There are no long-lasting secrets at the BBC,” wrote Lord Birt, a former Director General in his biography, vaunting the transparency of the national broadcaster in his autobiography. Set against regular edicts issued on trust, openness and high standards, the gap between the BBC’s self-image and a catalogue of lies and demeanors deployed by a rogue journalist and subsequently excused or downplayed by those who had the power to bring Martin Bashir to account looms dangerously wide.
Lord Dyson’s report is devastating for the legacy of many key figures in the Corporation in the Nineties, when Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana about her marital unhappiness was, as Dyson points out “a sensation”. Like many journalists who covered the extraordinary story of Diana then, I know the competitive frenzy for scoops about the failing royal marriage and palace intrigues were grist to the mill of journalism.
It is also true that Princess Diana briefed widely and wanted her story to be aired. But she was also ensnared by an unscrupulous journalist using dishonest methods and forgery. That caused real hardship and damage — including to loyal members of Diana’s staff and this secret was “long held” by those who failed to investigate it with any rigour or commitment.
This is where the story still bears danger for the BBC today. Until the Panorama was shown last night (after a brief delay) and the full force of Dyson’s report sinks in, the view in the upper echelons of W1A has been that this was cold potatoes, affecting primarily the reputation of Lord Hall, who had moved on from the top job last year. But Dyson’s comments are dismaying for many of us who rate the Corporation highly as an important — and yes, truthful — national and international asset and they will bring changes.
Dyson was satisfied that the BBC covered up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Bashir secured the (Diana) interview. The offence was it turns out, followed by a cover-up — at best unconscious, at worst, because it was inconvenient to the institution and personal interests of many involved. Frankly, a lot of people also got away with it for a long time. Lord Hall rose from head of news to become a BBC Director General, Tim Gardam to a senior role at Channel 4 and the headship of an Oxford college and the late Steve Hewlett became a well-regarded media commentator after his years running Panorama. It might have crossed a few minds when devoting much airtime to the illegality of newspaper hacking and excesses of tabloid culture that the BBC had its own sizeable skeleton in the closet when it came to using subterfuge and deceit to gain a scoop. The report is unambiguous in denouncing the exasperating tendency of the BBC to conduct scant self-examination. I doubt its present governance structure will survive this unchallenged. It has always needed more external independence of thought in the mix to leaven its tendency to excessive self-belief — and finally it might get that under duress. And on top of its funding woes, the broadcaster could now face millions in compensation claims from people who were smeared by Bashir.
Tantalisingly, the decision to re-employ Bashir in 2016 as religious affairs correspondent is outside the scope of this report and featured far too briefly in the otherwise excellent John Ware Panorama last night. I doubt this veil of secrecy will stay intact for long. We need to know more about who took that decision and why.
And yes, it is a different organisation in 2021 — leaner (by dint of financial cuts) and in the throes of internal reorganisation to keep pace with digital changes and viewing habits. Executive and governance bodies also get smaller — which concentrates power more in fiefdoms. New Broadcast House is a building designed to face inwards — and that is precisely the problem underlying this story and its bitter legacy for the organisation today.
The Duke of Cambridge nails the damage at the heart when he says the BBC “not only let my mother down, and my family down; they let the public down too”. The royals will not forgive or forget and neither should those of us who care for the BBC more broadly — but know that it also needs a wake-up call. After a long slumber of secrecy, it most definitely has one now.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist