Diana and the demagogues
Why the furore over an ancient interview? Paul Demarty looks at the renewed attacks on the BBC
It is perhaps worth saying, at the outset, that faking documents in order to scare people into giving you an interview is very naughty, and the one who does such a thing is appropriately described as a very naughty boy (or girl - but in this case, of course, we refer to a boy).
This is, however, about the least interesting angle on the Martin Bashir affair, which has set the rightwing media and government ablaze with Beeb-bashing.
The subject of the controversy is Bashir’s legendary 1995 interview with Diana Spencer - the ‘Princess of Wales’ and former wife of Charles Windsor, who is first in line to the throne - on the BBC’s flagship Panorama programme. It is not easy to get hold of a princess for a tell-all interview - particularly one who had suffered so much at the hands of the media and was relentlessly beaten down by Palace leaks. So Bashir used some dirty tricks. With the connivance of Matt Wiessler, a BBC graphic designer, he falsified bank statements that implied the royals had paid her friends to spy on her. These he showed to Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, who put him in contact with Diana.
Of itself, this is in fact one of the less intrusive media tactics used to get to Diana. Her family were early victims of the voicemail-hacking techniques that would later cause considerable scandal, for example. It is, however, always the cover-up that gets you, not the crime. Questions were asked about these bank statements: the mock-ups had been stored by Wiessler on CD-ROMs which were mysteriously lost in a burglary. The BBC conducted an internal inquiry, which seems to have been a bit of a joke - neither Wiessler nor Spencer were interviewed.
That was in 1996 - and the bodies stayed buried for a while. In 2020, the 25th anniversary of the interview came up, however, and questions started to be asked about how Bashir got the scoop. Under pressure from the Spencers and a hostile government, the BBC called an ‘independent inquiry’, which revealed Bashir’s deceptions and the laughable whitewash of them a year later. Thus the storm of controversy began.
Change of tune
There are a few angles to cover here. The first is, of course, the tabloid and rightwing press, which have turned this into a crisis for the BBC. It is frankly a little difficult to take all this high-mindedness terribly seriously. Bashir conned his way into her confidence, sure; but at least the interview was kind to her. It transformed her public image overnight: previously seen as a dim-witted hussy, she was revealed as somebody who, despite her privileged upbringing, had been appallingly treated by the family to whom she was essentially sold as a brood mare, and had suffered mightily as a result. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that, along with the boilerplate apologies, Bashir insisted on defending the interview: “I never wanted to harm Diana in any way and I don’t believe we did. Everything we did in terms of the interview was as she wanted.”
If we ask where her original reputation came from, a large part of the answer must be … the tabloids and co, which enthusiastically published all the malicious gossip they could get out of the palace and dispatched armies of paparazzi to hound her - in the end, to an early grave.
Diana’s fatal car crash took place after the papers had gone to press, we are reminded by old tabloid hand Marina Hyde in The Guardian, so the early editions
contained, as usual, large amounts of unfavourable stuff about whatever else Diana had been up to the previous week. “Troubled Prince William will today demand that his mother Princess Diana dump her playboy lover”, ran an exclusive by the News of the World’s Clive Goodman, who probably scraped it from the “troubled” schoolboy’s phone. There were acres in similar vein across the titles. “The Princess, I fear,” feared the Sunday Mirror’s Carole Malone, “suffers from the ‘Open Gob Before Brain Engages’ syndrome - a condition which afflicts the trivial and the brain-dead.”1
The course correction was immediate and total. Responding to the extraordinary pitch of mass grief, the papers changed their tune for good. Diana had been the scapegoat for the malignancy of the royal family; but, as anthropologist René Girard might have foreseen, once the sacrifice was done, the victim was resurrected as a goddess. The cult of Diana has persisted as a staple of the tabloid press ever since.
One of the things going on with the Bashir affair is a sort of reabsorption of Diana into the main body of the royal cult. Her rehabilitation in the public mind in the last years of her life was at least partly due to her estrangement from ‘the Firm’. History has repeated itself a little with the rift between her two sons - William remaining loyal to the palace and Harry upping sticks to America, to reinvent himself in a self-care guruship grift with his wife.
The current scandal sees the palace weaponising its errant princess. It is the BBC, not the tabloids, who will never be forgiven for the Diana mess. So William’s decision to join the anti-BBC pile-on is telling: it amounts to the firm making a claim on her memory. The tabloids will happily go along with this outrageously implausible land-grab, since it affords an opportunity to bash the BBC, and also to deflect attention from the papers’ own culpability in Diana’s ‘isolation’ and ‘paranoia’. It is worth remembering that the Mail publicly swore never to use paparazzi photos of celebrities again - a commitment that lasted all of 48 minutes, as far as we can tell.
