Doug Keenan has an excellent post at WUWT about his experiences trying to persuade Queens University Belfast to release some tree-ring data using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Not least of his problems has been the very strange conduct of the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is supposed to be the watchdog that enforces the legislation and ensures that recalcitrant public agencies, such as universities, abide by the law.

What follows is another example of how this eminently sensible piece of legislation actually works in practice, or in this case, seems not to work at all.

In  July 2007 I made an application to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) for information about a seminar on climate change that was mentioned in the BBC Trust’s blockbuster report on impartiality published in June 2006. This is what it said in the section on climate change:

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/review_report_research/impartiality_21century/report.pdf

This decision was one that would inevitably have far reaching effects on public opinion.

As the BBC were obviously claiming that their editorial policy on this very important subject is underpinned by expert, and presumably impartial, advice, it seemed reasonable to ask them who those ‘best scientific experts’ might have been, and what they had to say. My application was for a copy of the invitation that was sent to prospective participants, a list of all those it was sent to, a list of those who attended, a copy of the agenda, and any records of the proceedings including minutes and recorded material.

I received a pleasant enough reply from the BBC that explained that they were only subject to the Freedom of Information Act where information ‘is held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature’. However, with great generosity, they were prepared to provide me with the name of the seminar (Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting), when and where it was held (Television Centre on 26th Jan 2006), how many people attended (30 BBC personnel and 30 invited guests who were ‘specialists in the area of climate change’ – no mention of them being scientists), that the ‘key speaker’ was Lord May of Oxford (President of the Royal Society, eminent ecologist and lifelong environmental campaigner), and that the event was hosted by Jana Bennett (£536k a year Director of Vision). Clearly this was no casual get-together down at the pub.

When I received this letter, I had already seen an article on the late lamented Press Gazette’s web site saying that the BBC had already turned down over 400 applications for information on these grounds. There was widespread concern that they were using their exemption as a means of withholding information that should clearly be in the public domain.

The BBC’s letter ended by telling me that they have no procedure for reviewing decisions not to release information (which is contrary to the recommendations of the FOIA) and that if I was not satisfied with their response, then my only recourse was a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner.

So I duly sent off a complaint.This pointed out that, however one might interpret the ‘purposes of journalism, art and literature’, much of the information that I had asked for must have been held for administrative purposes. Just try organising a major seminar with 60 attendees without written invitations, an agenda, list of people to send them to and of those who have accepted and those who refused. Without such information how so you know what to tell the caterers or how many chairs you’ll need?

At that time, the Information Commissioner’s website had a great deal to say about the high standards of service that they offered the public, how they valued their clients (people  who complained to them) and the targets for prompt responses to complaints which ensured that everything was dealt with promptly and like clockwork. This is an example:

we aim to provide a polite, quick and efficient service to members of the public

I hope that they are not still making that claim.

I wrote to them on 5th September 2007, and expected to hear something constructive within a few days. Just over a fortnight later, I received a letter from the ‘Head of Customer Service, FoI Case Reception Unit’, although he hadn’t actually get round to signing it himself. This informed me that:

Your case has been allocated to one of our case resolution teams who will contact you as soon as possible to explain how your case will be progressed. Due to the volume of complaints we are receiving at present it may be several months before you hear from us.

This sounded rather ominous, so I wrote back explaining that the information I required concerned current affairs broadcasting, and delay would compromise its relevance to current events. Also that:

I also understand from your web site that one of the first steps in resolving a complaint is to ‘notify the relevant public authority that we’ve received a complaint about them’. Your letter does not even indicate whether this has been done or whether this simple step will also be subject to a delayed of ‘several months’.  Please clarify this.

This letter was ignored, but five months later, in February 2008, I received an email from ‘FOI Operations, Team 3 – Central Government’.

As you may know, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has continued to receive a large number of cases concerning the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have introduced a number of changes within the ICO to improve our case­handling procedures, including a reorganisation of the complaints department by sector, introducing, for example, specialised central government, health and police teams. Your case has been allocated to one of the specialist central government teams and is awaiting assignment to a case officer. We will contact you again with further updates.

