24 May 2021

Is the BBC really the people’s public service broadcaster?


No one who’s actually watched Princess Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir could doubt that she was saying exactly what she wanted to. The brutal honesty with which she spoke about her troubled marriage, her post-natal depression and her bulimia was the opposite of the stiff upper lip we expect from the Royals. In this Oprah era, where everyone has their truth to tell, it’s easy to forget the stigma that used to surround mental health, and how much Diana did to change that.

The Dyson Report into the circumstances surrounding the 1995 Panorama interview acknowledges that she wanted to give a television interview, and would likely have agreed to speak to any reputable reporter. She had already told her life story to the biographer Andrew Morton and had lines to take in the interview prepared. Bashir’s bizarre faked bank statements duped her brother, not her. In fact, as the report again acknowledges, she wrote a note saying she had not seen them.

Yet everyone, including her own sons, seems to prefer to believe she was manipulated than that she made her own choices. The accusation that she was ‘unstable’ was used in her own lifetime to dismiss her. That same logic underpins the idea that she was a fragile, paranoid woman who was tricked into giving a sensational interview, which in turn stoked the salacious fascination with her life that ultimately killed her. In this narrative she’s cast as somehow both the victim and the architect of her own downfall.

But a dispassionate viewing of the Panorama programme does not back this up. She is calm, candid and clear eyed in her assessment of her predicament. She clearly saw giving the interview as a moment of catharsis and a chance to take back control of her own story. But since the film is no longer available, she has been denied that opportunity. Yet again it is left to men and institutions to determine her legacy while her own words and wishes are expunged from the record.

None of this is to excuse Bashir, his actions were cruel and deceitful and the subsequent cover up was worse. Tabloid newspapers were raked over the coals during the Leveson inquiry for less harmful ethical breaches, now we know that the sanctimonious BBC was no better. There are serious questions to answer about why Bashir was rehired by the corporation in 2016, even though the dodgy circumstances around the Diana interview had been investigated internally, and after he’d been fired from American network NBC for grotesque comments about Sarah Palin.

But this isn’t the BBC’s biggest problem. The involvement of Diana in the scandal makes it a headline-grabbing peg on which to hang old grievances, but what Bashir got up to in the 90s doesn’t actually have that much bearing on how the BBC maintains its relevance today. The corporation’s entire model is hopelessly outdated. A licence fee makes no sense in an era when consumers have so much choice – by 2027, when the charter is up for renewal again, it will be a total anachronism. Young people who’ve grown up with streaming services will be baffled by the idea that they should pay for content they don’t use.

Likewise, the notion of ‘impartiality’ is becoming difficult to sustain in an age of social media. The case of a BBC journalist covering the conflict in Gaza who had previously tweeted that ‘Hitler was right’ is an extreme and unacceptable instance. But there’s plenty of softer bias at the BBC, and it’s frankly illogical to expect everyone to leave their personal views behind the minute they walk through the door at Broadcasting House. Channel 4 makes no such pretence even though it too is publicly owned. As new commercial competitors, like GB News, enter the fray the BBC’s contortions in the name of balance could start to look increasingly tedious.

The Government has long been eyeing reform and, as the Culture Secretary has written in The Times today, it will use the mid-term review of the BBC’s charter, due next year to push ahead. This may strike fear into the heart of what AA Gill called ‘the Tristams’, but it shouldn’t. British people love the BBC and support the principles of public service broadcasting. The corporation also has powerful lobbyists in the likes of Sir David Attenborough. With such a strong brand it really shouldn’t be afraid to compete more openly in the market.

I don’t have the answer to how to make the BBC sustainable, but sitting on a taxpayer funded high horse boasting about standards as scandal after scandal snuffs out the credibility of such claims isn’t it. The BBC should embrace change or risk being extinguished, like a candle in the wind.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.