Threats to shake up BBC after ‘deceitful’ Diana interview spark fears it will be ‘under government’s thumb’

‘Every government will use a BBC crisis as leverage....because every government wants to get the BBC under its thumb’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 21 May 2021 18:23
Former BBC News and Ofcom exec warns government could get BBC under thumb

Threats to shake up the BBC after the “deceitful” Princess Diana interview have sparked fears that the government will exploit the crisis to put the corporation “under its thumb”.

Ministers seized on a damning inquiry – which found a “serious breach” of editorial rules and a later cover-up – to make clear changes to BBC oversight are coming in a looming review.

They are known to be considering appointing a new board staffed with more ex-editors and journalists to adjudicate on complaints about the BBC’s output.

But the move would come amid what is widely viewed as a “culture war” against other British institutions and after the recent appointment of a senior Tory to the existing board.

Richard Ayre, a former member of the BBC Trust, condemned Martin Bashir’s now-notorious interview as “shameful” – but raised suspicions about the government’s motives.

“I don’t know what is to be gained by scrapping yet another board of governments at the BBC, and coming up with something different, unless it is that politicians want to get ever tighter control of the BBC – which of course is always a real, real risk,” he said.

The midterm review of the BBC’s charter, starting next year, meant the devastating findings of Lord Dyson’s review could not have come at “a worse time”.

“Every government will use a BBC crisis as leverage against the BBC, because every government wants to get the BBC under its thumb,” Mr Ayre added.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, echoed the fears, saying: “This historic wrongdoing must not be used as a reason for the government to try and further undermine the BBC’s status as a strong, impartial public sector broadcaster.

“Any changes to the editorial board must be free from government interference. In the wake of this scandal we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of maintaining a strong, independent free press which is able to provide robust scrutiny of the government of the day.”

The warnings came after the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden said the government would “consider whether further governance reforms at the BBC are needed in the mid-term charter review”.

The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, pointed to Mr Bashir’s use of “false documents, forgery etcetera”, laid bare in Lord Dyson’s 127-page report.

“The government has to, in the light of these serious findings, consider the matter very carefully and comprehensively indeed,” Mr Buckland said.

“Because it wasn’t just the decision of a reporter or a production team – there were decisions made much further up the chain about the conduct of these individuals that have now proved, according to Lord Dyson, to be unfounded and wrong.”

The Metropolitan Police said it would assess the report “to ensure there is no significant new evidence”, after previously deciding not to begin a criminal investigation.

And Boris Johnson, on a visit to Portsmouth said: “”I’m obviously concerned by the findings of Lord Dyson’s report - I’m very grateful to him for what he has done.

“I can only image the feelings of the royal family and I hope very much that the BBC will be taking every possible step to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

In his report, Lord Dyson said the “deceitful” Mr Bashir had used fake bank statements to gain access to Diana, before playing on her fears about the Royal Family to trick her into being interviewed in November 1995.

The tactics had “seriously breached” BBC editorial rules – yet its leadership had reacted by launching a cover-up that had protected their reporter.

Ex-BBC chief Lord Hall was savaged over a “woefully ineffective” attempt to investigate complaints about Mr Bashir’s conduct, while the scandal was buried on its own news channels.

Michael Grade, a former BBC chairman and a Conservative peer, led demands for reform, saying: “It’s time that there was a proper editorial board with real powers, reporting to the main board, but with specialist knowledge.

“People who are ex-journalists or have had senior editorial responsibility in the media, who know the questions to ask and know how to judge what’s going on.”

Government insiders insist there is no worked-up plan for overhauling BBC governance, despite ministers’ threats.

And Mr Johnson’s spokesman insisted the review would only look at the corporation’s governance and regulation, not its editorial independence.

“I would point you to the details of the mid-term charter review which, as you know, takes place between 2022 and 2024 and it can only look at the way the BBC is governed and regulated,” the spokesman said.

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