So six months had now slipped by since I requested the information from the BBC, and five months since I contacted the ICO. It did not even surprise me that they had spelt my name incorrectly in the letter, but at this stage it really would have been nice to know whether the BBC were quaking in their shoes because they knew that the information watchdog was sniffing around their ankles.

As my previous letter had been ignored, there seemed little point in writing again. Apparently the ICO were far too busy reorganising themselves to actually deal with complaints, or ‘provide a polite, quick and efficient service to members of the public’.

In July, I got another email from the ICO which informed me that:

As you may know, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has continued to receive a large number of cases concerning the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have introduced a number of changes within the ICO to improve our case­handling procedures, including a reorganisation of the complaints department by sector, introducing, for example, specialised central government, health and police teams. Your case has been allocated to one of the specialist central government teams and is awaiting assignment to a case officer. We will contact you again with further updates.

Sounds familiar? Perhaps they thought that I’d forgotten what they had said five months previously, in February, which wouldn’t be surprising really.

Then, at the end of July, just a year-and-a-week after I had first written to the BBC, I received a letter from the ICO, which seemed to have been written by a real live person rather by a fully automated customer satisfaction computer program. Apparently, someone at the ICO had finally taken a little peek at my complaint.

In view of what happened later, lets call this person who wrote to me Primrose. She introduced herself as my case officer, and said that she was writing ‘further to our previous correspondence’ – which had been a bit one sided really -  but there was no mention of any delay, let alone an apology. I was to learn that the not uncommon term ‘correspondence’ was one that she had a bit of difficulty understanding, but what she said sounded constructive, even if there was a clear warning that things might not start happening like lightening:

In order to reach a decision as to whether the Freedom of information Act has been correctly applied, I will need to carry out a thorough investigation. This may take me some time as I will need to ensure that I am aware of all the relevant facts and that I carefully consider the application of the law to those facts.

A thorough investigation sounded like an excellent idea, and she summarised the issues in quite a businesslike way. Best of all, she said that she had now written to the BBC ‘to ask for further explanations’. Unfortunately she had not attached a copy of the letter so that I could see what she had said, but then no one’s perfect. The last paragraph was ominous:

As I have indicated, the process of reaching a decision may take some time but I will update on the progress of the investigation you [sic] as appropriate but at least every 6-8 weeks.

I’m all for letting bygones be bygones if someone is really trying, so I sent  Primrose a particularly sunny letter in reply, although I did ask her to either provide me with copies of her correspondence with the BBC or a reason for not doing so.

Only just over five weeks later I got a reply, which even included an apology for the delay in replying. I also got a copy of the letter that she had sent to the BBC and she told me that ‘I am still awaiting a response from the BBC and will contact them this week to enquire on [sic] its progress.’

Primrose’s letter to the BBC was perfectly sensible, requiring that they should explain themselves so that she could take a decision as to whether they ought to cough-up the information I had requested a year before, or accept their arguments that in this case they were exempt from the legislation. Rather more disturbing was that it was addressed to ‘Dear Stephanie’.

Now I know that everything has become more informal in recent years, and that ‘Dear Mr … ‘ is seen as a bit stuffy, but this is the UK’s freedom of information watchdog writing to one of its potential victims. The ICO does actually have statutory powers to require compliance with the law and impose sanctions where necessary. Would you expect a letter from the Inland Revenue to start ‘Hi George’? It all sounded just a bit chummy, especially as I knew that Stephanie Harris was the Head of Editorial Compliance, BBC News; a rather exalted personage used to dealing with FOIA matters.

Primrose’s letter to me, enclosing the copy of the letter to the BBC, arrived with uncanny precision on the day that we left for a rather belated summer holiday. I now wonder if holidays should be provided on prescription to anyone dealing with the ICO; a kind of cross between compensation and treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.

I didn’t reply until 24th September. By then it was a pretty long time since Primrose had written to the BBC and, so far as I was aware, they had not responded, this is what I said:

I note that your letter to the BBC of 28th July attempts to address some of the issues that I have raised, but also that after two months you have not obtained a response from them. This is clearly totally unsatisfactory. If the BBC ignores such correspondence there seems to be no reason why the ICO should not proceed to a decision on the assumption that they are not complying with the appeal procedure and are intentionally subverting the process by causing delay.

