Like many other current and former BBC journalists I am still reeling from the revelations in the Dyson Report about the BBC’s 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana.

By Sally-Ann Wilson, CEO PMA

The use of forged documents to obtain an interview with the princess by then Panorama reporter Martin Bashir took place 26 years ago. His actions were clearly wrong. He acted against the Editorial Guidelines of the time, which managers should have been aware of and reacted to. But the real shock to many of us was that senior BBC management knew of this but didn’t deal with it effectively in a 1996 investigation. Even more surprising was that Bashir was rehired in 2016 following a less than salubrious career outside of the corporation. He has since resigned from the BBC.

Following the publication of the Dyson Report, broadcast and print analysis of the situation in the UK has been intense. But what relevance does this have internationally? According to a report on Saturday, a senior UK Government source said: “The BBC’s reputation has taken a significant knock. We need to restore trust in it to make sure this can never happen again”. And this statement is of international interest.

It’s of interest because as the founder of public broadcasting, many public media organisations worldwide measure themselves against the BBC. But it certainly isn’t the role of the UK Government to restore its reputation.

The most significant and important factor about the BBC, is its independence. It is not a state broadcaster. Independence from political influence is the single most important signifier of any public media organisation and the responsibility for restoring trust in the BBC rests squarely, not with the UK Government, but with the corporation itself.

“The most significant and important factor about the BBC, is its independence”.

To restore reputation and trust, robust investigation and transparency were definitely required. And here it should be noted that the BBC Board appointed Lord Dyson to investigate the circumstances around the 1995 Panorama interview, once further evidence of what happened was brought to light. The previous Director general, Tony Hall, who was implicated in the Dyson Report, left the BBC late last summer. And, on publication of the Dyson Report last week, the current Director General, Tim Davie, issued a prompt and forthright apology.  Both the new BBC Chairman, Richard Sharp and Tim Davie have also been interviewed on news programmes and the Panorama programme has broadcast its own investigation into the situation. But now the real work for the BBC begins.

Like any other public media organisation, the BBC’s reputation, both domestically and internationally rests on trust and respect. The BBC now has to rebuild that trust, not only with the public, but most critically, with its own staff. The BBC model of public broadcasting has been replicated around the world and central to that model is high quality journalism that investigates and holds power to account. I know from experience, that is often thankless work. It is work that requires a strong and supportive management team that encourages thorough investigation, but that team must also understand and stand up for the boundaries.

In a news organisation the size of the BBC there are many thousands of journalists working incredibly hard to investigate, report and produce stories, around the UK and internationally as well as in London. Each and every one of them will have felt the impact of the Dyson Report and its analysis. They need to know they can speak out freely when they have concerns. As former BBC Deputy DG Caroline Thomson observed in an interview on the Today programme [22.05.2021 39’40”], “…It’s very important that at every stage, from Tim Davie downwards, the leadership has the culture of listening, accountability, appearing on programmes like Feedback, on the Today programme when there are difficult questions to be answered. The more you send signs of a culture, the more likely you are to change it”.  Restoring trust within the BBC will rest on a real change in culture not structures.

Because it is the staff at the BBC that make it the creative powerhouse for the UK that it is. It is those journalists that make the BBC one of the world’s leading and most trusted news organisations. They will need time and support to recover from this. They need to know that they can continue to hold power to account.

As for the UK Government’s response, it’s inevitable that the BBC’s established critics will lash out at times like these. We should all remember that there are many in powerful positions, including government, who are not supporters of the idea of critical, independent, public media. These revelations have come at a time when the BBC, like many public broadcasters worldwide, is already under attack.

“These revelations have come at a time when the BBC, like many public broadcasters worldwide, is already under attack”

What is more disturbing is the lack of understanding of public media, of its central role in underpinning democracy. This has been demonstrated in recent days by senior government representatives. The UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said during an interview on the BBC on Sunday, “This is the Netflix generation, how relevant is the BBC?”.  Such comments show little knowledge of the principles and purpose of public media. Neither is the BBC ‘state owned’ as described in a Guardian report by a senior government figure. It is a statutory corporation, independent from direct government intervention. There are wide concerns about the UK Government’s understanding of public media. Last year, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden set up a PSB Review Panel, its membership includes a representative from Facebook but few with real expertise of public media.

These past few days have indeed been dark days for the BBC but perhaps they have brought us to a new threshold for public media. With a new Chairman and Director General there is a real opportunity to move the BBC on towards its centenary in 2022 and beyond. In the digital age the BBC has been at the forefront of transitioning public broadcasting to multiplatform public media. Now, as pressure from authoritarianism and populism grows worldwide, it has the opportunity to demonstrate the power of independent public media when it is truly accountable and transparent while holding power to account.

As ever with the BBC, the world will be watching not just to see if it deals with this crisis, but how it deals with it.

Header Image: LONDON- APRIL, 2019: The BBC or British Broadcasting Corporation headquarters building on Portland Place. Credit: Willy Barton/