Diana interview: The world needs the BBC to reform

New inquiry into Princess Diana's interview could not have come at a worse time for public broadcasting

Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the television program Panorama. (Photo by © Pool Photograph/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

The BBC is hardly a stranger to crises of various kinds and rows with powerful political figures. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was furious when the BBC interviewed IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland and gave them – as she put it – the “oxygen of publicity".

Over the years when I presented what was billed as the BBC's "flagship" TV news and current affairs programme, Newsnight, our editors made two catastrophic errors. One editor halted an investigation into the popular BBC TV personality Jimmy Savile because – in that editor's view – the researchers had not found enough evidence that Savile was a sexual predator. When that evidence did emerge, the BBC's failures were brutally exposed. Then the BBC ran a report wrongly claiming a leading Conservative member of the House of Lords was himself a sexual predator. He wasn't. The accusations were utterly false, and after this shameful episode, George Entwistle, the BBC director general at the time, was forced to quit after only 54 days in the job.

However, none of these crises is as serious as the way in which the BBC's reputation has been damaged by the extraordinary events surrounding the famous interview with the late Princess Diana a generation ago on the BBC's Panorama programme.

The Panorama reporter, Martin Bashir, secured the "scoop of the century" in 1995. It was the first time a serving member of the British royal family had spoken out on television candidly about her unhappy marriage and other usually private matters. Tens of millions of people around the world watched this BBC scoop, but from the start there were rumours about how the interview was obtained.

As we now know for certain, Bashir forged documents to try to persuade Diana to take part. His conduct was despicable. An organisation based on truth and facts cannot conduct its business through deceit.

Bashir left the BBC to work in the US for many years, yet he was re-employed by the BBC as a religious affairs correspondent in 2016 despite some senior figures – including the then BBC director general Tony Hall – knowing of the serious allegations against him.

Following a new inquiry, Diana's son, Prince William, has been justifiably outraged. His mother was failed "by leaders at the BBC who looked the other way rather than asking the tough questions", he said, and the BBC contributed to the "fear, paranoia and isolation" that blighted his mother's life.

This sorry affair has deeply disappointed those who – like me – generally admire the BBC. It has also delighted the corporation’s enemies. These enemies include some British newspapers who are hopeful that the BBC will now be much diminished – even though these same newspaper journalists and editors themselves made Diana’s life a misery. Her story, her beauty and her unhappiness sold their papers to a public hungry for every detail about her life.

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 1995 file photo a selection of front pages of most of Britains's national newspapers showing their reaction to Princess Diana's television interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir. Prince William and his brother Prince Harry have issued strongly-worded statements criticizing the BBC and British media for unethical practices after an investigation found that Bashir used "deceitful behavior" to secure Princess Diana's most explosive TV interview in 1995. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver, File)
A 1995 file photo showing a selection of front pages of most of Britain's national newspapers. AP Photo

This is the worst BBC crisis I can think of, and it comes at the worst possible time.

The very idea of public service broadcasting worldwide is being questioned as never before. From Netflix and podcasts to new privately funded radio and TV channels, the idea of British people paying a licence fee – in effect, a tax – to fund the BBC has been undermined by technology as well as by commercial competitors. In the US, the impact of Fox News and similar outlets has been to downgrade hard, factual journalism and replace it with fact-free and loudmouthed opinions. The result has been the polarisation of American public life, and a loss of trust in truth itself.

This is an existential crisis for an organisation that has been a pillar of British democracy and a beacon to much of the world for a century

All this means that the new director general, Tim Davie, has three urgent tasks to ensure the BBC’s survival.

First, he has to reassure the British public who pay for the corporation, that he will make sure such conduct never happens again. That may mean setting up a new independent supervisory board of some kind.

Second, he has to demonstrate to the government and Parliament that the BBC can produce new regulatory arrangements independent enough to root out bad conduct.

Third, he has to reassure BBC staff that honest and hard-hitting journalism is still possible, because if the BBC is neutered, the best and brightest creative minds will go elsewhere.

None of this will be easy but this is an existential crisis for an organisation that has been a pillar of British democracy and a beacon to much of the world for a century. Politicians are already talking about cutting or freezing the BBC's funding. BBC journalists are worried that a diminished or cowed corporation will be too scared to scrutinise political figures for fear of yet another row and the government's revenge.

Davie has managed – at last – to address the 25 years of rumours and innuendo about Bashir’s conduct, and what seems to me to be the inexplicable decision to re-employ Bashir in 2016. The next few months will decide whether he can build on the BBC’s glorious past and steer it through the troubles of the present to turn public service broadcasting towards a better future.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National