The government will not “rush into any changes” following the inquiry into the BBC’s mishandled interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, a minister has said, while warning there could still be a need for new editorial oversight of the corporation.
Responding to a Commons urgent question, after the BBC said it had also begun a new inquiry into the circumstances of Martin Bashir’s 1995 interview, the culture minister John Whittingdale said last week’s report into the affair made for “shocking reading”.
But in a notable change to the rhetoric heard from Priti Patel, the home secretary, who said on Sunday that the BBC faced a “very, very significant moment” regarding its structure, Whittingdale stressed the need to tread carefully.
“In an era of fake news and disinformation, the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger,” he said. “The BBC has been and should be a beacon, setting standards to which others can aspire.”
Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, told the Commons she shared concerns over how Bashir used what a report by the former supreme court judge John Dyson called “deceitful behaviour” to secure the interview, and the way this was subsequently covered up.
She said: “But in amongst some of the commentary around the BBC we have heard over the past few days, we must remember that the BBC is bigger than just Martin Bashir, it is bigger than Panorama, bigger than other programmes and bigger even than the current affairs department.
“The BBC is one of the most trusted sources of news in the world, and at a time when trusted sources are more important than ever before.”
Ministers should not make any “kneejerk” changes, Stevens argued, while the mid-period review into the BBC’s current charter, starting next year, should only recommend changes to its structure if it was clear what would be achieved.
Whittingdale told Stevens he agreed with “everything that she said”, adding he believed the BBC’s structure, including oversight by the regulator, Ofcom, rather than an internal BBC trust, would have avoided some of the mistakes over the interview.
“Fundamental changes were made just a few years ago, which we believe would have meant that somebody who wished to blow the whistle in this way would have been listened to, and they would have had recourse to Ofcom if they were not satisfied with the BBC,” he said. “But we do need to be absolutely sure that the new governance arrangements work properly, and there could well be need for more editorial oversight.”
The Tory backbencher Peter Bottomley also warned against any over-hasty changes.
He said: “What should be also clear to the government is that if we start attacking the BBC, we will throw out much more than we have got. And if the choice is between the state broadcasting corporation of the BBC or the United States, people in this country would choose the BBC.”
More widely, Whittingdale said, the government wanted “to be satisfied that the failures that have been identified could not have occurred with the new governance arrangements in place”.
The scale of potential change could nonetheless end up being broad, with Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, saying the corporation needed a wholesale shake-up in its internal culture.
“The BBC can occasionally succumb to a ‘we know best’ attitude that is detached both from the criticism and the values of all parts of the nation it serves,” Dowden wrote in the Times. “Groupthink in any organisation results in a lack of challenge and poor decision-making. That’s why cultural change must be a focus for the director general and new chair.”
Earlier on Monday, the BBC’s board, its governing body, said it had launched its own investigation, saying that while internal processes had improved since 1995, “we must not just assume that mistakes of the past cannot be repeated today – we must make sure that this is the case”.
The BBC board, which is overseen by the government-appointed BBC chair, Richard Sharp, a Conservative donor, has appointed a three-strong team to investigate the corporation’s editorial policies.
The group includes Sir Robbie Gibb, a former director of communications for Theresa May, who was this month appointed to the board by Dowden. Gibb is a former head of the BBC’s political programming who later became a vocal critic of some of the corporation’s news output and helped to set up the forthcoming channel GB News.
The other two members on the panel are Sir Nicholas Serota and the former BBC News boss Ian Hargreaves.