The BBC and the government both have lessons to learn about institutional failure

The Bashir interview with Princess Diana and the Windrush scandal are stories of toxic bureaucratic culture.

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Two landmark reports into major failings by British institutions have been released today. The first, by the former Supreme Court judge John Dyson, probed allegations that the journalist Martin Bashir used deception to obtain his 1995 interview with Princess Diana, in which she accused Prince Charles of infidelity (“there were three of us in this marriage”), and the BBC's handling of those claims of deception at the time. It made the front page of every national newspaper other than the FT

The report finds that Bashir “deceived and induced” the Princess’s brother, Charles Spencer, to obtain the interview, and that the BBC’s initial investigation into the claims of deception was inadequate. Prince William has rounded on the corporation, saying that the interview and the way it was conducted contributed to the paranoia and isolation his mother felt in the last years of her life. 

That so many of those involved in the initial investigation were able to move onwards and upwards means that the inquiry into a 1995 story has implications for the BBC today, and means that Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, is once again making menacing noises about BBC reform. 

The second report is the National Audit Office’s investigation into the implementation of the Windrush Compensation Scheme. The NAO finds the scheme is not compensating victims quickly enough. And – perhaps most damningly for a casual observer – it concludes that the Home Office has opted not to compensate people who were wrongly ensnared by the hostile environment, which, financially speaking, makes it as if the affair had never happened. 

While the Bashir interview is the story of one person, and the Windrush scandal is the deeper and more significant tale of millions, they share important features: a bureaucratic culture that clamped down on internal challenge. The people in charge, Tony Hall of the BBC and Theresa May respectively, were able to progress in their institutions, and in both cases there are still serious questions about whether the culture of those organisations has changed since.

When ministers and MPs talk about the need for the BBC to “learn the lessons” of the Bashir case, they should also realise that advice should be applied closer to home. 

 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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