Condemned by a judge and castigated by princes, can the BBC ever recover?
- Credit: PA
Michael Cole, Suffolk's prize-winning former BBC reporter and Royal Correspondent who became Director of Public Affairs at Harrods when Princess Diana was killed in 1997, gives his view on Lord Dyson's damning report into the BBC's 1995 Panorama interview.
Whatever would Richard Dimbleby think? The larger-than-life face of the BBC in television’s early days made Panorama the most prestigious programme on British TV.
It was trusted because Dimbleby was trusted. To see Panorama, the programme he presented with such authority, bring disgrace and ignominy on the BBC with its now infamous interview with Princess Diana in November 1995 would, I believe, have made him shudder in disbelief.
Dimbleby was the BBC’s first war correspondent. He single-handedly re-invented the monarchy for the Television Age. When he whispered, “The Queen is crowned”, from his cramped commentary position high in the rafters of Westminster Abbey at the Coronation in 1953, it was the defining moment for the BBC’s new television service, making it instantly an essential part of British life.
To hear Prince William’s blistering condemnation of not just the BBC’s rogue reporter who conned his mother into the interview that led directly to her divorce, but also his bitter denunciation of the bosses who covered up Martin Bashir’s lies and deceit, would have distressed Dimbleby.
No royal occasion was ever complete without him. He was The Golden Microphone-in-Waiting, always ready with the right word and acute observation. But Dimbleby was never a sycophant, never a courtier. He was a reporter, proud to work for the BBC which did not repay the compliment. Instead, it always kept him on demeaning 13-week contracts, making him ask if they wanted him for, say, the Trooping of the Colour.
It is a mark of how far the BBC has fallen, with the scandal now laid bare in Lord Dyson’s report, that when Dimbleby inadvertently swore on television, it caused a national furore. Plagued by technical failures during coverage of the Queen’s historic visit to West Germany in 1965, and given contradictory instructions by the director, a frustrated Dimbleby exclaimed, “Jesus wept!”.
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He didn’t realise he was on air. On the next “Panorama”, he theatrically put a penny in a swear box in order to put the matter behind him. That’s how it was when the BBC took its own integrity seriously.
Compare that indiscretion with the monstrous scandal that has now engulfed the BBC. What went on in the offices of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme in 1995, sounds like the Mafia meeting to rub out its enemies and bury their bodies.
Seasoned journalists who tried to warn of Martin Bashir’s underhand tactics were portrayed as jealous troublemakers and sacked. Matt Wiessler, the award-winning graphics artist who created fraudulent bank statements to Bashir’s specifications, was blacklisted from the BBC by Tony Hall, then head of news and current affairs and subsequently Lord Hall, Director General of the BBC.
Any concerned member of staff who questioned what was going on was told in boorish terms by the then editor of Panorama Steve Hewlitt, who died of cancer in 2017, that it was none of their (expletive deleted) business.
This, at the Corporation dedicated to speaking truth to the world, in peace and war for the 99 years of its existence.
Lord “Michael” Grade, Chairman of the BBC from 2004 to 2006 and a major figure in independent television, once said that the BBC was there “to keep the rest of us honest”. In other words, it was the gold standard for accuracy, integrity and honesty.
Working around the world for the BBC in 56 countries, I was always proud to say, “I am from the BBC”. After Dyson, the BBC is no longer the shining beacon of objectivity and impartiality that I worked for during 20 sometimes difficult years.
Lord Grade has now said that he fears the Corporation might have covered up more scandals. The Bashir affair, he said, could do lasting damage and the BBC culture must change.
This terrible fall from grace is something I greatly regret. There are thousands of honest, hard-working people within the BBC who are similarly mortified by the coruscating findings in the 127 pages of Lord Dyson’s report.
That is part of the tragedy. We have all lost something that is very valuable, our trust in a great institution that has been brought low by a great and terrible mistake.
Will it recover? Perhaps, but it will take time. What can never be totally repaired is the relationship that once existed between the royal family and the BBC.
When Richard Dimbleby was in hospital dying from cancer in 1966 at the age of 53, the Queen sent him six half-bottle “splits” of Champagne. He never became the Sir Richard he deserved to be, being fobbed off with a CBE. That’s because the BBC never pushed for his knighthood.
That failure of judgement was a lamentable insult to a great broadcaster. But its recent abdication from the absolute standards of honest journalism will have consequences more profound, more damaging and much longer lasting.