I also asked whether the Environmental Information Regulations, which are similar to the FOIA but more broadly drawn in terms of who must make information public on request, might apply to my case. A reply from Primrose, which arrived remarkably promptly, made no reference to the problem of getting the BBC to answer their letter, but instead advised me, in exhaustive detail, that the BBC are exempt from the EIR. It seems strange that an organisation which continually harps on about the need to reduce carbon emissions is, apparently, unique among publicly funded bodies in that it is not subject to these regulations and need not provide any information about their emissions or any steps that they may or may not take to reduce them.

On 30th October I received the first of what turned out to be two almost identical emails from Primrose:

Further to my letter dated 26 September 2008 I am writing to update you on the progress of your complaint.
As I explained in my previous letter I am still awaiting a response from the BBC to the issues I raised. I am in regular correspondence with the BBC but require a response before I can make my final decision.

I hope to receive a response shortly and will update you again in six weeks time

(My emphasis)

The mention of ‘regular correspondence’ certainly sounded encouraging, even if the promise of an update in another six weeks did not.

A fortnight later I wrote back seeking clarification of something that had been mentioned in the first letter I received from Primrose. She had used the strange case of the Balen Report to illustrate the way in which the BBC has used its partial exemption from the FOIA to keep skeletons where they no doubt sincerely believe that they belong; securely confined in cupboards.

Some years ago the BBC set up an inquiry, chaired by a Professor Balen, as a response to growing, and probably well founded, concern about the impartiallity of their reporting of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The report that he produced has only been seen by a few (five I think) very senior executives at the BBC. A solicitor called Steven Sugar made an FOIA application for a copy, which the BBC refused using the ‘journalism, art and literature’ loophole in the Act. Over the last five years, the redoubtable Mr Sugar has contested this through a complaint to the ICO, an appeal to  the Information Tribunal which oversees the ICO’s decisions (but not unfortunately  their day to day incompetences), through the law courts and finally to the House of Lords. Stephen Sugar has stamina.

When I wrote to Primose in mid November, what had become known as the ‘Balen Case’ was in its final stages, with a decision expected soon. As one of the things that the legal proceedings were expected to clarify was exactly what the ‘purposes’ of journalism, art and literature might be, this case clearly had implications for my own appeal to the ICO. If the judges decided that the BBC should allow Mr Sugar to see the Ballen report, then it seemed very likely that I would also get the information about the seminar that I had requested, and a convenient little loophole in the FOIA would have been well and truly blocked off.

I was now concerned that the progress that was apparently being made as a result of the ‘regular correspondence with the BBC’ could cause a problem.  ICO might take a decision before this case had run its course, and as a result I might have to start all over again in the light of a new legal precedent. If not a fate worse than death, this would at least have been akin to some of the more imaginative tortures of the Spanish  Inquisition.

With a heavy heart, and very conscious that I was now putting the brakes on, I wrote to Primrose as follows:

In your initial response to my complaint, dated 28th July 2008, you referred to the High Court ruling in the case of Sugar v the Information Commissioner to illustrate the limits of the Information Commissioner’s jurisdiction in matters concerning the BBC. I understand that Mr Justice Davies judgement is to be challenged in an appeal to the House of Lords on 2nd – 3rd of December. As the outcome of this case may have implications for my own complaint, I would ask that no decision should be taken until the outcome of the appeal is known and, if the appeal succeeds, the consequences havebeen assessed.

This elicited the following response a month later:

Further to my letter dated 30 October 2008 I am writing to update you on the progress of your complaint.

As I explained in my previous letter I am still awaiting a response from the BBC to the issues I raised. I am in regular correspondence with the BBC but require a response before I can make my final decision.

I hope to receive a response shortly and will update you again in six weeks time.

Which sounds a bit familiar really. Perhaps I should say that my email system is remarkably good at telling me when messages are not delivered. But evidently Primrose didn’t want to talk about the Balen Case.

My nerves were beginning to get a bit frayed by now. Really there is only so much punishment that anyone should be expected to take. I was beginning to suspect that Primrose wasn’t altogether coping, or worse, that she wasn’t even trying, but giving me the run-around instead. So the next day I sent this:

Thank you for your message of 17th December and I note that this makes no mention of the message I sent you on 13th November. I would be grateful if you [would] confirm that you received this.

