Over the past few days it’s been hard to avoid news and current affairs programmes in which one member of the BBC is talking to another member of the BBC about just how badly the BBC has acted over Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, and what actions can be taken to make sure the BBC never makes the same mistakes again and how the BBC can regain the trust of the public. It’s almost become a cottage industry worthy of its own separate BBC channel.
So once the BBC stops making programmes examining its own failings, it might be surprised to find out that most MPs seem to have a higher opinion of the BBC than the BBC has of itself. Which isn’t to say they are blind to its failings. Indeed in his answer to an urgent question from Julian Knight, chair of the culture select committee, the junior culture minister John Whittingdale was at pains to spell out just how far the BBC had fallen below the standards expected of it in the way the Diana interview had been obtained, along with the subsequent cover-up and reappointment of Bashir in 2016.
But Whittingdale also held out an olive branch. The BBC was more than Bashir. It was a broadcaster that was recognised for its impartiality throughout the world and to discredit it totally was to wantonly trash a national institution. What was required was a thorough inquiry – the BBC had already beaten him to do it by having announced its own inquiry into the BBC’s never-ending inquiry into the BBC – to make sure the new governance that had been put in place several years ago was fit for purpose and that the same mistakes could not be made again. As a sign of his commitment to the BBC, he was bringing forward the midterm review of the charter by a year to start immediately.
This rather more forgiving approach was echoed by many others including the shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, and the Conservative father of the house, Peter Bottomley, who warned of the pitfalls of a kneejerk response into wholesale condemnation of the BBC. Yes, the Beeb had messed up big time over Bashir – neither Stevens nor Bottomley were trying to minimise the damage that had been done – but to write off the organisation for one bad error was overkill. If we weren’t careful we could end up with a defunded and dismantled broadcaster that would be no better than a US cable channel.
Tory Lee Anderson perked up at the thought of this. He was already sick of the BBC and had personally ripped up his licence fee demand. What’s more he was encouraging everyone in his Ashfield constituency to do the same as he was sure they shared the same dislike of the Beeb as he did. Let’s just hope his constituents didn’t cancel their licences before last Saturday’s Eurovision song contest or many could end up with criminal convictions.
John Redwood merely lamented there weren’t enough programmes for people who loved Brexit, the union and England. He wouldn’t rest until Grant Shapps’s new plan to renationalise the rail network as Great British Railways had secured a commercial deal with Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys. A deal that would be consummated with GBR having a logo in bright, clashing pastels.
“The BBC is a beacon of freedom,” Whittingdale repeated several times. Something it shared with a Tory party that had been equally indulgent with Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, both of whom had been particularly harsh on the BBC over the course of the previous weekend.
The prime minister appeared to have forgotten that he had been sacked from the Times in 1988 for poor journalistic ethics in making up quotes and had been fired as a shadow junior minister by Michael Howard in 2004 for lying about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. The home secretary had talked of the reputational damage to the BBC, seemingly oblivious to the irony that she had twice been found guilty of breaking the ministerial code. If both Boris and Priti could be rehired by the Tory party, then they couldn’t complain about Bashir’s reappointment as religious affairs editor in 2016. What – in a Freudian slip – Tory Alun Cairns referred to as a “we know best” mentality.
But, for the most part, little was made of such things. Rather MPs had come to praise the BBC for what it did best rather than to bury it for one catastrophic error. Over at broadcasting house, the new director-general breathed a sigh of relief. And in breaking news, he announced yet another BBC inquiry. This one looking into the BBC inquiry into the ongoing BBC inquiry.