Trust is key to BBC’s survival – so it must learn from Martin Bashir scandal

Analysis: a revered public service broadcaster cannot be seen to have an ‘end justifies the means’ mentality

Lord Dyson’s report into how the BBC obtained and then investigated Martin Bashir’s groundbreaking interview is devastating: its star journalist lied, the BBC’s own investigation was “woefully inadequate” and then the BBC covered up this appalling behaviour for 26 years.

The 127-page report goes into excruciating detail of how senior executives – one of whom went on to become the director general – “too readily accepted” Bashir’s own version of events in an attempt to safeguard an award-winning interview that continues to have reverberations to this day.

The most damaging line for the BBC, perhaps, is that it “fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark”. In an age of fake or overtly politicised news, the BBC’s position at the top of polls for trusted sources of information is its most powerful weapon in the fight for survival against commercial, social and political attack.

Yet the most dangerous part of Lord Dyson’s report is in some ways the section he helpfully called “Issues that I have not addressed in this report”. Unless the BBC truly addresses them, internally as well as externally, then the allegations that the Bashir scandal was not about a “rogue reporter” but a cultural indifference will never truly go away. And the BBC is too important for this to happen.

The first question is why on earth Martin Bashir was reemployed in 2016 as the BBC’s religion editor. The fact that just five years ago, senior BBC management were happy to overlook questions about his methods suggests it can still be prone to an “end justifies the means” mentality, which has no place in a revered public service broadcaster.

This isn’t to say that the BBC should not chase groundbreaking interviews and exclusive stories – but when its desire to create headlines clashes with siren warnings about methods, things usually go wrong. Different in so many ways, the scandal over Jimmy Savile and the helicopter pursuit of Sir Cliff Richard share an astonishing ability to ignore warning signs.

Does the rehiring of Bashir – who had also worked for ITV and US networks by 2016 – suggest a culture in which obvious questions are not asked if the answer could be unpalatable?

The BBC’s political enemies in Fleet Street and Downing Street have already rushed to draw comparisons between Bashir – using forged financial documents to convince someone to talk about their personal lives – and the phone-hacking scandal, which revealed the ethical darkness at the height of the tabloid newspaper industry.

There are several reasons this is nonsense – not least the fact that the BBC commissioned its own independent report into the scandal rather than wait for the government to do so – yet a failure to look beyond the “rogue reporter” argument will not work either.

Perhaps the most damning issue Dyson declined to address is whether there was a general “culture at the BBC of hostility towards whistleblowers”.

Talk to past and present BBC employees and it comes as no surprise that the man who first tried to question Bashir’s tactics – Matt Wiessler, a freelance graphic designer – is the person who lost his job. Wiessler’s treatment is the most appalling part of this whole episode.

There is no doubt how important Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana was: it redefined the monarchy’s relationship with the media and its focus on the real people at the heart of an institution continues to have ramifications today. Lord Dyson opens his report by calling it a “sensational triumph”.

Questions over whether questionable methods justified the end result should have been dealt with a quarter of a century ago, and were not.

That these findings, focused on events in 1996, are finally being aired now is not just bad timing for the BBC: it could be devastating for us all. An open letter defending the BBC against attack, signed by 120 heavyweight backers, was released on the very morning of the Dyson report.

Supporters should never be blind to someone’s failures. If the BBC is to survive, as it must, it needs to learn from its mistakes of the past 26 years.

Contributor

Jane Martinson

The GuardianTramp

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