Reflections on the Dyson Report: lessons for the press

Lord Dyson’s Report, published on May 20th, follows the Judge’s investigation into the circumstances of how BBC reporter Martin Bashir came to interview Princess Diana for the BBC’s Panorama programme in November 1995, and to what extent the BBC had subsequently sought to hide any wrongdoing.


The findings of the Report are damning: Lord Dyson concludes unequivocally that Bashir deceived Diana’s brother Earl Spencer as he sought to agree the interview, and that the BBC’s internal investigations into the matter were “woefully ineffective” (p. 319).  He concludes that the broadcaster “fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark” (p.322).


Bashir’s conduct was deeply unethical, and the BBC’s response – over decades – was appalling, and helped to prevent wrongdoing from being properly held to account.


Hacked Off campaigns on ethics in the press, not broadcast media.  But it’s impossible to ignore some of the similarities between the misconduct committed by Mr Bashir, and that which was widespread across the newspaper industry in the 00s.


Blagging: using deception to generate stories


What Mr Bashir did could be described as “blagging”, a form of unethical (and often illegal) conduct widespread in the newspaper industry throughout the 00s.


Graham Johnson, an investigative reporter who has exposed unlawful information at The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, describes blagging as obtaining information by deception in the pursuit of a story.


Often, the objective is to directly obtain information for publication.


However, in this case, Bashir lied to gain access to Princess to Diana, and most likely, to keep her onside during the editorial process by manipulating her.


Johnson explains how the practice worked in the newspaper industry, and how it was similarly employed by Bashir.


He said,


“To obtain a phone bill, a private investigator commissioned by a newspaper would ring the phone company and con the operator into handing over the private information over by deception.

“To obtain a story, Bashir conned Diana into handing over information by deception.

“There is no difference between what Bashir did and what tabloid journalists did.

“But because it is done very subtly by well-spoken people of stature, who trade off the hard-won reputations of the national institutions they work for, they are very rarely held to account.”


Although it is at least conceivable that such an activity would be carried out in the public interest (to expose serious wrongdoing, for example), Johnson considers that the vast majority of blags carried out for the press were done without any public interest justification at all.


Similarly, there is no reasonable public interest justification for the “blag” committed against Earl Spencer by Bashir.  It was deeply unethical.


Deliberate cover-up or incompetence?


It is clear from reading Dyson’s report that the BBC’s actions amounted to a cover-up.  Their internal investigations tended to take Bashir at his word, even after he himself had admitted he had lied on several occasions.


The decision not to interview Earl Spencer was a serious and inexcusable error, which the BBC are rightly well-criticised for.


Additionally, the BBC’s failure to be more open in response to press enquiries in April 1996 (p.208) was wrong and prolonged the cover-up.


The question that Dyson does not conclusively answer is the extent to which this was incompetence, and the extent to which this was a deliberate attempt to cover-up the truth.


Again, there are parallels with the newspaper industry and some of the scandals which have affected that part of the media over the last two decades.


Most notably, the phone hacking scandal was also the subject of a cover-up.  Like Bashir, reporters (or those commissioned on their behalf) acted unethically (and unlawfully) to gather stories.  Their victims are counted in the thousands.


The practice of hacking occurred at multiple newspaper titles and went on for several years.  Millions of pounds have been paid out by Mirror publisher Reach PLC and News of the World owner News UK (as it is now).


The question has also been asked of the newspaper industry: did this illegality occur and remain covered up for so long because editors & executives knew about it and deliberately concealed it, or because they were not aware of it?  In other words: was this a deliberate cover-up, or incompetence?


This question has at least been examined in relation to the BBC.  The corporate governance practices at newspapers which did nothing to address phone hacking and allowed a cover-up of that scandal to persist have yet to be investigated by the second part of the Leveson Inquiry.


Similar comparisons could be made about the related, but distinct, data theft scandal which also affected the press in the 00s.


A Judge-led investigation: the right call, decades too late


The decision by the BBC to commission a proper Judge-led investigation into these matters is to its credit, albeit coming many, many years too late.


Such an investigation is an appropriate first step for the BBC in addressing this appalling scandal, and it’s right too that the Director General has apologised unconditionally to Princess Diana’s family.  It is important now that the BBC learns lessons from this Report, does what it can to make amends, and does what is necessary to ensure such practices are never repeated.


In that, there is a lesson for the newspaper industry.


Because media outlets rely on the confidence and trust of the public.  And where the BBC has acted so badly, and fallen so far short of ethical standards, they have now, very belatedly, shown some accountability for the harm caused.


The newspaper industry should do likewise.  With the lowest levels of trust across Europe, the UK’s newspaper industry must also act to repair the damage done to its own reputation by phone hacking and other revelations of unethical practices.


Yet unlike the BBC, most newspapers remain unregulated.  And the judge-led investigation into the hacking scandal was cancelled by the Government, despite public support, after the industry lobbied against it.


The actions of the BBC are inexcusable, and the broadcaster deserves the criticism it gets.  But until the newspaper industry can the show the slightest interest in genuine accountability for its own illegality and unethical conduct committed, it has no place making criticisms of its own.

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