“This is clearly a terrible, terrible morning for the BBC” said Andrew Marr on his show on Sunday 23 May. He was referring to the princess Diana Spencer/Martin Bashir story. But “miserable” is perhaps an understatement. Because the BBC is now little more than a lame horse that needs to be put out of its misery.
The Bashir scandal
There’s been a media frenzy in recent days over the 1995 Panorama interview with Spencer. The BBC put in place an independent inquiry into the show. This was after Diana’s brother, earl Charles Spencer, accused journalist Bashir of lying to get the interview. Now, head of the inquiry lord John Dyson seemed to agree. As the BBC itself reported, Dyson found that:
- Bashir seriously breached BBC rules by mocking up fake bank statements to gain access to the princess
- He showed the fake documents to Earl Spencer, to gain his trust so he would introduce Bashir to Diana
- By gaining access to Diana in this way, Bashir was able to persuade her to agree to give the interview
- And as media interest in the interview increased, the BBC covered up what it had learnt about how Bashir secured the interview. Lord Dyson said this “fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark”
The fall out has been seismic – if insipid.
The usual MO
Whistleblowers who tried to expose all this years earlier have slammed the BBC‘s attitude to them. As The Canary previously reported, BBC bosses sacked former Panorama producer Mark Killick within 24 hours when he raised concerns. He called Bashir a “dishonest reporter” who “lied and lied”. Killick also said BBC bosses ran “a smear campaign” against people who spoke out. He explained:
The culture of fear that was established then, it was a long time ago, but they sent a clear message to everyone in the BBC, ‘do not refer up, do not bring the BBC bad news’.
This is hardly new. For example, BBC bosses spent years protecting serial child rapist Jimmy Saville. BBC employees accused senior managers of “still trying to cover their tracks” as recently as 2012. But still, much of the corporate media and the Tory government have had a field day over the Bashir story. A Sun columnist (don’t click the link!) wrote that:
the BBC will carry on slurping at the trough watered by around £4billion a year of licence fee payers’ money, promoting its sneering anti-British agenda, lavishly overpaying its second-rate stars.
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But the Corporation has Diana’s blood on its hands.
And if the BBC was a national newspaper, it would be getting closed for ever.
Ironic, from the ‘alleged’ royal family phone-hacking Sun. Meanwhile, the middle class liberal commentariat have rallied to defend the BBC.
Enter the liberal defenders
Guardian columnist Marina Hyde tried to deflect some of the blame to the “great British public”; Guardian-speak for ‘stupid, working class tabloid readers’. She accused us of not ‘owning our own actions’:
Millions bought insatiably into Diana’s pain… The pall of blameless sanctimony [says Hyde, ironically going full-on sanctimonious] that descended after her death was a stunning exercise in mass hypocrisy. People were simply incapable of imagining that they too had been part of the ecosystem
Then, the Observer wrote in an editorial that it thinks the government will use this to:
increase control over the BBC, direct its policy and personnel and influence its reporting. Leading Tories and their commercially self-interested Fleet Street cheerleaders have long claimed, absurdly, that BBC journalism is run by a leftwing cabal. … Now, in a sick reprise of the past, they seek to use Diana and her sons, coupled with Dyson’s findings, as a club to batter down the doors of honest, independent reporting damaged by Bashir.
But the Observer‘s limp yet sanctimonious defence of the BBC is of course nonsense. Because the BBC‘s conduct, and the Tories’ response to it, is actually nothing new.
An arm of government
As I previously wrote, during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic the BBC went onto a war footing. It was a similar MO to the one it had during WWII. It’s also the same one that led it to it being directly involved in espionage during the 1953 Iranian coup. It’s the same MO that led Marr to stand outside Downing Street at the end of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and say:
it would be entirely ungracious, even for [Tony Blair’s] critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.
And it’s the same MO that saw the government fund the BBC to push Western propaganda in North Korea. The point being, the BBC has often worked as a propaganda arm of government; regardless of whether that government is Tory or Labour.
I’m almost bored of saying that the BBC is not impartial. As I wrote for the CommonSpace around five years ago, it:
is essentially held to financial ransom by governments of every political persuasion, with the media moguls at the top in their publicly-funded ivory towers obviously wanting to keep themselves in the lifestyles that they have become accustomed to.
But here we are, having the same conversations again. Therefore, the fuss about the Tory government sticking its nose in to ‘reform’ the BBC rings hollow. It rings even more hollow when the chair of the BBC Richard Sharp is a half-million pound Tory donor. And it’s hollow when the BBC‘s director-general is Tory-supporting Tim Davie. So the Tory government getting involved in how the BBC operates is hardly a threat.
Its journalists are from the Marr school of bias: entrenched so deeply into the system they barely even realise the narrow, establishment-defined parameters within which they operate. The BBC‘s editorial team frames everything through a Western, imperialist lens: compare and contrast the BBC‘s coverage of Israel’s apartheid-led atrocities in Gaza to Sky News’s.
Of course, what’s interesting about the Bashir interview is that it went against the establishment at the time. The then-tory PM John Major reportedly made a concerted effort to protect the royal family. But the Panorama interview did tie in with the soon-to-be incoming PM Blair’s broader views and relationship with Spencer. He had been having “secret meetings” with her before the 1997 general election on tactics to win it. So, was it that the BBC was acting with a tabloid hat on when it decided to do the interview? Or did it detect the winds of change coming in government and therefore set out its stall accordingly?
Either way, there is no reforming of the BBC.
The most noxious of media outlets
The BBC always has been, and always will be (to paraphrase Hyde) part of the establishment “ecosystem” in the UK, and globally. This makes it the most noxious of media outlets.
The Daily Mail and the Sun proudly wear their right-wing, racist, xenophobic hearts on their sleeves. They don’t hide their political bias. They’re private entities; therefore in our corporate capitalist system their bias is entirely up to them. But the BBC is meant to be a public service broadcaster. It’s supposed to be the bastion of impartiality: free and fair, presenting all sides of the argument. The problem we have with the BBC is that it’s none of those things.
But the biggest problem is that the BBC is still the most used news source in the UK. Overall, it has dominance and therefore is actually more dangerous than the Sun and the Daily Mail. People still believe that it’s a bastion of impartiality. They believe what they’re reading and watching is accurate, and a fair reflection of the situation.
So the Bashir furore is really the thin end of the wedge. The BBC doesn’t need reform – because it has never really changed. Its job is to serve the establishment. Therefore, much like the people it serves, it needs razing to the ground. And until there is proper recognition of that fact, anything else is just lip service.
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