In the last paragraph of my letter of 1st August 2008 I requested copies of your correspondence with the BBC. Apart from one letter dated 28th July 2008, which you attached to your message to me of 8th September 2008, I have not received these. I would be grateful if you would now provide me with copies of the rest of the correspondence, or a reason for not doing so. As the one copy letter that I do have includes a request by you for sight of the information that the BBC has refused to provide me with, I appreciate that some material may be redacted.

I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

I didn’t wish Primrose a happy Christmas, but perhaps she had one anyway. It wasn’t until 15th January that I gave up hope of getting a spontaneous reply and wrote again:

I have received neither acknowledgement or replies to two messages that I sent to you on 13th November and 18th December. Both of these require a substantive response. I did receive a message from you on 17th December, but this was just the usual form letter that you seem to send out every six weeks.

The holiday must have done Primrose good, because she actually replied, and only took five days to do so; was this a record?

I thought that by this time there was nothing that the ICO could do or say that would surprise me. How wrong I was:

I apologise for the delay in replying to your previous emails. I also apologise that I have not forwarded to you any subsequent correspondence I have had with the BBC.

As you are aware I have not yet received a response from the BBC to my letter of the 28 July 2008. I am currently dealing with a number of BBC cases, of a similar age to yours and  I am waiting for responses in all of these cases. Since I last wrote to you enclosing a copy of my 28 July 2008 letter, my communications with the BBC chasing responses on all of the cases (including your own) have been over the telephone.

I am expecting a response from the BBC on some cases by the end of next week, once these have been received I expect to be able to get progress on the remaining cases.

I will update you again, with some further indication of progress by the 4 February 2009.

Now this may be a little pedantic, but when I see the word ‘correspondence’, that conjures up a vision of letters, or at least emails, zipping backwards and forwards like a written conversation. Under no circumstances would I describe making a phone call as correspondence; would you? Perhaps use of English is not one of Primrose’s strong points.

Nearly a year-and-half after I complained to the ICO about the BBC’s failure to provide data that I had requested, the only action that they had taken was to write one letter which, five months later, remained unanswered. It’s easy to see why the BBC, rather than offering a review procedure when they refuse an information request, tell applicants that they should make a complaint to the ICO. They must have a jolly good laugh every time they do it.

As it happens, I had been considering invoking the ICO’s review procedure – newspeak for complaints I suppose, but if you call it a review you can pretend that there aren’t really any complaints.  I had not done so because I was concerned that it might make matters worse. It seemed possible that the review process would involve removing the file from the caseworker so that there would be no chance of progress for the duration of the review. On past form, I didn’t even dare contemplate how long a review might take.

Given that it seemed that the case officer who I was dealing with was, at the very least, failing to deal appropriately with my correspondence, and at worst had been telling me fairy tales, there now seemed to be no alternative to referring the matter to a higher authority. Who knows, if what had happened over the previous year and a half became known in the higher echelons of the ICO, it might even shame them in to doing something.

A few days later, I wrote to the ICO, enclosing copies of relevant documents, just in case they had difficulty finding them in the file themselves and describing my experience of their ‘polite, quick and efficient service to members of the public’. Note that they don’t mention honesty. I made it very clear that I did not like being ‘updated’ about correspondence that did not exist. Here is what they had to say:

I fully appreciate that the length of time it is taking us to resolve your case is frustrating, and I can assure you that, ideally, we would not expect it to take this long to deal with a case of this nature, nor would it be considered appropriate. I apologise for the inconvenience this is causing. However, I can assure you that [Primrose] is not responsible for the lack of progress on your case since it was allocated to her in July 2008. Rather, the problem lies with delays on the part of the BBC in providing substantive responses to our correspondence and telephone calls which will enable us to have the necessary representations in order to resolve this matter. In addition, I am satisfied that [Primrose] has pursued the BBC for these responses as best as she can be expected.

