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21 May 2021

Can the BBC emerge unscathed from the Martin Bashir and Princess Diana crisis?

The corporation faces one of its greatest ever tests after the damning Dyson report into the 1995 Panorama interview.

By Roger Mosey

The BBC has been prone to crises throughout its history, and it has the ability to survive them and even emerge stronger. But it is now facing one of its greatest ever tests after the coruscating findings of the Dyson report into its Panorama interview with Princess Diana in 1995. Never before has the corporation been condemned so eloquently by a future king, who has said his mother was “failed” by BBC bosses “who looked the other way rather than asking the tough questions”.

“It’s hard to see how this could have been worse,” says one longstanding editor.

This story is first and foremost about a vulnerable young woman and how she was misled in a way that is still devastating, more than a quarter of a century later, to her family and friends. Every journalist, and all of us who worked for the BBC, should be shattered by the evidence of the destructive power of the wrong kind of journalism.

It is also about a public service broadcaster which achieved one of its greatest scoops by deception and then, when challenged, covered it up; and sat for decades on a lie. This is not the BBC that millions of us know and love, but it will be ever more difficult to convince its detractors that this is an organisation they can trust.    

[see also: The BBC and the battle for truth]

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Lord Dyson does a superb job in disentangling what happened. Previous legally-based investigations, notably Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the death of David Kelly and the Iraq War, were uncomprehending of journalism; but Dyson explains forensically how it worked and what went wrong. It is to the credit of the current BBC director-general Tim Davie that he launched such a rigorous inquiry; that John Dyson, formerly the second most senior judge in England, was chosen to lead it; and that the BBC has accepted his report in full.

There is no doubt that the extraordinarily bad behaviour of one man – Martin Bashir – caused this tragedy. He lied and cheated to secure the interview with Diana. But the editorial processes failed too, and accountability was non-existent. It is all the more surprising because of the context of the time, with a BBC chairman – Duke Hussey – married to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and with a hotline to Buckingham Palace. That was why the existence of the Diana interview was kept secret until the last minute: to avoid the BBC chairman telling the palace or trying to get it stopped. I can, however, just about understand that in the adrenaline rush of getting the scoop, not enough attention was paid to how it had been obtained. What the BBC had secured was a global triumph, and the whole of the broadcasting industry gave the credit to Bashir and Panorama and showered them with awards.

But by far the greater problem is why BBC bosses failed so spectacularly to investigate when staff members and then the Mail on Sunday alerted them to potential wrongdoing. Again, it is understandable that they wanted the interview to stand – and the least-worst defence, in an era in which mental health and vulnerability were less well understood, is that the princess was saying what she did as a matter of choice. She had, after all, already cooperated with Andrew Morton’s hostile book about the royal family. The allegations of forgery were, however, deeply serious; and Lord Dyson was right to say that the investigations were “woefully ineffective”.

There is another key bit of context here. Bizarrely, the director-general of the time – John Birt – asked the director of news Tony Hall to inquire into allegations made against his own division. Given the profile of the interview and what was at stake, this meant Hall had a stark choice. If he found that the interview had been falsely obtained, he would have faced the sack because he was ultimately the executive responsible for it. It is also highly unlikely that Birt himself would have survived, even with a different chairman in place by then.   

[see also: The BBC and the government both have lessons to learn about institutional failure]

What is so terrible about the outcome of the investigation is not just the playing down of Bashir’s dreadful behaviour but the victimisation of the whistle-blower Matt Wiessler – the blameless graphic designer who had acted on Bashir’s instructions in creating mocked up bank statements. It is also shocking that other members of the BBC staff, including those working on Panorama, suffered damage to their careers. They are all entitled to be angry.

There are many more questions still to be answered. The first is how far any cover-up continued. I am, generally speaking, not a believer in conspiracy theories, and for most of my time in senior management the Bashir affair was simply not an issue. It was regarded as past history. However, it is deeply worrying that the BBC responded to freedom of information requests from Channel 4 in 2007 by saying that it did not hold the documents on the Bashir investigation that had been requested and that “meetings to discuss the programme would not have been minuted” – only for multiple documents to be released more than a decade later.

A further unpleasant contemporary twist comes from the rehiring of Bashir as a BBC on-air editor in 2016, after Hall had become director-general in 2013. Hall knew from 1996 that his incoming religion editor was a liar. But by the time of Bashir’s return there were countless other worrying indicators too. The BBC head of current affairs in 2000, Peter Horrocks, had complained to ITV while Bashir was working for the broadcaster about his “legally actionable” defaming of BBC employees; and Bashir had left the United States in disgrace after making offensive comments. Tim Davie should ask someone to look into how on earth the rehiring happened, and why the BBC didn’t satisfactorily respond to questions about Bashir for more than two decades.

The corporation is now facing demands for a change in governance. That may be redundant given that the biggest failures were under a different system and that its governance structure has changed twice since then. But there is an urgent need for openness, and for a complete cleaning of the stables. Otherwise, this is one crisis from which it has zero chance of emerging unscathed.

[see also: Has the UK’s botched broadband roll-out really hit plans for BBC reform?]