BBC's Princess Diana interview scandal is just the tip of the corporation's problems – John McLellan

Ten years ago, when I was Scotsman editor, I foolishly agreed to be interviewed on Radio 4’s Media Show programme by its star presenter, the late Steve Hewlett, after a calamitous error had led to a hefty defamation settlement.

Diana, Princess of Wales, during her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC (Picture: BBC/PA Wire)

An otherwise straight and sound story cost us over £20,000 in damages, and not only was I responsible as editor, but I was also a Press Complaints Commissioner at a time when the phone-hacking scandal was reaching its height and newspaper ethics were under the fiercest scrutiny.

Was I, asked Mr Hewlett, a fit-and-proper person to be a member of the PCC? I could only reply it was a bad mistake, we’d quickly admitted it, apologised, and paid the price.

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But Mr Hewlett knew quite a bit about the dark side of journalism himself because, as editor of the BBC’s Panorama, he was responsible for broadcasting Martin Bashir’s infamous interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995.

It was he who gave Mr Bashir the job of securing the interview and then vouched for him when the Princess’s brother, Earl Spencer, began asking questions. It is also clear from Lord Dyson’s damning investigation into Mr Bashir’s use of forged documents to obtain the interview, the initial cover-up and the mishandled aftermath, that had he been alive Mr Hewlett would have had questions to answer.

Since the Dyson Report was published last month, the reaction has focused on two aspects, the first being the effect the interview had on the Princess. It has been too easy to characterise Diana as a helpless and cynically manipulated woman, but that ignores Lord Dyson’s unequivocal finding that she wanted to give an interview and would have done so, just not necessarily to Mr Bashir.

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We will never know if a different interviewer would have been given different answers, but the sensational 1993 Andrew Morton book Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, with which she fully collaborated, suggests the outcome would have been similar.

The reactions from her sons and brother have been strikingly similar to the lines spun by Palace officials after its publication that she needed help and protection, not a determined woman who, for better or worse, was at last in control of her destiny.

That’s now for the historians, but the implications for the BBC could still be felt as it moves towards charter renewal in 2027. Much has changed in the past 25 years, not least the 2017 abolition of the ineffectual BBC Trust, the viewers’ guardian on whose watch the BBC covered up for the sexual predator Jimmy Savile for close to 50 years until his 2011 death, invaded Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy in 2014 and rehired Mr Bashir in 2016 when problems with the Diana interview were known (itself the subject of an ongoing inquiry).

Oversight is now with Ofcom, but what remains at issue is the BBC’s corporate culture, its place in national life and future role, and inevitably that all comes back to the licence fee.

The cover-ups of the Diana and Savile scandals illustrate how a culture of denial is inextricable from defending the privilege of guaranteed income from a legally-enforceable levy.

When the BBC comes clean about bad mistakes, there is a fear it becomes more difficult to argue that privilege should be protected, so it ends up tying itself in knots as it did with the Naga Munchetty racism row last year. It doesn’t know when to defend or when to censure and the more it is exposed, the more damage its reputation suffers.

That the BBC does many, many good things is not in question, but though most reputational problems stem from news and current affairs, the commercial crisis is elsewhere in a fast-evolving media landscape which, judging by the current pace of change, will be unrecognisable in six years’ time.

Amazon has just paid $8bn for MGM Studios, giving the online retail leviathan control of a huge back catalogue of films and the rights to future blockbuster movies. Along with Netflix and other streaming services, it will accelerate the move away from staid old linear channels which is losing the BBC 200,000 customers a year.

Increasing the licence fee is not an option (as the commercial news sector knows, audience decline isn’t reversed by price increases) but it argues the licence fee justifies entering and distorting commercial markets in search of audiences, and indeed it has just come under withering fire from the Commons Public Accounts committee for not doing more to exploit its commercial potential.

But whether publicly funded or not, the last thing commercial providers need is an unleashed BBC muscling in on UK advertising markets which would make an already bad situation worse.

The committee was damning about the BBC’s strategic financial management, in essence concluding there wasn’t any. “The BBC appears complacent about the threat it faces from declining audiences … maintaining that overall the number of users it reaches is high compared to other broadcasters,” it said.

The rest of the report didn’t get any better and of particular relevance to Scotland was the finding that plans revealed in March for increased presence in the nations and regions were “unclear and disjointed” and “appear to be contradictory and muddled.” On it went. The BBC has “deferred difficult measures and ducked the hard choices” and is “unambitious about setting targets for the financial returns generated by its commercial subsidiaries”.

There’s no question the BBC and media world as a whole is at a crossroads, and was there long before this year’s events, or even the pandemic. Tinkering round the edges will make no difference and as major intervention with one significant organisation has implications for all others in a small and interconnected world, a full Royal Commission into the future of British media, not just the BBC, could be needed.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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