The BBC must work fast to restore its reputation and stave off privatisation

The BBC’s response to the Martin Bashir scandal has been to announce a “Review of Editorial Policies” and an investigation into the re-hiring of Bashir by the Corporation in 2016.

The BBC struggles with its PR on the big issues, argues Andrew Carapiet
The BBC struggles with its PR on the big issues, argues Andrew Carapiet

But is this enough to stave off the calls for the abolition of the Licence Fee by senior politicians, or that this is the BBC’s “phone-hacking moment”, which could result in a Levinson-type Inquiry?

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster, but it often struggles to get its PR right.

In 2012 it struggled to cope with the fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal coinciding with the resignation of its director-general George Entwistle and the appointment of (Lord) Tony Hall – the same Tony Hall who investigated Martin Bashir’s activities back in 1996.

In 2014 the BBC ran into trouble with Cliff Richard after filming a police raid on his house, resulting in a £2m payout.

Now, in 2021, it has tried to draw a line under the Bashir affair by spending £1.4m on the Dyson Report, 26 years after Bashir interviewed Princess Diana in one of the most dramatic “scoops” in its history.

Where is the PR strategy here? It is never easy to draw a line under any story, as Rupert Murdoch found to his cost when he dramatically announced the closure of his flagship newspaper The News of the World following the phone-hacking scandal.

The publication of the Dyson Report and the subsequent Panorama programme has simply triggered a media feeding frenzy at the BBC’s expense.

Here are three things the BBC could have done to try to draw a line under this story – simple, clear and decisive action:

1. Suspend the Panorama programme for six months pending a series of investigations into this affair.

2. Launch an immediate investigation into all aspects of investigative journalism. (This will separate out day-to-day news reporting, at which the BBC still excels, from the completely separate investigative type programmes such as Panorama.)

3. Invite Lord Dyson to lead the investigation into how investigative journalism is conducted by the BBC. The Dyson Report, intriguingly, did not come up with any recommendations.

Independent reports are often stymied by their “terms of reference”. Amazingly, the Dyson Report makes no recommendations for how the BBC should proceed in order to prevent this happening again.

The wider issue here for the BBC is Charter Renewal. It is under enormous political pressure by ministers, both publicly and behind the scenes, and still needs £3.5bn a year from the Licence Fee to survive in its present form.

The Bashir affair has already precipitated calls for the abolition of the Licence Fee from prominent Conservative politicians.

Once ‘privatised’, the BBC will inevitably lose its USP as a public service broadcaster that is part of this country’s heritage and a national treasure since it was created in 1922.

Andrew Carapiet is director of Media Friendly and a former BBC journalist

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