If the inflamed sense of moral outrage on the part of the press is hard to take terribly seriously, the cynicism of the government response is breathtaking. For the first time in a long while, we have a government in place which is openly and irreconcilably hostile to the BBC. It is drawn from the wing of the Tories that denounces it as unpatriotic and in enemy hands, regardless of its actual behaviour (as evidenced by the ‘scandal’ of complaints at the blanket coverage of Philip Windsor’s death a couple of months ago).
Ministers have found it devilishly difficult to focus their minds on what the scandal is actually supposed to be about. Thus Oliver Dowden, the philistine culture secretary, wrote in The Times that the episode showed the need for cultural change:
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 … Groupthink in any organisation results in a lack of challenge and poor decision-making.
Fixing this problem “means a new emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion”. In other words, the problem is the same one that so exercises Tory ideologues: the increasingly absurd myth of ‘liberal bias’, represented here by the code words, “groupthink” and “diversity of opinion”.2 Just as the elite liberals at the top of the Beeb think they know what’s best for ordinary people, so John Birt, Tony Hall and Martin Bashir thought they knew what was best for the Queen of Hearts back in 1995. The artificiality of this reasoning is - even in this era of baroque conspiracy theories and free-associative accusations of racism - truly stunning.
On one level, this is a story of corrupt complicity of the media and politicians: the dialectic of the mutual back-scratch. At least part of the press animus against the BBC is motivated by vulgar commercial considerations. This was demonstrated most spectacularly by the MacTaggart lecture of 2009 - delivered by James Murdoch, son and at that time heir apparent to Rupert - which accused the BBC of crowding out commercial offerings by exploiting its guaranteed revenue stream (not exactly the vote of confidence in the free market he probably hoped it would be). In its own way the Bashir interview demonstrated it too - the scandal from the point of view of the tabloids might be merely that, by use of the same low methods as the average red-top hack, he scooped them all to the royal story of the century.
A year after James Murdoch’s lecture, which merely summarised the line of his father’s newspapers over many decades, the Labour government of Gordon Brown was defeated by the Tories and Liberal Democrats, at least partly thanks to Murdoch’s decision to move his support back to the blue corner. There was thus a very receptive audience for his personal hobby horses. Better still, prime minister David Cameron - then cautious of lobbying sleaze stories, it is amusing to recall today - was a neighbour and close chum of his loyal CEO, Rebekah Brooks. The government seemed poised to wave through controversial deals that would have given the Murdochs full control of Sky TV. All of that was destroyed by the phone-hacking scandal, and the unseemly chumminess of all parties was exposed. Otherwise we might have had this sort of assault on the BBC back then.
Yet in some ways this crisis really is of more recent vintage. The monster the yellow press created - a toxic stew of plebeian ressentiment - finally got its chance to play Godzilla with the 2016 Brexit vote, which immolated the ‘cosmopolitan’ Toryism notionally represented by Cameron (and, in a past life, Dowden). The field was open for a lurch towards a more intensely nationalist-patriarchal conservatism, but ironically it was not the over-sincere vicar’s daughter, Theresa May, who made it happen, but Boris Johnson - an apolitical sociopath who, when once asked if he had any convictions, replied that he might have picked one up for speeding.
It is no surprise that the rather trivially wicked behaviour of the BBC in this case is entirely unconnected to the national myth-making he presently pursues - even if the crimes are so unconnected, the punishment can quite easily be lashed to the cause, by a leader who offers his acolytes not the semblance of the truth, but the joy of revenge. Since Brexit is unlikely to work as a short cut to vast national prosperity, Johnson will need an army of Girard’s scapegoats to keep his career alive.
A government that presents itself as a jacquerie has no need of a patrician, fusty old institution like the BBC, which has in reality been so scared of its own shadow for so long that it is difficult to find any enthusiastic defenders. Murdoch might finally get his wish; the corporation will be reduced to a purveyor of inconsequential ‘public service’ content, like the American PBS, while he and his peers finally get the run of the airwaves. Or, perhaps, it might be turned into a naked propaganda outlet and purged of its remaining snowflakes.
The left, of course, should have no illusions in the BBC, whose ‘impartiality’ has always been laughable, and whose self-image as somehow fundamentally different from the usual run of state broadcasters is a sham. There is some truth to the underlying accusation that there is little point in a public broadcaster that attempts to ‘out-tabloid’ the tabloids. Diana would have told all to somebody eventually (but for her early death). If there is a role for an institution like the BBC, then it is making stuff that would not be made in the full glare of market forces - and indeed it has played that role, imperfectly, from time to time, commissioning daring dramatic programming and so on.
It is fitting that it faces such an existential threat from these quarters, however. For it shows us what awaits in the coming years: the new Britain at last - a spiv’s paradise hiding its decline under vulgar pageantry.