It is the case that most FOI complaints we are currently investigating about the BBC have met with delay in terms of their responses to us, which is slowing down the resolution of all such cases. However, we are currently addressing this matter with the BBC at a senior level. We are hopeful that this specific issue of delay in responding to the ICO’s submissions and requests can be resolved shortly. However, I wish to emphasise that we are pursuing all BBC cases under investigation with equal vigour. We are also intending to issue the BBC with ‘Information Notices’, so as to legally require them to provide the required representations within a specified time.

In addition, given the number and nature of BBC cases we are currently handling, a decision was taken to transfer all such cases to our Belfast office, in effect taking over the investigation of these cases. This was a corporate decision reflecting the resources and capacity available in the Belfast office and the transfer is now well underway. Therefore once we have obtained the necessary representations required to continue our investigation into your complaint, we hope that we will be able to issue a decision within a much quicker timeframe. However, it is our Belfast office which will pursue the BBC for a substantive response to [Primrose]‘s enquiries from here on.

This means that [Primrose] is no longer responsible for the investigation of your case. However, our Belfast office anticipates it will be in touch with you later this month to inform you of progress on receipt of information and of the officer to whom your case will now be allocated. If there are specific issues you wish to discuss regarding matters you have raised in correspondence which you feel we should address as part of our investigation but have not yet done so, it would be helpful if you could wait until the Belfast office makes contact. However, for your reference, the Belfast Office’s contact details are as follows:

Information Commissioner’s Office 51 Adelaide Street

Belfast

BT28FE

Tel: 028 9026 9380 Email: ni@ico.gsi.gov.uk

I realise that this response does not provide all the assurance you seek regarding a swift resolution of your case. I fully understand why this is the case and apologise that I cannot provide such an assurance. However, I hope that, in the circumstances, you will find this a helpful explanation behind the delays you have faced to date, and the steps we have taken and will take to move matters forward as best we can.

If you remain dissatisfied with this response to your service level complaint and wish to complain about the service you have received from the Information Commissioner, you have a right to contact the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is an independent person who conducts investigations into complaints regarding allegations of maladministration by Government departments or their agencies. The Ombudsman can only be contacted through a Member of Parliament who would normally be your constituency Member, but the address is included below for your information:

The Parliamentary Ombudsman Millbank Tower

London

SW1P 4QP

Complaints Helpline: 08450154033

Yours sincerely

Alexander Ganotis

FOI Team Leader (Central Government)

(My emphasis)

Note the skill with which Mr Ganotis avoids any direct comment on Primrose’s imaginary correspondence with the BBC, which I had been very clear about in my letter.  Primrose’s failure to reply to correspondence, and the issues I had raised, which would be obvious with even the most cursory reading of the file, seems to have escaped him too.

His job title suggests that he is Primrose’s immediate superior, as she describes herself as a ‘Senior Complaints Officer’. When organisations investigate complaints, with the intention of actually taking them seriously, don’t they usually make sure that this is done by someone senior enough not to be in day-to-day contact with those involved?

It would seem that the ICO see themselves as the hapless victims of the BBC’s failure to answer correspondence, yet they are the statutory authority who are charged with enforcing the freedom of information legislation. Not only that, but it would appear that they have the necessary powers to enforce compliance by using ‘Information Notices’.

And if the ICO are now “intending to issue the BBC with ‘Information Notices’ so as to legally require them to provide the required representations within a specified time”, why was this not done months, or even years, previously? And why is it that, when I asked Primrose if such a course of action was possible some five months earlier, my question was ignored.

The final paragraphs of Mr Ganotis’ letter make it clear that the only recourse available to me if I did not accept his explanations was a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. But the public  cannot approach this august personage themselves, they must persuade an MP to do so on their behalf.

With a heavy heart, I phoned the Parliamentary Ombudsman, where a very pleasant lady made it clear that an investigation would be likely to take a very long time. In fact it was unlikely that they would even begin to look at it in less that forty working days (two months). I also contacted my MP who was willing to submit the complaint to them, but in order to do so it would be necessary for him to read the whole correspondence, which now occupies a significant part of a lever-arch file. I have had dealings with him in the past, and know him to be a very hard-working and conscientious constituency MP. Was it fair to dump a problem like this in his lap when there was a chance, albeit a pretty small chance that, with the move to Belfast, the ICO might finally get its act together.

