It's Your Right to Know

The HTV West legal challenge to Bristol City Council (2004)



HTV West took Bristol City Council to the High Court after the authority claimed the broadcasting company was not entitled to view or take copies of its annual accounts.

A
documentary team had attempted to inspect the financial records as part of an investigation into the actions of a city landlord, whose activities were partly funded by the council.

The council refused to allow a reporter to view and copy particular accounts during the statutory public inspection period, on the grounds that HTV West was neither a voter, taxpayer nor a resident of the city.

The council also claimed that the media company did not have a
legitimate reason to inspect the material.

Bristol City Council tried to argue that the public's rights to inspect the accounts were limited to a formal auditing process, and that it was not proper for the documents to be gathered for a TV programme.

But Mr Justice Elias ruled that councils can not make it their business to decide how the information may be used.

He told Bristol City Council that it had
no right to refuse a request for information because it disapproved of the purpose for which the material was sought.

The TV company was under an obligation to make sure that the information was used lawfully.

The Judge ruled that HTV West was entitled to examine the accounts because it paid non-domestic business rates which indirectly funded the council's grants from government.

But it was not entitled to view the accounts in the guise of acting as a public '
watchdog' on behalf of viewers who lived in the city.

This does not necessarily mean that requests must be made only by individual residents, voters and taxpayers.

That is because a 1934 case established that an
agent may be appointed to examine the accounts, on behalf of an individual or a group of 'interested persons'.

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