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It feels like déjà vu as ministers prepare another BBC fudge

David Sedgwick
May 25, 2021

The manner in which the BBC has handled the Martin Bashir scandal has prompted, and rightly so, anger from all sides of government and society. However, David Sedgwick argues that actual substantial reform of BBC practices is unlikely any time soon

The fallout from the Martin Bashir affair seems to have triggered government – at least its 'sources' – into a tough talking frenzy over the past few days. Indeed, the Westminster air currently echoes with stock phrases/words such as 'reform,' 'safeguards' and 'restoring trust.' It would appear Prince William's extraordinary intervention in which he stopped just short accusing the BBC of indirectly causing his mother's death has finally pushed the Tory party to a place it really, really does not want to go: taking action.

Or has it? Fans of Monty Python's Life of Brian will be familiar with The Judean People's Front, a group of revolutionaries always on the verge of action but never quite managing to take that first important step. John Cleese's ragtag collection certainly talk a good revolution. One day, they assure themselves, they will topple the Roman occupiers. Only not right now. Tomorrow maybe. In the meantime, there are resolutions to pass.

If these same government 'sources' are correct, the Tories are indeed headed for a spectacular fudge. For here is a golden opportunity to finally reform a broadcaster that long since went rogue, an organisation that treats its obligations to public service broadcasting with disdain if not outright contempt.

Despite the firefighting emanating from BBC luminaries such as Huw Edwards, the Bashir affair was not a one-off event, a mistake. Examples are numerous. The Saville cover-up spanned several decades. The broadcaster's attempts to destroy the reputations of Sir Cliff Richard and Lord McAlpine occurred long after the Diana interview. In fact, the BBC has been deceiving its audience with something like impunity for decades.

Bashir aside, Panorama itself has plenty of form. Discredited episodes such as Maggie's Militant Tendency and Stadiums of Hate spring immediately to mind. Amongst a litany of slanderous insinuations its 2016 offering The Kremlin Candidate? asserted that President Trump had been assisted to the White House by Putin and was therefore on the Kremlin 'payroll.'

It does not end there. What about its gleeful promotion of the organisation calling itself Black Lives Matter? The BBC has never quite come to terms with the outcome of the Sewell report which refuted the myth of institutional racism in the UK – one of the corporation's most cherished beliefs.

With the mid-term review of the royal charter in sight, the demand for a radical overhaul has never been greater. BBC cries that Bashir's Diana interview was of a different era have been predictable enough. But it is these very deflections which have highlighted the real issue: the BBC does not do contrition nor does it do introspection. In the world of Broadcasting House, the BBC is always right and its critics are always wrong.

The broadcaster simply cannot bear to admit its many shortcomings. This determination to ignore and dismiss criticism (usually by attributing it to 'the Murdoch right-wing press' or 'Russian state media') means the corporation never learns from its many mistakes, nor wants to. After all, if 'we' are always right and 'they' are always wrong, what is there to learn? This vicious circle is discussed in my BBC critique, The Fake News Factory in a chapter entitled 'Beyond Reform: the Unlearning Organisation.'

Former BBC chairman Michael Grade has rightly identified the organisation's culture as the chief problem. There is indeed something rotten in the broadcaster's genes, but what? It runs deeper than mere middle-class entitlement and arrogance. This is a question of a culture where dishonesty and deceit plays an integral role in achieving the broadcaster's social and political objectives, a culture where, provided it achieves the desired objective, deception is just fine.

Take for example the recent anti-lockdown march in London. While tens of thousands of people marched to express their anger and dismay at this government policy, the broadcaster sent what it terms a 'disinformation reporter' to cover the event. Lockdown has impacted innumerable lives. A broadcaster of integrity and honour would surely have been keen to investigate this plethora of human-interest stories. Only not the BBC. Those few BBC reports which did emerge dehumanised these ordinary concerned citizens as "conspiracy theorists . . ."

So just how do you reform a rotten culture? Yet more tick-boxes? Internal reviews which end in platitudes with a broadcaster promising to 'do better' whilst simultaneously insisting, as ever, it was 'fundamentally correct' all along? 'The BBC's reputation has taken a significant knock,' a senior government source recently told the Telegraph, 'We need to restore trust in it to make sure this can never happen again.' Apparently, the government, in the best traditions of the Judean People's Front, are 'seeking assurances' that the Bashir farrago could never happen again . . .

Writing in the Telegraph Andrew Griffith MP indicates that the government is going to demand the corporation transforms itself into a 'People's BBC' whatever that means. Apparently, ministers expect to see 'safeguards' which will somehow ensure that the BBC and its politically-radical employees such as its 'disinformation reporter' will no longer misrepresent reality.

If they are smiling to themselves right now, corporation executives could hardly be blamed. The government's response, such as it is, looks likely to be one of kicking the can further down the road. It was William Shakespeare who, when speaking of naughty children, observed that if it is only ever seen, but never used, 'the rod becomes more mock'd than fear'd.' Indeed, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden MP has, it seems, decided to apply sticking plasters to the BBC in the forlorn hope they will keep the volcano from erupting until after his tenure has ended. In the meantime, expect the 'mistakes' to keep on happening.

David Sedgwick is an author and university lecturer living between Malaga and Split. His books, 'The Fake News Factory: Tales from BBC-land' and 'BBC: Brainwashing Britain' cover topics as diverse as Cash-for-Questions, Brexit, chlorine-washed chicken and Syrian regime change.
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