind. We decided to approach the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) with a complaint. This resulted in the BBC acknowledging that there may have been an initial mishandling of our request and that if we would resubmit the request, they would reconsider it.
The reason for retelling this story is that for ELF it was the first time dealing with the ICO. The ICO is not a government agency, but a ‘non-departmental public body’. Their attitude in dealing with ELF’s complaint was straightforward, prompt and helpful and in upholding ELF’s complaint, forced the BBC into a more accommodating attitude. We would certainly recommend communities to make use of their services in encouraging recalcitrant public authorities to disclose information. Anecdotally we only hear good things.
The final word on the matter came from the ICO “Regarding this current case, we’ve recorded the BBC’s original mishandling of your request. This is so that if a pattern emerges ie if the BBC keeps telling applicants that the information they’ve requested isn’t covered by the FOIA when it is, the ICO could consider enforcement action against the BBC.”