The BBC failed over the Diana, Princess of Wales interview but the scandal must not be used by the broadcaster’s enemies to “tear down” its place in national life, a former culture secretary has warned.
While the corporation “got it badly wrong” and must be held to account, Labour peer Lord Smith of Finsbury stressed the need for it and other public service broadcasters (PSBs) to be “sustained and supported”.
He made his call at Westminster after an inquiry found that journalist Martin Bashir had used “deceitful behaviour” to land the 1995 world exclusive with Diana, including using fake bank statements, and an internal BBC investigation a year later had covered it up.
Speaking during a parliamentary debate on public service broadcasting, Lord Smith, who served in Tony Blair’s government, said: “Let’s be clear – the BBC failed. It failed not only in allowing Martin Bashir to use fake documents and dishonestly to secure an interview.
“It failed above all in not acknowledging the error when it had investigated and knew about it. It failed in its basic duty to be transparent.
“For all of this there is no excuse. These are not the standards expected and insisted on for a public service broadcaster.”
However, Lord Smith added: “What must not happen, however, is for this to be seized on by the enemies of the BBC to tear down its place in the life of the nation.
“The sight last weekend of the tabloid newspapers salivating over the discomfiture of the BBC was risible hypocrisy at its worst.
“Some spokespeople for the Government, though happily not all, have leaped on an anti-BBC bandwagon.”
He went on: “There have been some arguments saying he BBC should be subject to external control. Even Government directed control. That would be an immensely dangerous road to take.
“The BBC is a public broadcaster, it is not a state broadcaster and must never become one. Genuine independence is crucial.
“Over Bashir the BBC got it badly wrong. They must be held to account for it by Ofcom.
“The role of the BBC like that of the other public service broadcasters must be sustained and supported.
“We need our public service broadcasters – impartial, informative, trusted, creative, part of our national life we can be proud of.
“The Government must ensure they aren’t damaged. They are quite simply too valuable for us all.”
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Grender said: “While Bashir’s behaviour was shocking and subsequent management action lamentable, there have been fundamental changes in BBC accountability since then.
“The BBC is now under external regulation by Ofcom, and any such lapses in editorial standards would be swiftly exposed.”
TV director and producer Viscount Colville of Culross said: “Martin Bashir’s original fraud, and the 25 years the BBC has taken to admit the fraud, are dreadful failures of management within the organisation. However, I believe it would be much more difficult to repeat today.”