Last week, I submitted the following Freedom of Information request to the BBC:
"The number of appearances (with a breakdown by year) that Gordon Brown MP - current Prime Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer - made on the BBC's political panel programme 'Question Time', between 18th July 1992 and 27th June 2007."
Perfectly reasonable you might think, since the BBC would certainly be in the best position to tally the number of times any guest appeared on their show. But it seems I was to be denied by both the BBC's decision to hide behind FoI legislation and their own apparent incompetence. They responded:
"Please note that your request is outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and unfortunately this information is not readily to hand.
The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature. The BBC is not required by the Act to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities; however, on this occasion we’re happy to provide the above information in response to your request."
There are so many issues to take with this response. First of all, to claim they have 'provide[d] the above information in response' is absolutely taking the piss. What they've told me is that they don't have it to hand - which is pretty irrelevant, since the Act requires them to compile it even if there are costs involved, which can then be passed on to the requestor - and that, even if they did have it to hand, they still wouldn't give it to me anyway. But more fundamentally, how on earth does this handy 'journalism, art or literature' exemption possibly extend to a question like mine under any reasonable circumstances? The question is no more probing or secretive in nature than asking them how many episodes of Gardeners' World have been made, or who decided the Tardis should be blue.
The BBC have something of a track record of hiding behind this tidy section of the FoI Act. This is a great example; all this person wanted to know was how much the BBC spent on programme pilots that were never commissioned. Essentially, he wanted to know how much public money had been thrown down the toilet, and the BBC hid behind the Act to deny him the information.
According to the IMDB, Brown was on Question Time 11 times between 1988 and 1996. That's actually more than I expected, though it's no surprise that he stopped appearing once he became Chancellor and would actually be confronted on some of the decisions he made. This information might not be accurate, but at this stage it looks like the best we're going to get. And also isn't it rather odd that IMDB at least has enough data to take a stab at the appearance numbers, but the BBC don't apparently have it to hand?
I will be appealing this to the Information Commissioner's Office, since I do not believe that the Act should extend to the very peripherals of programme-making. Since the ICO is part of the Ministry of Justice I doubt I'll get anywhere, but I'll report back on any developments.