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October 20, 2014

The BFI and the Freedom of Information Act

BFI and the Freedom of Information ActIn order to conduct my data research I rely on a number of different sources.  Some of the data is already publicly available, some I gather myself and some comes from asking organisations to make available information that has not previously been published. The BFI is one such source in this third category. In the UK, public bodies have a duty to share certain information with the public, under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules.  In the past year, I have been exploring how the BFI and the Freedom of Information Act interact.  It’s a complicated relationship and today I’m pleased to share some of the outcomes. In summary…

  • The BFI is not officially subject to FOI requests but is voluntarily answering public requests for information under FOI rules
  • Between 1st April 2011 and 31st March 2014, 116 FOI requests were made to the BFI
  • 88% of requests for information were answered
  • 5% of requests were declined as they related to “personal information” and 3% were declined as they related to “sensitive information”
  • The most popular topics were the UK Film Council, footage requests, film funding and Doctor Who.

What is FOI?

The legal framework behind governmental freedom of information in the UK is quite new. It only came into force in 2005 and comprises two laws: The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. (The second of which is often given the Hamlet treatment of being referred to simply as “The Scottish Act”). Officially these Acts…

…make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them and to amend the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Public Records Act 1958; and for connected purposes.

In short, the public have a right of access to information held by public bodies.  These include public authorities, publicly owned companies and designated bodies performing public functions.  Included are the national and regional parliaments, councils, the NHS, schools, universities and even the police and the army.

Is the BFI subject to the FOI Act?

Officially, no.  But this a contentious issue as almost all funding provided by the National Lottery is subject to the FOI Act. I couldn’t find any legislation in the National Lottery Act 2006 or elsewhere which legislates this but it does seem to be accepted practice that lottery funded projects are subject to the FOI Act. It’s also a bit of a confused picture; bodies such as Film London claim that the BFI are subject to the Act but the BFI themselves insist that they’re not.  In the strictest sense, the BFI are right.  They’re not a public body, they’re not mentioned in the Freedom of Information legislation and there doesn’t seem to be a legal requirement for lottery money to be covered by the FOI. But if we look at who is and isn’t covered, and consider the history of the BFI activities, then it looks as if they should be subject to FOI. The film-related bodies which are subject to the Act (wholly or in part) include…

  • The Department for Media, Culture and Sport
  • Film London
  • The BBC
  • Creative England
  • Ffilm Cymru Wales (formerly called the Film Agency for Wales)
  • Northern Ireland Screen
  • Creative Scotland Screen
  • The UK Film Council (UKFC) – closed in 2008

There are a few film industry bodies which appear to be public bodies but are in fact private companies or charities such as…

  • The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)
  • Creative Skillset
  • The British Film Institute (BFI)

In June 2008, the new government hastily closed the UKFC and transferred its responsibilities to the BFI.   However, there were no provisions made to transfer the FOI requirements from the UKFC to the BFI, despite the fact that they were both performing the same activities.

So can you make Freedom of Information Act requests to the BFI?

Officially no but in practice, yes.  The BFI voluntarily answer most FOI requests in the same manner they would be expected to if they were subject to the Act. Go to bfi.org.uk/form/freedom-information-enquiry and fill in the form, or email [email protected] and they will consider your request. If you’re successful then within a few months you’ll get an email back which starts…

As you are aware, the BFI does not currently fall within the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”). However, we have agreed that we will voluntarily comply with FOIA principles in respect of those of our activities which are of a public nature until a formal order is made placing the BFI within the FOIA.

…and then goes on to answer your request.  If they feel that your request would be denied under the FOI Act they will refuse to answer and explain their reasons.

What’s excluded from the FOI Act?

There are certain defined exclusions to the Acts, including…

  • Information that is accessible by other means
  • Information relating to or dealing with security matters (i.e. spies ‘n’ that)
  • Information contained in court records
  • Where disclosure of the information would infringe parliamentary privilege
  • Information which the applicant could obtain under the Data Protection Act 1998 or where release would breach the data protection principles.
  • Information provided in confidence
  • If it will cost the organisation more than £450 to service your request

New FOI policy at the BFI?