I was further encouraged when a letter arrived from Belfast before the end of March, as Mr Ganotis had mentioned in his letter. Could this be a turning point? The glimmer of sunshine on the horizon that I had been awaiting for nearly two years?

Your complaint has been transferred and will now be handled by the staff in the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) based in the Belfast Office.

We are currently assessing all BBC complaints in light of a recent judgement by the House of Lords. This has significant implications for the way the ICO approaches FOI complaints regarding the BBC.

My apologies for the further delay which I hope you will appreciate is in response to changing circumstances and very necessary.

I hope to be in contact in a few weeks after we have received the case list and identified our programme of case work.

At least this made some kind of sense. I was well aware of the progress of the Balen Case and its possible implications. But why, when I mentioned this to Primrose back in September, had may email been ignored?  And a reference to ‘identifying our programme of case work’ is a bit baffling.

This letter was from a Mr Aubrey McCrory, Assistant Information Commissioner (NI), who I understood to be the head of the Belfast Office. On the strength of this I wrote to my MP saying that things were beginning to look up a bit, and rather than waste his time I would take a rain check on his kind offer to go to war with the ICO, via the Parliamentary Ombudsman, on my behalf. That was another serious mistake. I heard no more from Belfast until the end of May. When I did, this is what they had to say.

I refer to our letter of 19 March 2009 in respect of your complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office. I can inform you that I have now been allocated your case to investigate and have had the opportunity to review the contents of your file. Firstly I must apologise for the continued delay in communicating with you.

I have considered the work which was completed on your case by the previous case owner [Primrose] and have consulted with my colleagues on several legal points relating to some complications with the interaction of two key pieces of legislation, namely the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and in particular their application by the SSC and Information Commissioner to your request and complaint. This means that we need to establish the correct legal approach before we can progress and conclude your complaint, although there has already been substantive work conducted on your case to date in an attempt to clarify the legal position. I have therefore consulted with one of our Senior Policy Managers for advice and she is currently attempting to clarify the issue, although at this stage I am unable to give you an estimated time frame when this might be.

Until I have received the clarification I need I will be unable to progress your complaint, however, I can assure you that I will continue to monitor the progress of this issue closely in the meantime and keep you updated.

The matter of whether my complaint should be dealt with under the FOIA or the EIR had been resolved way back in September 2008 when it was established that BBC is not subject to the EIR.

There is no mention in this letter of the Balen Case or of any steps that the ICO might be taking to force the BBC to answer their letter, written nearly a year previously. In fact this letter makes no sense at all in spite of the person who wrote it claiming to have read the file. Perhaps it was intended for someone else and got sent to me by mistake. The spectre of Primrose hangs heavily over the scene.

On the 11th June I wrote back outlining the shortcomings of this letter and concluding:

At this point I must therefor insist that either you, or someone else within the ICO, should provide me with a full and detailed progress report explaining precisely what issues are being considered, what is causing this delay, and what action is being taken to resolve the matter. Unless I receive this before the end of this month I will proceed with my complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Needless to say, I have not received a reply to this letter, but in early July there was a startling new development. According to the BBC News website, Mr Aubrey McCrory has been suspended on full pay (up to £58,650 pa) because ‘it is alleged Aubrey McRory engaged in inappropriate conduct within his Belfast Office’. So far as I am aware, he is the man who runs the show there and according to the internet rumour mill, the Belfast Office is presently headless and in chaos.

If anyone has had the stamina to read this far, and feels inclined to leave smarty-boots comments suggesting how I could have handled things better, don’t bother. While drafting this interminable post you can be pretty sure that I’ve thought of all of them. Hindsight is a great thing.

I suppose that, even now, I could try complaining to the BBC about their failure to answer a letter from the ICO that has been outstanding for over a year, but what kind of situation exists if I have to plead with the BBC to respond to a statutory authority that is supposed to be a watchdog?

Back in December I posted an account of the BBC’s seminar from Richard D North,  who was present. He had this to say about who attended it:

I found the seminar frankly shocking. The BBC crew (senior executives from every branch of the corporation) were matched by an equal number of specialists, almost all (and maybe all) of whom could be said to have come from the “we must support Kyoto” school of climate change activists.

