It doesn’t take much to whip up the grumpy malcontents sniping at the BBC into a “something-must-be-done” frenzy, so Lord Dyson’s report was a godsend.
Ministers, newspapers and MPs say his findings into the Martin Bashir affair demonstrate that there’s a crisis in BBC editorial standards. Charles Moore, who the prime minister had hoped would chair the corporation, says the problem is “systemic”.
The malcontents always trade in angry absolutes and they are wrong.
Bashir’s behaviour is a 26-year-old aberration. I have never come across anyone like him in television journalism. His clever, calculating stealth, deployed to ensnare into his confidence Charles Spencer and his sister, is breathtaking: somehow get the bank details of a Spencer ex-employee; get a graphic artist to mock up the employee’s bank statements purporting to show secret payments from Rupert Murdoch and a front company for the intelligence services; write to Spencer on BBC letter-headed paper spinning a yarn about months of sleuthing into press malpractice having turned up information he “simply” felt he ought to “share” with Spencer; and finally present these forgeries to him: “Your family is being spied on. Trust me.” The rest is history.
The cry goes up for new editorial controls at the BBC. “They’re very weak,” opines Moore. The opposite is true. Outright deceit is wholly atypical of BBC journalism.
I speak now as a freelance, so this is not special pleading. BBC journalists are required to submit to a multitude of “safeguarding” courses on trust, BBC values, impartiality, risk assessment and limitations on the use of subterfuge.
The malcontents appear to have little idea about the hoops programme-makers must go through to get contentious stuff on air. BBC journalists blowing the whistle on malpractice are also now protected. But process solutions alone won’t deter a lone rogue reporter determined to do whatever it takes to land a scoop.
For those who bang on about a lack of impartiality, yes, there has been some grandstanding by presenters who really should know better. And right up to the moment the BBC commissioned Dyson, the corporation’s public statements about Bashir were far too defensive when the radar showed a storm approaching. But by and large, BBC journalists work hard at dispassion.
They certainly need no lessons in balanced reporting from the malcontents who’ve routinely failed to balance their charge of “cover up” by BBC management in 1996 with credit for the BBC’s blanket coverage on Dyson’s blistering findings and our Panorama special, which didn’t exactly pull its punches: “The story that until now the BBC never wanted you to hear.” Some malcontents have no idea how well served is the national conversation by the world’s leading public service broadcaster.
The ultimate health test of any broadcaster is the extent to which it is prepared to wash its dirty linen in public. On Dyson, the BBC has proved that in spades, as it has with previous BBC crises both investigating and reporting its failings (Hutton and Savile) with unsparing honesty. No other media organisation or political party has come close to being so transparent and accountable to its stakeholders.
As for the certainty with which the malcontents insist there was a plot by BBC management to cover up the truth, it is just possible that Tony (now Lord) Hall and colleagues became willing dupes who fell for Bashir’s elaborate fantasies and manipulative machinations. At the conclusion of his interview with Hall, the artful Bashir shed tears of “contrition” that generated the “foolish but honest” verdict Hall served up to his fellow managers and BBC governors. There is evidence in favour of both verdicts, but none of it is clinching either way. And while Dyson, a former supreme court judge, finds that press logs about how Bashir had secured his scoop with Diana were “covered up”, he stopped short of labelling Hall’s “woefully ineffective” investigation as a conspiracy.
One thing is clear: the last person qualified to pronounce on whether there was a conspiracy is the very politician in charge of scrutinising the corporation on behalf of parliament. Julian Knight, who chairs the Commons digital, culture, media and sports committee, suggests Bashir might have been rehired by the BBC in 2016 as religious affairs correspondent to “keep his mouth shut”. It is true that Bashir’s interview panel never asked him a question about his chequered career with ITV and the American networks ABC and MSNBC or his skulduggery over Diana.
But rehiring Bashir to stop him outing himself, triggering the catastrophic end to his career that has now befallen him? A truly bizarre logic.
The reason Bashir got the religion job seems to be more prosaic: he beat the other candidates. Embracing Christianity in his late teens, Bashir won over the panel with his knowledge of theology. Asked by the then head of news and current affairs, James Harding, to explain the difference between the Pauline doctrine (the teachings and writings of St Paul the Apostle) and the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Bashir apparently acquitted himself brilliantly. Harding, himself a theology buff, was duly impressed.
In his only post-Dyson interview, Bashir has sought redemption by claiming that he was “properly repentant of what happened” because he admitted that faking the bank statements was a “serious error” for which he was “deeply sorry”. Yet he’s still sticking to his line that he did this only after striking up a trusting relationship with Diana, so how could the forgeries have had anything to do with getting introduced to her? The answer is because Bashir has flipped the chronology. The evidence shows he schemed all this out three weeks before meeting her.
For all the post-Dyson ballyhoo over Bashirgate, there aren’t that many lessons for the BBC to learn – other than the fact that Martin “whatever it takes” Bashir is a one-off: shameless and irrepressible. That and the fact that incuriosity, if that was indeed Lord Hall’s failing, is one of journalism’s biggest sins.