Earlier this year I made a FOI request to the BFI asking for details of all FOI requests made to the BFI (a bit ‘Inception’, I know). First they shared just the overall stats.  I pushed and received some of the details and finally last week, after more requests, they agreed to share all of the answers publicly on the BFI website. Their email said…

I can further confirm that as part of the BFI’s on-going approach to openness, transparency and accountability, the details of Freedom of Information requests will soon be published on the BFI website. Consequently, the information you have requested will soon be available at bfi.org.uk. I will email when I have a definitive date, but it should be in the next couple of weeks.

Hurrah!  I shall share this link when it comes through and in the meantime you can download the PDF summary of 116 FOI requests made to the BFI between 1st April 2011 and 31st March 2014 here stephenfollows.com/BFI-FOI-requests.pdf

What have people been asking the BFI via FOI?

The questions asked of the BFI range wildly.  Some are related to the industry…

  • How many people does the BFI have in its sponsorship team and what are their fund-raising targets? Are they hitting them?
  • Could you please supply all internal documentation held by the BFI which in any way relates to the film ‘The Iron Lady’
  • I would like to know: how much (including overheads) has been spent so far in the search for the Director of Education?
  • I’d like to make a request on the total costs for BFI and LFF, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sports (in particular Ed Vaizey and his entourage) for the two weeks at the Cannes Film Festival, including expenses, hospitality, accreditation, accommodation, parties, flights and also any advertorial / advertising expenditure on the dailies or other print/online costs associated to Cannes.

Some were a little strange…

  • What is the percentage of fresh meat purchased by your organisation or its sub-contractors that is of British origin?
  • I am writing to make a request from you to allow me to view and retain CCTV footage.
  • I should like to request under the freedom of information act all E-Mails you are legally able to provide with reference to the BBC television show Doctor Who or particular episodes of that show from the past 60 days.
  • My mother in law won the junior british gymnastics championship in 1962. I was wondering if you had any information or maybe a video of this.

And some people really should learn to Google their questions before invoking an Act of Parliament to demand answers…

  • Could you please tell me how I get more information about the forthcoming festival in October and also how I go about getting tickets, or concessions?
  • Please confirm dates of next year’s festival.
  • Please could you furnish me details of who and where I complain to, with regards to the grossly inexcusable and unacceptable inaccuracies contained within a film that has just recently been released.

All of the short answers to these questions can be found here and the long answers (which require attachments) will be on the BFI website soon.

Epilogue on BFI and the Freedom of Information Act

In my time in film data research I have found the BFI nothing but open, helpful and generous with their information. We are fortunate in the UK to have such a body as the insights they provide are extremely useful to the industry.

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One Response

  1. Lottery Player October 23, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    Essentially the BFI releases only what it wants to, and one topic they keep secret is how much money they get back on their film investments. Not just recent BFI investments, but the historic UK Film Council and old Arts Council/ Lottery Franchise decisions.

    If you ask for the numbers, initially they come back (after weeks have gone by) to say its all in the accounts so in the public domain. This implies they are looking at the question as if the FOIA applies.

    However it is impossible to get the numbers from the accounts as there are gaps in the records if you try to follow through the years. They actually have a running total of these numbers on record and could issue them without any cost. But they choose to present the numbers in a way that is impossible to follow. I wonder why?

    If you appeal and point this out, they haul out the excuse of the FOIA not being applicable. Why are they so secretive? They and the UKFC/ Arts Council must have spent about a quarter of a billion pounds on film production, so the tax payer/ lottery player has the right to know.

    Of course film has a cultural value, but it is also a business. So the commercial side of the decisions is also important. They are happy to big up the investment decision for The Kings Speech and the returns achieved. But that needs to be looked at in the context of all the decisions.

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