So far as I can recall I was alone in being a climate change sceptic (nothing like a denier, by the way) on both the science and policy response.

Yet according to the BBC Trust’s report on impartiality, this was ‘a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts’, which defined their editorial policy on climate change. Bearing in mind that the BBC Trust has a statutory duty to oversee the impartiality of the BBC’s output, surely the public have a right to know who attended that seminar, and the Information Commissioner has a duty to ensure that the law is complied with in this respect?

If Richard D North’s description of the attendees at the seminar is correct, and I have no reason to think otherwise in view of circumstantial evidence that has come to light during the last two years, then there are some very important questions that need to be asked about BBC impartiality on this subject. In the meantime, two years has slipped by during which the failure of the ICO to discharge its duties has made it impossible to do anything other than speculate that the BBC’s editorial policy on climate change has been based on input from activists when they claim that it was based on scientific advice.

This matter has very obvious implications for the BBC’s news and current affairs output on this very important subject. The way in which the BBC has reported on climate change, and the credence that they are willing to give to those who question the orthodox scientific and political view, has had a considerable impact on public opinion. Failure on the part of the ICO to deal with my complaint in a prompt and appropriate manner means that doubts about the BBC seminar that might have been cleared up two years ago are still unresolved. This is detrimental to the reputations of both the ICO and the BBC, and also has serious implications for the way in which politicians and the general public perceive the climate change debate.

Some of the last emails that I received from Primrose had the following slogan at the foot of the page:

The ICO’s vision is a society where information rights and responsibilities are respected by all.

It probably took a whole team of consultants to think that one up, and I bet that the BBC really shakes in its shoes at the thought of this particular watchdog snarling.

20 Responses to “The Information Commissioner: faithful watchdog or the BBC’s cuddly poodle?”

  1. 1
    DennisA Says:

    Amazing but not surprising. Sir Humphrey would be proud of how this awkward matter was filibustered.

  2. 2
    Jack Hughes Says:

    Thanks for your patience and diligence in tackling the BBC behemoth.

  3. 3
    per Says:

    is this the same information commissioner who was involved in douglas Keenan’s QUB complaint ?
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/08/14/another-uk-climate-data-scandal-is-emerging/

    On the bright side, if the government employs more high-paid lawyers and case workers, your response will get seen to before next century :-)

  4. 4
    TonyN Says:

    A message from Doug Keenan says:

    I have a quibble with the title [of your post]: the ICO is like that with most public bodies, not just the BBC. My story about QUB gives one example, and the two appended articles, from The Economist, tell more. Basically, the ICO has been severely–and perhaps deliberately–underfunded by the government.

    He has two valid points, and it is only fair to acknowledge that lack of resources is a factor in the ICO’s failings. On the other hand this should not be made an excuse for the kind of muddle and bad service that I have illustrated in my post, and I am sure that Doug has no intention that this should be so.

    The articles that he refers to are both interesting and can be found here:
    Uncovering the next scandal
    and here:
    Four years on, the Freedom of Information Act is popular but underfunded

  5. 5
    TonyN Says:

    Per:

    I started off dealing with the then (I think) only office, which is in Cheshire, and my case was later transferred to a new Belfast branch to ‘speed things up’. I think that Doug’s complaint was mainly handled by the Belfast office.

  6. 6
    Douglas J. Keenan Says:

    TonyN, just to confirm, my case was handled by the Belfast office. The office was apparently severely understaffed until the middle of last year (which is why my case took until October 2008 to be assigned a Case Officer–i.e. a year after submitting my complaint).

  7. 7
    Neil Craig Says:

    Cl;early the people Kafka was writing about could have taken pointers [snip, see blog rules] obfuscation from the BBC & the “Information” Commissioner & presumably the government that employ them.

    I think you were right to say that if the BBC refused to reply to them it was their duty to render a decision that they were at fault. I would suggest emailing them to that effect that if the ICO do not hold that as their official position they should say so within a reasonable time period – say 2 years & 2 months after your initial FoI enquiry.

