Don’t let Martin Bashir and Diana interview destroy BBC’s reputation for excellence – Andrew Vine

IT ISN’T currently fashionable to say it, but I’ve got immense sympathy for the beleaguered BBC.

Diana, Princess of Wales during her now infamous Panorama interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir in 1995.
Diana, Princess of Wales during her now infamous Panorama interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir in 1995.

Not for any of those involved in the 26-year cover-up of how Princess Diana was deceived and manipulated into granting an interview which will forever define her image.

And particularly not for Martin Bashir, that loathsome, dishonest creep who is a disgrace to journalism, or the preening Lord Hall, who spent his tenure as director general of the BBC fog-horning about integrity despite having buried evidence of the emotionally-fragile Diana being duped.

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They deserve all the opprobrium heaped on them in the wake of Lord Dyson’s lacerating report on the scandal of the 1995 interview and its aftermath.

File photo dated 20/01/20 of former BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall who has quit as chairman of the National Gallery amid the continuing turmoil over the corporation's Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales in 1995.

There may be more to come, since questions remain unanswered, not least why Bashir was re-employed despite what was known about his record.

But for the institution, the BBC that has been a benchmark of broadcasting excellence for 99 years, I feel deeply sorry. It has not only been let down by a chancer and a bunch of executives whose principal motive appears to have been covering their own backsides, it may also have been imperilled by them.

The loss or weakening of the corporation as a result of the failures and duplicity of a group of individuals, who are no longer employed or in charge, would be completely disproportionate. It would also be grossly unfair on the army of good, honest people working in BBC news and current affairs across the country who are doubtless as repelled by what Bashir and his bosses did as the rest of us are.

Viewers and listeners would be the ones to suffer if the BBC is dismantled or downgraded, which is a real possibility.

Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London after her appearance on The Andrew Marr Show. to discuss the fallout from the Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995.

Vultures circling the BBC is nothing new. There has been angst between the corporation and Conservative governments ever since Margaret Thatcher, but this time the predators really scent blood.

There has been undisguised relish in the veiled threats of payback made by Ministers, including Home Secretary Priti Patel and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, with next year’s review of the BBC’s royal charter now assuming great significance.

Suggestions of reducing or abolishing the licence fee is clear evidence of a desire on the part of a substantial cohort of Conservative politicians to clip the wings of a broadcaster they have long considered over-mighty and dangerously left-wing.

The cover-up has been the greatest of gifts to the anti-BBC lobby, which will also point to the corporation’s harbouring the vile Jimmy Savile for decades and falsely smearing the late Tory grandee Lord McAlpine as a child sexual abuser.

Howvever the tragedy of Diana’s untimely death, and the understandable continuing hurt of her sons, makes this episode infinitely more damaging than either Savile or McAlpine. It is the greatest crisis in the BBC’s history and places its future in jeopardy.

But there should not be an over-reaction that sees the corporation torn apart. It is not the institution that engaged in dishonest – perhaps even criminal – behaviour quarter of a century ago, but a clearly-defined group of individuals within it who betrayed the trust placed in them and failed to follow clear written policies on how BBC journalism should be conducted.

Reforms to the way the BBC is run are undoubtedly necessary to ensure that can never happen again. The suggestion by former BBC chairman Lord Grade of an independent editorial board to ensure that the corporation is prevented from marking its own homework on contentious issues would be a good way forward.

It’s also true that the BBC operates in a changed broadcasting world in which streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Plus make some viewers – particularly the young – question why they are compelled to pay a licence fee for a service they rarely watch or listen to.

But Netflix and Amazon won’t provide authoritative coverage of major news events, whether they be the Duke of Edinburgh’s death or the Grenfell Tower fire. They won’t report from war zones or the front line of hospitals overwhelmed by Covid patients.

From their corporate headquarters in America, they can never be as closely in tune with the life of Britain as a publicly-funded state broadcaster that, in the end, belongs to us all.

It is not just sentimentality to say that our country still needs the BBC, however many rivals it has for viewers. Almost a century of trust in its output should not be fatally undermined by one appalling lapse.

The BBC’s apologies have been sincere. Accept them, introduce better governance, and then let the BBC get on with its job free of the threat of revenge by politicians who despise it for their own ideological reasons.

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