BBC Scotland expenses and Freedom of Information

Forgive me, but I do not really believe that this is a scandal of any proportion. Is it therefore newsworthy that BBC Scotland have responded to the FOI request made in July by The Herald, and have now handed over details of expenses claims made by employees of BBC Scotland? The expenses claimed over the last five years during which the legislation has been in force amount to a miserly £77,000.

It has to be remembered that the BBC is publicly funded by the licence fee. That is why an FOI request can be made and had to be answered. There are about 10,000 public bodies in Scotland which are affected by the Freedom of Information Scotland Act otherwise known as FOISA. The reasoning behind the legislation is that all of these public bodies should be accountable to the people they represent. It is a democratic tool. But is it always newsworthy when a reply is made to such a request?

When Heather Brooke made the requests about MPs’ expenses that was another matter entirely. Moats and mortgages, sofas and stamp duty; all of these items were claimed by Westminster MPs, and some of these claims are still being considered by the police and, one hopes, the Serious Fraud Office, with a view to pursuing some of the less honourable among them. At the time the UK government resisted answering the request just as far as it possibly could. The Information Commissioner had ordered that the request should be dealt with but before the information was handed over it was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. One of the more scandalous parts of this story is that the government must have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on the legal advice alone in their efforts to try and resist the request.

In an interview with me Heather Brooke asserted that simply the making of an FOI request was in itself newsworthy. And the fact that the government had not responded to her immediately was the foundation for a story. She then became very much of an expert in making requests about the sum expended on photocopying and scanning in an effort to find out if the government was trying to ready itself for release of the information.

FOI is a source of some weighty stories, but it seems to me that the story of the BBC Scotland expenses is not of scandalous proportions at all. The story in The Herald covers the point that a cheeseboard was bought for Griff Rhys Jones at the massive cost of £42. This in the context of a government which squandered many millions on keeping its MPs in the style to which they would like to have become accustomed seems paltry. But perhaps the point is not the £42 but the fact that such information may become more readily available in the future and will ensure that those working for the Beeb are more careful with their claims for expenses even where they are perfectly justified.

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