MPs set to quiz BBC bosses over Bashir row

Media savvy: Diana said she wanted to be “Queen of people’s hearts”. © Getty

Will we ever be able to trust the BBC again? Today MPs plan to summon BBC bosses to give testimony about the Martin Bashir scandal and the safeguards in place to prevent a repeat.

It was the interview of the century.

On the night of 20 November 1995, more than 20 million people across the UK turned on their televisions and watched Princess Diana pour out her heart to a young BBC journalist called Martin Bashir.

Never before had a member of the Royal Family spoken so candidly.

Diana admitted to an affair, and spoke of her struggles with an eating disorder. She told Bashir how Prince Charles’ own affair with Camilla Parker Bowles had made her feel worthless: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

For the BBC, the Panorama interview was a major scoop. It kickstarted the career of Martin Bashir, turning the young reporter into a household name.

Yet for the princess, the consequences were devastating. Charles and Diana had already been separated for three years. After the interview aired, the Queen instructed them to divorce.

But now, a shocking new report has concluded that Bashir lied to Diana to gain her trust, using fake bank documents to convince the princess’s brother Earl Spencer that officials were being paid to spy on her.

Then, when a graphic designer raised the alarm about Bashir’s deceit, it was the whistleblower, not Bashir, who was fired. In 1996, the BBC cleared itself of any wrongdoing. A 25 year cover-up began.

“The BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” declared the report’s author, former judge Lord Dyson.

The reaction was swift, and brutal. “The BBC’s deceit and lies is the most shameful episode in its history,” wrote journalist Andy Webb on Thursday. The organisation is “severely injured, probably scarred,” added the BBC’s own media editor Amol Rajan.

After months of public spats, the news even united Diana’s sons. “It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation,” said Prince William.

For Prince Harry, the interview contributed to the “ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices” that ultimately led to his mother’s death.

And now, the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee will meet to discuss plans for a one-off special evidence session on the row engulfing the broadcaster, according to sources close to the committee.

There is no doubt: the report is hugely damaging for the BBC.

The national broadcaster enjoys huge levels of public support, not just in the UK but around the world. One 2020 poll found that Americans trust BBC News more than CNN, The Wall Street Journal and even The New York Times. Every week, the BBC reaches more than 430 million people outside Britain.

Now, as it faces an onslaught of condemnation, the BBC’s supporters know that maintaining public trust is key to the organisation’s survival. “Yes, both Bashir and the BBC were right to apologise over this - but it tells us little about the BBC’s journalism at large - routinely brave, accurate and obsessively balanced,” said journalist Sean O’Grady.

For columnist Jane Martinson, the way forward is clear: “If the BBC is to survive, as it must, it needs to learn from its mistakes of the past 26 years.”

Will we ever be able to trust the BBC again?

Web of deceit

Definitely not, say some. Senior BBC officials have known for years about Martin Bashir’s dishonesty, but he was employed by the corporation until as recently as two weeks ago. The BBC may be Britain’s public broadcaster, but this scandal shows that it is not above using underhanded tactics. As Prince William said, the BBC not only let down his family, but the public as well.

Of course, say others. The report was scathing, but we should not dismiss an entire organisation for the actions of a select group of individuals more than 25 years ago. The BBC has apologised and promised to change. The fact that the organisation commissioned its own independent investigation is a positive sign. This is a critical moment for the BBC, but not a fatal one.

You Decide

  1. Should broadcasters stop airing Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana?
  2. Currently, it is illegal to watch television in the UK without paying a license fee to the BBC. Should the law change?

Activities

  1. Today, people are still fascinated by Princess Diana. In pairs, interview someone who remembers the reaction to her death. What questions will you ask them?
  2. “Public broadcasters like the BBC are a vital part of a healthy democracy.” Split into two teams and hold a class debate on this motion.

Some People Say...

“He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy.”

John Reith (1889 – 1971), Scottish broadcasting executive and first director general of the BBC

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the BBC is one of the most widely used news providers in the UK and across the world. Each week, the BBC reaches nine out of ten UK adults. A 2020 poll of British adults found that of those that watch the news, 62% said they were most likely to turn to the BBC for accurate coverage. And in the 1990s, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the BBC World Service as “Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the future of the BBC in the streaming era. In 2018, the number of UK households with Netflix subscriptions overtook those using BBC iPlayer for the first time. The average age of BBC One, BBC Two and ITV viewers is now over 60. Some people are calling on the BBC and the British government to scrap the television license fee. If this goes ahead, the BBC would face a major funding crisis.

Word Watch

Martin Bashir
After the 1995 interview, Bashir worked for ITV and then US television networks. He returned to the BBC in 2016 as religion editor.
Camilla Parker Bowles
Parker Bowles married Prince Charles in 2005 and became the Duchess of Cornwall.
Panorama
A BBC investigative documentary series that first aired in 1953. It is the world’s longest running news television programme.
Scoop
A piece of news published by a news organisation in advance of its rivals.
Graphic designer
Matt Wiessler was asked by Bashir to produce the fake documents. He has called on BBC officials to apologise to him in person.
Whistleblower
A person who exposes activity within an organisation that is deemed illegal or inappropriate.
Wrongdoing
Tony Hall, who later became the BBC’s director general, failed to interview Earl Spencer in his 1996 inquiry.
Public spats
In his interview with Oprah in March, Prince Harry said he thought his brother was “trapped” in royal life.
Death
Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. The chauffeur was over the drink driving limit and lost control whilst speeding away from paparazzi.
430 million
This is more than six times the entire population of the United Kingdom.

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