LONDON — British broadcaster BBC, seen as a respected source of news and information around the world, is facing questions at home about its integrity following a scathing report on its explosive 1995 interview with Princess Diana.
Britain’s justice secretary said Friday that the government would review the rules governing oversight of the BBC after an investigation found that one of its journalists used “deceitful behavior” to secure the interview and the corporation obscured this misconduct for 25 years.
Princes William and Harry, Diana’s sons, excoriated the BBC late Thursday, saying there was a direct link between the interview and their mother’s death in a traffic accident two years later as she and a companion were being pursued by paparazzi.
The interview on the Panorama program came under renewed scrutiny after Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, complained that journalist Martin Bashir used false documents and other dishonest tactics to persuade Diana to grant the interview. As a result, the BBC commissioned an investigation by retired Judge John Dyson, who released a 127-page report on his findings Thursday.
“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,” Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told the BBC. “And therefore, government does have a responsibility to look very carefully to see whether the governance of the BBC does need reform in the light of these devastating findings.”
The BBC, founded in 1922, is Britain’s publicly funded but editorially independent national broadcaster. The rules governing its operations are set out in a royal charter that requires the corporation to be impartial, act in the public interest and be open, transparent and accountable. A mid-term review of the BBC’s governance is scheduled to begin next year.
Even before the Dyson report, the BBC was under pressure from some members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party who believe the broadcaster has a liberal bias. Johnson said he was concerned about the findings and hoped that the broadcaster would make sure “nothing like this ever happens again.”
At the heart of the scandal were documents made to look like bank statements, falsely suggesting that members of Diana’s inner circle were being paid to spy on her.
Spencer alleged that Bashir used the documents to gain his trust so Spencer would introduce the journalist to Diana. He also alleged that Bashir made up stories about the royal family to strengthen Diana’s belief that there was a conspiracy against her.
When graphic designer Matt Wiessler, who had been commissioned by Bashir to create mocked-up documents, saw the program, he immediately made the connection between his commission and the interview. He brought his concerns to BBC management, but he has long contended that they made him a scapegoat.
He said there is a culture within the BBC that “the little people” don’t need to be addressed. His business faltered after the BBC blacklisted him from assignments.
“Only under duress do we get some sort of apology and some sort of acknowledgement,” he told the BBC.
Amid the outcry following the report, the BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, said the broadcaster “should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew.”
But the BBC also insisted that it had strengthened rules making it possible to outpoint failings.
“There has been radical change over the past 25 years. We now have a thorough and industry-leading whistleblowing scheme, which provides clear and independent routes to raise concerns and, if necessary, direct access for whistle-blowers to a non-executive director on the BBC board,” the BBC said. “That is very different to the past. ”
In the interview, a major scoop for Bashir, Diana famously said that “there were three of us in this marriage” — referring to her husband Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Her candid account of her failing marriage was watched by millions and sent shockwaves through the British monarchy.
Bashir went on to forge a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He conducted another bombshell interview with Michael Jackson in 2003 for ITV and worked for both ABC and MSNBC.
He returned to the BBC in 2016 as religion editor. James Harding, the director of BBC News at the time Bashir was re-hired, apologized and said responsibility for the journalist’s return “sits with me.”
Bashir, who resigned this month citing ill health, apologized for faking the documents. But he said it had “no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview.”
The impact of the interview lives on. Prince William, 38, said the interview had created a “false narrative” about Diana that should be corrected by the BBC and news organizations.
“It is my view that the deceitful way that the interview was obtained substantially influenced what my mother said,” he said in a broadcast statement. “The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others.”
William also criticized the BBC’s “woeful incompetence” in investigating complaints about the program.
“What saddens me most is that if the BBC had properly investigated the complaints and concerns first raised in 1995, my mother would have known that she had been deceived,” he said. “She was failed not just by a rogue reporter but by leaders at the BBC, who looked the other way rather than asking the tough questions.”