The Bashir scandal: are the Tories being unfair about the BBC?

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The BBC has been on plenty of front pages in the past month, rather than being in the more comfortable position of being behind them, due to the explosive revelations of journalistic conduct from the Dyson report.

The, quite frankly, scandalous actions of Martin Bashir in his quest to make that Princess Diana interview have shifted the vultures of the news cycle away from the small fry of easing coronavirus restrictions to what BBC Director General Tim Davie has described as a ‘feeding frenzy’ by MPs and journalists alike on the crumbling reputation of the BBC. 

But could this really be the beginning of the end for the BBC? Or, can we see an undercurrent of a sinister political motive behind the Bashir headlines that says more about the uncertain future of the BBC than public opinion ever could?

For those who managed to miss the deluge of news reports on the Martin Bashir scandal, I’m impressed. To give a quick summary of the Dyson report: the journalist Martin Bashir has been found to have falsified bank statements of News International paying money to Earl Spencer, as a way of enticing the Earl to persuade Princess Diana to give that now infamous Panorama interview, where she revealed that Prince Charles was having an affair with his now-wife Camilla. It’s almost like an episode of Made in Chelsea, but the drama doesn’t stop here. 

Even though the initial outrage from the public and the Royal Family centred around Bashir’s somewhat dodgy journalistic practice, to me it seems as if the narrative quickly shifted to the role of the BBC in all this.

Even though the initial outrage from the public and the Royal Family centred around Bashir’s somewhat dodgy journalistic practice, to me it seems as if the narrative quickly shifted to the role of the BBC in all this. The Dyson report alludes to a claim that Bashir perhaps was not just a bad apple, but that through the internal investigation shortly after the interview was aired, the whole BBC barrel was turned bad through stinking allegations of a cover-up.

As such, there is much more to this story than just the malpractice of Bashir, but the report casts doubt on the integrity and truth-based journalistic values of the BBC as the well-respected public broadcasting institution it is today. For example, the Dyson report highlights the failings of the internal investigation into Bashir’s conduct, as they did not properly consider the claims of malpractice at that time against him, principally by the graphic designer Matt Wiessler, whom Bashir employed to produce those fake bank statements. 

Even at that stage people were starting to smell a rat in the wake of that interview – the rat being the later Director-General Lord Hall, who ran the investigation at the time and later in 2016 rehired Bashir as religion editor, to reward him on his ‘enterprising journalism’. This ‘old boy’s club’ style of recruitment is hardly a good look for the BBC now, is it?

The implications of such findings for the reputation of the BBC are huge, as it damages public confidence and perception of the publicly funded corporation as the protector of truth-based journalism in this dangerous world of social media-fuelled ‘fake news’. Even the government has waded in on this criticism of the BBC’s failings of ethical journalism in Bashir’s case, with the culture secretary Oliver Dowden writing in The Times that essentially the corporation had to ‘back their ideas up’ if they wanted future government support for the licence fee, something that riles up Tory backbenches enough as it is. 

In many ways this Bashir scandal has gone beyond the smell of a bad apple into the stench of nationalist threat-making, and I for one fear for the prospects of our beloved BBC if this ‘feeding frenzy’ continues.

It’s funny that they didn’t kick up such a fuss about the ‘Phone Hacking Scandal’, but perhaps that’s the kind of journalistic behaviour we would all expect from The Sun, rather than our beloved BBC News. To understand the implications of the Bashir scandal for the future of the BBC, we need to highlight the government criticism drawing from the findings of the Dyson report. For that we need to follow one trail in particular – the money.

The BBC is currently funded almost entirely by licence fee payers, who have to pay to access BBC services from the television and so have a stake in what they are paying for. This makes the BBC different from conventional news outlets as they literally rely on their audiences to fund them, which is where greater accountability and integrity come in. 

However, some Tory MPs dislike this system as the licence fee is not technically a general taxation, which ultimately allows the BBC to still remain outside of the bounds of government control, despite the government dictating the terms of the Royal Charter (a code of conduct or agenda of sorts for the BBC). 

But what does this all have to do with Bashir? Emerging trends coming out of the mouth of Priti Patel seem to show the government trying to reduce the political power of the BBC as the ‘protector of truth’, and this Bashir business plays into the hands of such destruction. As Oliver Dowden put it, the BBC will need to “step up to project British values” if it wants to count on future government support for licence fee funding. 

In many ways this Bashir scandal has gone beyond the smell of a bad apple into the stench of nationalist threat-making, and I for one fear for the prospects of our beloved BBC if this ‘feeding frenzy’ continues.

Image: Sam McGhee via Unsplash

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