It was “the BBC’s greatest day of shame in a century,” opined the Daily Mail, which devoted a full 20 pages to the devastating Dyson report into the broadcaster’s handling of Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana.
The Sun, meanwhile, devoted eight pages to the “BBC’s Diana shame”, almost as many as the nine it produced the day after the award-winning interview aired in 1995.
It is perhaps inevitable that the BBC’s scandalous behaviour, covered up for so long and largely uncovered by newspapers, should have opened the floodgates to such gleeful score-settling, as well as howling delight that a rival news organisation, held to a different, impartial code of conduct, had got it so very wrong.
Most editorials about the “BBC’s Day of Shame” looked back not over the 99 years of BBC history, nor the 25 years of this shameful episode, but just 10, to the newspaper industry’s own dark days of the phone hacking scandal.
“What a hullabaloo the BBC raised when rogue elements of the red-top press were accused of phone hacking,” intoned the Mail, reverting to the “rogue reporter” line discredited in both scandals.
It went on to blame the BBC’s “blanket coverage” of that time for hastening the closure of the News of the World and triggering the Leveson inquiry “with chilling implications for media freedom”. Rather than blaming the illegal interception of private messages, many of them involving the young royals.
A full-page comment by Andrew Neil, described as a “giant of broadcasting and ex-BBC star” and not the founder of a soon-to-launched BBC rival, blamed Bashir’s lies and the subsequent cover-up for Diana’s death. The BBC “scaled the moral high ground during the great Fleet Street phone hacking scandal,” he wrote. “All the while drawing a veil over its own cesspit.” “Their stinking hypocrisy is not lost on us,” fulminated the Sun.
Not one of these many thousands of words mentioned the tabloid press’s own role in hounding Diana. To be fair, much has already been written about Earl Spencer’s eulogy at his sister’s funeral in which he said she had wanted to leave England “mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers”.
There is plenty more evidence that a journalistic culture that turned a blind eye to unethical means while fixating on the scoop-filled ends was not restricted to the BBC.
Stuart Higgins, the former Sun editor, makes a brief but telling appearance in the excoriating Panorama documentary about the scandal, saying of the interview in 1995: “There’s so much material here that we’re devoting at least nine pages to it.”
Before becoming editor, Higgins was a royal reporter who won awards for his scoops. While he was editor, the paper published an exclusive about the Queen ordering Diana and Charles to divorce. He was also allegedly involved when the paper paid £100,000 for a fake video of the princess in a clinch with a stranger.
None of which detracts from the fact of BBC wrongdoing. As its own media editor, Amol Rajan, wrote, the Dyson report “shows a catalogue of moral, professional and editorial failures”.
In a tweet, however, David Yelland, who replaced Higgins as editor of the Sun, wrote of the coverage: “All those in glass houses, editors past and present, should pause before attacking the BBC and remember Bashir, then, was typical of our culture. The Beeb is still a national asset, a prized thing, a force for good.” The same could be said of all ethical journalism.
The BBC faces enormous challenges from a government run by a man sacked from the Times for making up quotes and yet whose ministers continually threaten to change its governance and otherwise cut it down to size.
Newspapers also face an existential crisis brought about not just by the economic turmoil of the digital transition, but by the onslaught of fake news and the spread of misinformation.
The term “pious hypocrisy” was used by many papers – the Times as well as the Mail and the Sun – to describe the BBC. Yet newspapers’ own hypocrisy – at the very least a return to the “rogue” reporter argument – will surely not help now.