Britain’s storied BBC is preparing for its centennial next year, but the public broadcaster has been plunged into a major crisis of trust, linked to a notorious television interview with Princess Diana a quarter-century ago, and is now finding itself heading into a fight for its very survival.
Last week, an independent inquiry led by a former judge, John Dyson, found that an explosive 1995 BBC interview with Princess Diana had been secured through deception, fraud and forgery. As the publicly-funded BBC prides itself on its high ethical standards and transparency, the finding is calamitous, say opponents, including lawmakers and media rivals.
According to Dyson, reporter Martin Bashir faked bank documents suggesting that members of the royal household were paid to keep Princess Diana under surveillance during her acrimonious break-up with Prince Charles, heir to the British throne. Bashir showed the fake bank statements to Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, persuading him to introduce him to his sister. Bashir then lied to Diana, fueling her anger and paranoia about the royal family.
The end result was the 1995 interview in which Princess Diana disclosed to the world that there were “three people” in her marriage to Prince Charles, who continued an affair with a longtime paramour, Camilla, now his second wife. The royal family arguably has never recovered from the impact of the most devastating interview in the history of the British monarchy.
Bashir’s deception had long been rumored and was investigated in 1996 by the BBC but he was cleared of wrongdoing. Dyson found that the BBC’s top management colluded in and then covered-up Bashir’s unethical behavior.
“If this were only a story about one rogue reporter, the BBC would still be hanging its collective head in shame. But this is a genuine crisis for the corporation, which is paid for by a compulsory license fee on British viewers and given its charter by royal assent,” Martin Ivens, a former editor of Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, noted in a column for Bloomberg. The Sunday Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose papers have long campaigned against the BBC.
Amid the mounting public outcry, Conservative Party critics and other long-term foes, including commercial rivals, of the BBC have seized on the scandal, hoping to advance their efforts to defund the public broadcaster — or at very least to force root-and-branch reform that would change the public broadcaster forever, diminishing its reach and weakening its finances.
Both of Diana’s sons, princes William and Harry, have condemned the BBC. In a statement, Prince William blamed the BBC for fueling his mother's fears and paranoia and worsening his parents’ relationship. The interview “effectively established a false narrative which, for over a quarter of a century, has been commercialized by the BBC and others,” he said. Both sons have suggested the interview and its consequences contributed to the events leading towards their mother's untimely death, which occurred two years after the BBC interview.
London’s Metropolitan Police are assessing whether a criminal investigation is warranted. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said Dyson’s “devastating” findings will add urgency to the government’s 2019 election promise to consider whether the corporation's governance should be reformed.
Tim Davie, who took over as the BBC’s director general last year, said the public broadcaster accepts Dyson’s findings and is “very sorry” for the corporation's failures around Martin Bashir's 1995 interview. “If you're an organization that cares about truthful, honest journalism and proper practice, I think it's a very difficult read,” Davie said in an interview with his own broadcaster.
In a letter to staff, he said lessons must be learnt. He added: “Personally, I am deeply proud of the BBC that I run today, as I know you all are. We should all take pride in continuing to work for the world’s leading public service broadcaster.”
The Bashir scandal follows a string of embarrassing setbacks for the BBC. They include the failure to investigate longstanding sexual abuse allegations, later proven, against some of the BBC’s top radio and television personalities. The BBC has also been lambasted for accepting with little skepticism allegations about a pedophile ring at the heart of the British establishment. Those allegations turned out to be false.
The ruling Conservatives have long had a strained and ambivalent relationship with the BBC, which they accuse of liberal bias. Then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was furious with the BBC for its coverage of the 1982 Falklands War. She thought it lacked patriotism. Meanwhile, libertarians object in principle to public funds being used to finance a broadcaster.
The BBC is funded largely by an annual television license fee charged to all British households, businesses and organizations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts. The annual fee is $225. The Conservatives pledged in 2019 to review its funding. There has been a growing movement in recent years to abolish license fees, and a growing number of Britons have been refusing to pay it.
In the next few weeks, a rival television news service, GB News, will launch, founded by among others a former BBC star, Andrew Neil, who says a counterweight is needed against what he argues is the BBC’s leftist bias. The new competitor is being financed partly by America’s Discovery Channel.
Last week, Neil launched a ferocious attack on the BBC in an article for Britain’s Daily Mail, a fervent critic of the public broadcaster, arguing “Bashir played on [Diana’s] growing paranoia that somehow the British ‘Establishment’ was out to get her.”
He says the rot goes “right to the top.”
But the BBC's defenders say it is respected both in Britain and around the world for its reliability and the strength of its journalism. They highlight how in times of crisis, it is the preferred news source for Britons over commercial rivals. Ninety-three percent of the British population tuned in to BBC television or radio during the first two weeks of the 2003 war in Iraq, according to surveys.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the start of strict new coronavirus restrictions, double the number of viewers tuned in to the BBC compared to commercial rivals.
Nonetheless, the BBC has found it increasingly difficult to compete when it comes to documentaries and dramas with a slew of well-funded and commercially successful streaming rivals, from Netflix to Apple TV+. And the BBC has found it increasingly difficult to appeal at the same time to both younger viewers and older ones. Many older Britons still affectionately call the public broadcaster by an ironic 1940s nickname “Auntie,” short for “Auntie Knows Best,” a reference to the public broadcaster’s pre-war reputation for prudishness and paternalism.
“There's no need for the BBC,” according to Alex Deane, a PR consultant and former Conservative government adviser. He says resentment toward the BBC is not based on right or left politics but instead is rooted in “cultural issues and topics like Brexit and patriotism.” And he says in the digital age, there are plenty of commercial news and entertainment sources.
Its defenders disagree. “The BBC is our most important cultural institution, our best-value entertainment provider, and the global face of Britain. It’s our most trusted news source in a world of divisive disinformation,” according to authors Patrick Barwise and Peter York. In a recently published book, “The War Against the BBC,” the pair argue a “combination of hostile forces is trying to destroy Britain’s greatest cultural institution.”
They say the BBC is “the whole British nation in all its untidy variety and, at the same time, one of its glories.”