    As regards the initial point – since the BBC has a duty to impartiality & have not odficially claimed to have broken that duty they are claiming to have selected impartial scientific opinion & therefore are claiming that several of the “best scientific experts” on the sceptical side were there. You may ask the BBC to deny that this claim represents the absolute pinnacle of honesty to which the BBC, & thus any employee, ever, under any circumstances, aspires. Subject to some such expert saying they were there we can also assume it is a deliberate lie.

    [Snip, see blog rules again. I understand what you are getting at, but thats a bit OTT for this thread]

    The method being to ask the bureaucrats to deny something, preferably by a certain date which puts the onus on them. It doesn’t work either but it is more satisfying.

  8. 8
    J Cooper Says:

    Keep on and well done with trying find out who attended this conference. Thank you.

  9. 9
    TonyN Says:

    J Cooper:

    Thanks, I will, and sooner or later I am sure that the information will have to be made publicly available.

  10. 10
    Nick Says:

    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.

    There is the obvious question.

    A FOI request to the BBC to name the scientific experts.

    Any betting they are mentioned in the CRU emails?

  11. 11
    TonyN Says:

    Nick:

    Any betting they are mentioned in the CRU emails?

    No mention of the seminar that I can find.

  12. 12
    Nick Says:

    perhaps the seminar didn’t happen and the BBC has invented the experts.

    Wouldn’t suprise me TonyN

    Nick

  13. 13
    TonyN Says:

    Nick:

    If you read my posts about the seminar on this blog I think you will find that its existence is beyond doubt.

    I’m not surprised that there was no mention of the seminar in the emails. I don’t think that the the people who were involved in the leaked correspondence were the kind of experts that the BBC invited to attend.

  14. 14
    Nick Says:

    The reason why I’m suspiscious is that the BBC is refusing to answer FOI requests as to the names of the scientists.

    This secret group is then being used to justify pro AGW bias on the BBC

  15. 15
    Nick Says:

    One point that is relevant is this. It was the BBC trust, and not the BBC that held this meeting.

    The BBC trust does not do journalism.

    The BBC is confused as to which body does journalism, and which doesn’t.

    Submit another FOI request, asking what journalism the Trust performs. If its nothing, then the seminar can’t be journalism, and so the request can’t be refused.

  16. 16
    TonyN Says:

    Nick

    Thanks for your interest, but things have moved on a long way since I wrote this.

    At the moment I have an appeal before the Information Tribunal stayed pending a decision on another, but similar case, in the Supreme Court. The legal arguments at this level are fairly mind boggling.

    Until a decision is reached, and that will be well into next year at the soonest, I can’t blog about it much, which is rather frustrating.

  17. 17
    geoffchambers Says:

    Nick
    Andrew Montford has written a small ebook about it, describing the interweaving investigations by himself and TonyN. It can be got here
    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/12/11/cmep-the-back-story.html
    I was surprised that Montford and TonyN didn’t make more fuss about the insulting way they were treated in the BBC Trust’s Impartiality report. Montford’s book helps to clarify this.

  18. 18
    Nick Says:

    Play the game.

    Put in an FOI request to the BBC trust. [The BBC trust isn't the BBC] Ask them what they spent as a trust on journalism, art or literature. If the answer is nothing, then anything BBC trust holds, can’t be journalism, art or literature.

  19. 19
    TonyN Says:

    Nick, #18,

    I admit that when I first saw your comment I thought that it was nuts, and then I thought a bit more. With a recent judgement in the Supreme Court in the Steven Sugar case in mind there may be a very useful suggestion here. The lord justices went to some trouble to link the purpose of journalism, in the context of the BBC and the FOIA, to broadcasting output. So far as I am aware, the only links that the BBC Trust has with output are regulatory. In other words they do not output anything themselves.

    Incidentally, this thread is now nearly three years old and the case it describes is still not settle but is awaiting a hearing in the Information Tribunal in which the Supreme Court judgement will be applied, perhaps for the first time.

  20. 20
    Maurizio Morabito (aka Omnologos) « the Climate Denier List Says:

    [...] rather dull tale of intrigue can be found here the Harmless Skies blog the only curiosity is an interview with an attendee Richard D North, not to be confused with [...]

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