Diana, Princess of Wales plunged the BBC into crisis even before her Panorama interview was aired, the lies and forged documents behind it were exposed, and the UK broadcaster was dragged, 25 years later, into yet another scandal over editorial standards and a cover-up culture.
Recorded on Guy Fawkes day in 1995 and secretly edited in an Eastbourne hotel, the super-scoop by the journalist Martin Bashir was, from its inception, understood to be a historic gamble for a public corporation whose existence depends on a royal charter, and the consent of licence fee payers and the government.
So sensitive was the decision that Lord John Birt, the director-general at the time, kept his own chair Marmaduke Hussey, an arch monarchist, in the dark until Diana had described her “crowded” marriage on tape. Birt faced calls for his resignation before 23m viewers had even tuned in to watch it. “I had the chilling sense that a few centuries earlier my head would literally have rolled for the crime committed,” he wrote in his memoirs.
His reasons for approving the interview — the need to move with audience demands in what Birt saw as a more democratic age — cut to the heart of the repercussions for the BBC today: the threat of losing audience support.
“Modern institutions in the end have to operate as the public would wish — and we did,” Birt told Robert Fellowes, the Queen’s then private secretary. “And they have no choice any longer but to be completely transparent. There are no long-lasting secrets at the BBC.”
A quarter century on, that proved true. An official inquiry finally laid bare Bashir’s web of deceit in securing the interview and the cover-up that followed, leaving the BBC facing a firestorm of criticism from Diana’s sons and ministers. Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, remarked on the “damning failings” potentially requiring a rethink of governance.
Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive of media watchdog Ofcom, said Dyson’s report raised “important questions about the BBC’s transparency and accountability”. She added that the regulator would be discussing with the BBC “what further actions may be needed to ensure that this situation can never be repeated”.
Bashir resigned from the BBC last week on grounds of ill health and on Friday Tim Suter, a former BBC News executive who was involved in the original in-house investigation, stepped down from the Ofcom board.
The episode has left the BBC scrambling to retain the confidence of the public — who have watched the heir to the throne Prince William accuse it of betraying his parents and fuelling his mother’s “fear, paranoia and isolation”.
It leaves a dangerously open flank for the BBC’s enemies in Westminster and “Fleet Street”.
“In one sense, it’s 25 years ago and the BBC is a completely different place — it is already much more overseen by outside bodies, it has much less revenue — so the notion that the BBC is the same place as 25 years ago is wrong,” said Jean Seaton, the official BBC historian. “But it does undoubtedly give parts of the government — if they fail to see the importance of the BBC for the future — a case that moves the British public.”
The failings uncovered from 1995, and the “woefully ineffective” investigation that followed, are devastating — and have prompted apologies from all involved. The misconduct does not have the industrial scale of the UK’s tabloid phone hacking scandal, nor a chain of responsibility leading to individuals still serving at the top of the BBC’s news organisation.
But there is no doubt about the deep questions it raises for the BBC, which until last year was run by Lord Tony Hall, who led one of the most heavily criticised investigations into Bashir’s conduct in 1996. Despite being aware of the use of faked documents, he found him to be “honest and honourable” and, later as director-general, blessed Bashir’s return to the BBC in a senior reporting position.
“In most organisations they would have called the police and instantly dismissed Bashir for deceit,” said Mark Stephens, a prominent media lawyer at Howard Kennedy. “Instead the BBC made him their religious correspondent.” One former BBC executive of that era said: “The euphoria of landing the scoop of the century just blinded them.”
Hall’s departure last year means he is fighting an uphill battle to keep his job as chair of the National Gallery, rather than at the head of the BBC. One government insider noted his next meeting with his the galleries’ patron — Prince Charles — might be “quite difficult”.
Rather than the leadership, the immediate threat to Tim Davie and the BBC he took charge of last June is more political and financial.
Since his appointment as Hall’s successor, Davie has smoothed relations with Boris Johnson’s Number 10, in part by embracing its priorities: pride in flags and impartiality in news coverage. The Bashir scandal may reawaken the debate about metropolitan bias, embolden critics, and potentially prompt the government to take a more aggressive approach.
Dowden is satisfied the overall structure of the BBC — with a revamped board and direct oversight by the media regulator Ofcom — has reduced the risks of another Bashir incident. But he is open to ideas for reform in the BBC’s upcoming mid-charter review.
Lord Michael Grade, the former BBC chair, suggested creating a new editorial board for journalistic standards, saying “platitudes” would not cut it this time. Johnson, prime minister, notably said on Friday it was “up to the BBC” to ensure nothing like the Bashir scandal happened again.
There are potentially financial repercussions too. Lawyers expect the BBC to face significant compensation claims from victims, who include members of the royal household who lost their jobs as a result of made-up allegations of spying on Diana.
Davie is also locked in negotiations with the government over the level of the licence fee, making the case for a bigger BBC budget over the next five years. Given it is essentially a plea for more taxpayer generosity, the timing of the Bashir scandal could hardly be worse.
“Of course this is a stick that critics of the BBC will use to beat it with,” said Pat Younge, a former BBC executive who chairs the British Broadcasting Challenge, a campaign group pressuring the government over its review of public service media. “And the BBC is also a world leader in beating itself up at times like this.”