The public service broadcaster BBC is facing a scandal of enormous proportions. It has filled not only the domestic but also the foreign press. In fact, an investigation has revealed that one of the most famous TV interviews of the century was manipulated and the BBC had hidden the manipulative practices of its editor for years.
It is openly said that this otherwise respected medium is losing credibility in the eyes of the British public. Although the BBC has apologised to those involved, its viewers are wondering whether it can still be trusted. Could the latest scandal affect its future structure and funding?
Following the hushed-up, alleged paedophile affair of ex-BBC presenter Jimmy Savile and the news coverage of an unproven allegation against a British politician from the Margaret Thatcher era, a new scandal has damaged the BBC's reputation. It concerns a particularly famous 1995 interview with Britain's Princess Diana, seen by millions of viewers not only in the UK but around the world.
Black sheep among the editors
High public interest in the royal family, Diana's crumbling marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, and the desire to come up with a sensational story motivated the then-unknown editor Martin Henry Bashir to seize the opportunity to get an exclusive "scalp" in a candid interview with a well-known member of the British royal family. The topic was the Queen of Hearts, Princess Diana. He fabricated false documents with the help of an accomplice, and then he approached the Princess's brother, Charles Spencer, to gain his trust with the document and access to Lady Di. He persuaded both of them not only with these documents, but also with fabricated stories about the Princess being followed by the Secret Intelligence Service, about bribed individuals in her inner circle leaking information to the media, and about a conspiracy within the royal family against her. The editor exploited her depression and fostered in her a sense of distrust of her surroundings. The princess was excited by the idea of doing an interview in the spirit of an intimate statement and opened up to the public in it. For the first time in history, a member of the royal family publicly revealed not only her state of mind, but also talked openly about her circumstances. Details of her marriage to the Prince of Wales or her health problems were leaked to the public for the first time. In addition to her husband's infidelity, she also admitted her affair with army Captain James Hewitt. An exclusive 'on-the-record' interview with Lady Di was broadcast on 20th November 1995 on the BBC as part of the still running Panorama documentary series deeply shaking the British monarchy. The editor, Martin Bashir, who transcended the boundaries of journalistic ethics, won international acclaim for it.
After a six-month investigation into the circumstances of the exclusive interview, the case's investigator and former judge, Lord John Dyson, pointed to facts that severely damaged the BBC's credibility. The inquiry's report found that editor Bashir had not only acted inappropriately, but had also breached the rules of journalistic ethics. He misled and manipulated his victim using fabricated information and false documents. A few days before Lord Dyson submitted his report, Bashir, now 58, reportedly left the BBC for health reasons. Bashir's superior at the time, former BBC Director-General Lord Tony Hall, has resigned from his current post at the head of the British National Gallery. Current BBC Director-General Tim Davie has apologised to members of the royal family and to Earl Charles Spencer and announced an internal purge of the corporation.
Damaged royal family
The reaction to the revelations has been growing public distrust and disgust from members of the royal family. The Princess's sons - Princes William and Harry - are not only criticising the editor's unethical practices and the BBC's failure, but are also calling for justice. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is demanding that the interview no longer be broadcast in light of the investigators' findings. In his statement, he says the false information "contributed significantly to the fear, paranoia and isolation" of his mother and continues "a false narrative that was created, from which the BBC and others have profited for more than a quarter of a century." Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has been one of the most vocal critics of the media, which he blames for his mother's death. The interview, according to the princes, destroyed their parents' relationship and, by feeding a false narrative for years, triggered an avalanche of events that culminated in Lady Di's fatal accident in Paris on the last day of August 1997. Although Martin Bashir has apologised to them for using false bank statements, he continues to insist on Diana's free consent to be interviewed.
Is the BBC going face tough times?
The BBC needs to resolve the situation not only by apologising, but more importantly by making amends. It has been a thorn in the side of the current government for a long time. Last year it faced the threat of a change in licence fee funding. Thanks to this scandal, reflections on the need to reform it, to change its structure and its funding, may take on clearer contours much sooner. Whether the BBC will regain its credibility and respectability in the eyes of the British public is entirely up to it.
Shadows of doubt
Twenty-five years ago, the public and the royal family wondered how a then-unknown journalist had managed to get his hands on such exclusive material. Even then, there were suspicions that Princess Diana had been tricked, manipulated or pressured into an interview by the editor. The Princess dismissed these speculations in her letter, saying that "I agreed to the interview without coercion and I do not regret it." Although the BBC had information as early as 1996 that Bashir had obtained Diana for an interview with the help of false documents, because of the growing interest in the interview from the public and other media outlets it swept the whole affair under the carpet and dismissed the editor with a reprimand. He returned to the BBC as religion correspondent again in 2016 after a successful career in the US, which was when the then Chief Executive of BBC News Lord Tony Hall became Director-General.
Earl Spencer testified
The latest investigation was triggered by Spencer's comments to the Daily Mail about a famous interview with Lady Di in November last year, in addition to a two-part documentary on Diana broadcast by a British private television station. Earl Charles Spencer made the accusation that Bashir had then shown him forged bank statements about bribing people in the princess's entourage in order to gain his trust and secure an introduction to his sister. In the same way, the BBC editor was also incriminated by the Earl of Spencer's personal notes about members of the Royal Family, which the Earl had obtained from Martin Bashir.