BBC Wins Court Battle Not To Expose Report On Coverage Of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The Supreme Court has rejected a legal challenge against the BBC from beyond the grave.
The late Steven Sugar fought a six-year legal battle to gain access to an internal BBC report that analysed its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sugar, who suspected an anti-Israeli bias in reporting from the Middle East, applied in 2005 for disclosure of the Balen Report under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).
The BBC refused the solicitor's application on the grounds that the report was outside the scope of the FOIA because it was held for "purposes of journalism, art or literature".
That triggered litigation which led to the case going all the way to the House of Lords before returning to the Information Tribunal.
The tribunal's decision in favour of Sugar was overturned by the High Court in a decision subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal last year.
Following her husband's death from cancer at the age of 61, his widow Fiona Paveley pursued the battle on his behalf to the Supreme Court, which took over the role of highest court in the land from the House of Lords.
But today five Supreme Court justices unanimously dismissed the appeal. All agreed that the report was "outside the scope" of the FOIA, as the High Court and appeal court had ruled.
Wednesday's decision effectively establishes the legal test for future cases as to "what constitutes a document held for journalistic purposes".
Paveley stepped into the legal battle when her late husband's lawyers told her the case could only continue if he was represented at court.
She decided abandoning it would be a "betrayal" of a cause that had obsessed him.
She said her late husband saw an anti-Israeli bias in the reporting of Orla Guerin, the BBC's former Middle East correspondent, who was accused of anti-Semitism in 2004 by the Israeli government.
The long-running legal battle is estimated to have cost well in excess of £200,000.
The 20,000-word report was written by senior journalist Malcolm Balen for Richard Sambrook, then BBC director of news, after pressure groups complained that the corporation's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not impartial.
It was considered by the BBC's newly established Journalism Board in late 2004. Recommendations for improving coverage followed.
High Court judge Justice Irwin ruled that the report was exempt from disclosure under the FOIA.
That ruling was upheld by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, sitting with two other appeal judges - Lord Justice Moses and Lord Justice Munby.
Lawyers for Paveley, a clinical psychologist, and her late husband argued at the Supreme Court that the report constituted information held for purposes "other than those of journalism, art or literature" - and therefore fell within the scope of the FOIA.
The case was heard in the Supreme Court by Lord Phillips, Lord Walker, Lord Brown, Lord Mance and Lord Wilson.
Today, the first four justices agreed that the report remained outside the scope of the FOIA, even if the information was only held "partly" for the purposes of journalism, art or literature.
Lord Wilson held that it was outside the scope because it was held "predominantly" for those purposes.
The BBC welcomed the ruling and said it gave the corporation "space to conduct its journalistic activities freely".
It said in a statement: "The BBC has always maintained that the report was held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature and was therefore not disclosable under the Act.
"We welcome the Supreme Court's judgment, which upholds the rulings of other courts in this case, and will ensure that the BBC is afforded the space to conduct its journalistic activities freely.
"Independent journalism requires honest and open internal debate free from external pressures. This ruling enables us to continue to do that."