Updated: May 23, 2021 10:44:36 am
A year ahead of its 100th anniversary, the BBC — widely considered the cornerstone of the UK’s journalistic tradition — finds itself in the midst of a raging controversy over one of its biggest scoops yet. A recently released report based on an independent inquiry revealed that former BBC reporter Martin Bashir used deceitful means to obtain a sensational interview with Princess Diana in 1995, and his actions were covered up for decades by his bosses at the public broadcaster.
The BBC has since issued an unconditional apology for the controversial interview, in which Princess Diana divulged the details of her difficult marriage with her husband Prince Charles. When it first aired on television, the interview was said to have plunged the British monarchy into a once-in-a-generation crisis.
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More than two decades later, Princess Diana’s eldest son Prince William, who is second-in-line to the throne, accused the BBC of failing his mother by fuelling her paranoia and worsening her relationship with Prince Charles.
The backlash against the BBC is not limited to the royal family alone. The British government, too, has condemned the broadcaster for failing to abide by its own editorial standards. Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his concern, and several of his ministers warned of fresh reforms.
What happened in Princess Diana’s 1995 BBC interview?
The 55-minute interview, which was aired on BBC’s Panorama programme, featured Princess Diana giving a detailed account of her turbulent relationship with Prince Charles and opening up about his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who went on to become the Duchess of Cornwall.
“Well, there were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” she famously told Bashir. Diana also admitted to having been unfaithful to Charles in a five-year long affair with cavalry officer James Hewitt.
Soon after the birth of Prince William, Diana suffered from postnatal depression. She revealed that she had even tried to hurt herself during the painful period. When Bashir asked if her mental health issues affected her marriage, she said: “it gave everybody a wonderful new label – Diana’s unstable and Diana’s mentally unbalanced. And unfortunately that seems to have stuck on and off over the years.” She also spoke about her struggle with Bulimia.
She spoke extensively about the impact excessive media attention had on her mental health and her marriage. “Anything good I ever did, nobody ever said a thing, never said, `well done’, or `was it OK?’ But if I tripped up, which invariably I did, because I was new at the game, a ton of bricks came down on me,” she said.
The interview sent shockwaves across the country and was viewed by over 20 million people. Within a month of its release, Diana’s press secretary resigned and the Queen wrote to her and Prince Charles, urging them to get divorced.
Two years after the interview, Diana was killed in a car crash along with her partner Dodi Fayed while being chased by paparazzi on motorcycles.
Why was an inquiry into the interview launched in the first place?
In November last year, BBC announced that it had launched an investigation, headed by former Supreme Court Judge John Dyson, after Diana’s brother Earl Charles Spencer alleged yet again that Bashir had resorted to deceitful means to obtain the interview from his sister.
An article published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, in early 1996, claimed that Bashir had used bogus bank statements that showed royal employees close to the princess were being paid to spy on her in order to lure her into doing an interview with him. The fake statements allegedly showed payments of £10,500 to the former head of security for Earl Spencer from a publisher.
But this was not the first time allegations against Bashir arose. Many questions were raised even after the interview was first aired. The BBC carried out an investigation in 1996 and Bashir was cleared of all charges by the then-news chief, Tony Hall.
In a letter to BBC Director General Tim Davie in November, Earl Spencer urged the broadcaster to launch an independent inquiry. “I am not formally asking the BBC to open an inquiry into this matter; and I hope it will get to the bottom of key questions: Why did Tony Hall’s inquiry not seek the truth from me? Why did it bend over backwards to whitewash Bashir? Who else knew the extent of his yellow journalism when securing what Hall calls ‘the interview of the decade…or of the generation?” He wrote.
Bashir resigned from his role as religion editor at the BBC last week, citing health concerns. He has been unwell with Covid-related complications. His resignation came hours before Dyson’s report was submitted to BBC’s management.
What did the report say about the BBC?
Dyson’s latest inquiry report accuses the BBC of carrying out an inadequate investigation the first time around in 1996. The report points out that Earl Spencer was not interviewed during the first inquiry.
It states that Bashir’s account was not treated with “necessary scepticism and caution” even after he admitted to forging bank statements. The report also accused members of the BBC’s top management — including Tony Hall and Anne Sloman, a former radio current affairs producer who later became the BBC’s chief political adviser — of covering up facts about how Bashir managed to secure the interview in the first place.
“Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” the scathing report reads.
Following the release of the report, both the BBC and Bashir apologised. The public broadcaster also wrote to Diana’s sons Princes William and Harry as well as her brother Earl Spencer.
“The BBC should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew,” BBC Director-General Davie said. “While the BBC cannot turn back the clock after a quarter of a century, we can make a full and unconditional apology. The BBC offers that today.”
In a statement, Bashir apologised for using fake documents but said it was “saddening” the controversy had “been allowed to overshadow the princess’ brave decision to tell her story”.
What does this mean for the future of the BBC?
Soon after the inquiry report, the British government warned of potential action against the publicly-funded broadcaster. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that it highlighted the “damning failings at the heart of the BBC”, adding that ministers were looking into whether further governance reforms were required.
During his 10 PM news show on Thursday, BBC host Amol Rajan said that the scathing inquiry report has left the broadcaster “severely injured”. “For an organization that exists on the whim of public affection and respect, that is a dreadful place for the BBC to be,” he said.
The report comes at a crucial juncture for the BBC, as its annual license fee funding model has been under the scanner particularly off late. As per this model, the BBC receives a compulsory license fee from the British people to run all of its programming. If the fee is lifted, the BBC could potentially lose 10 per cent of its budget, the New York Times reported. But according to media analysts, the fee will remain in place till 2027, when public-service broadcasting in Britain is next slated to be reviewed.
In January, the British government said it would not go ahead with plans to ‘decriminalise’ non-payment of the TV license fee, but would continue to actively consider the issue. The BBC has opposed demands to switch to a civil subscription system, stating that it would cost it over £1 billion and would also impact programming to a great extent.
Critics have long accused the broadcaster of significantly dialling down on its criticism of the government. By pressurising the BBC and threatening to cut its finances, many say the British government is also able to extend some amount of control over its news coverage.
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