Years ago, shortly after Tony Hall became director general of the BBC, I was invited to have a cup of tea with him. I found him absolutely charming, a man of intelligence and culture.
But although he made all the right noises, I could tell he had no real fire in his belly, no real desire to rock the Corporation’s boat. He was far too embedded in the internal corporate culture, too much of the problem himself to be able to offer any sort of solution.
Yesterday he resigned from his post as chairman of the National Gallery, forced out by the fallout from Lord Dyson’s damning report into Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview.
I don’t think he’s a bad man. But I was struck by his ability to say an awful lot without saying very much at all
Back then Hall – now Lord Hall – was Managing Director of News, and presided over the internal BBC inquiry that initially exonerated Bashir. Either Lord Hall was spectacularly naive, or else he simply didn’t want to see what was before his very eyes.
In either case, it’s not a great reflection on his abilities. I don’t think he’s a bad man. But I was struck by his ability to say an awful lot without saying very much at all.
In fact he reminded me of the character played by Jason Watkins in the BBC’s own parody of itself, W1A. As Director of Strategic Governance, Watkins’s character, Simon Harwood, is an adept operator whose main aim in life is to ensure his own corporate survival, ideally at the expense of his rivals.
Hall had that quality, a kind of imperceptible ruthlessness masked by an accommodating smile, which meant you never truly knew what he was thinking. Or if he was thinking anything at all.
The BBC has a surfeit of such characters, each one intent on protecting their own interests, regardless of the effects on the BBC or the taxpayers who fund their salaries.
Which is why this is not the first time the Corporation has found itself in the dock in this way. What happened with Diana – and other BBC disasters such as the Jimmy Savile cover-up – is a symptom of a fundamental flaw at its heart. A flaw that, more and more, seems to threaten its very existence.
Indeed, it reminds me of the situation facing another once great organisation, the Labour Party.
An institution which, through lack of rigour and honesty over the course of successive failed leaderships and because of an inability to examine its failings or listen to anyone outside a very limited echo chamber, finds itself increasingly irrelevant to its once loyal supporters.
What happened with Diana – and other BBC disasters such as the Jimmy Savile cover-up – is a symptom of a fundamental flaw at its heart
The same is happening to the BBC. Where once people like me would have been staunch defenders of the licence fee and the need for a public service broadcaster, now I’m not so sure. What is the point in paying for impartiality if in its actions it behaves no better than a two-bit scandal-sheet?
And this breaks my heart. Because I, like millions in the UK, love not just the great things the BBC produces, but the idea of the BBC itself. I don’t want it to fail, to be humiliated by tawdry scandals.
I want it to carry on being the BBC I so admired and missed growing up in Italy, the one I would look forward to for weeks when my family came back to the UK during the holidays. After the creative desert that was Italian television, the richness of Radio 4, the quality of the drama, the quirkiness of the comedy and the professionalism of the news were pure delights.
And it made me proud to be British. Because whatever else was wrong with this country, there was always the BBC, a shining beacon of honesty, integrity and fairness.
That is why this feels like such a tragedy. The BBC isn’t just a broadcaster, it is a cultural representation of Britain as a nation. It is who we are. And right now, I’m ashamed of it.
What’s time done to old Friends?
As the cast of Friends announced an on-screen reunion, I was struck by the contrast between the boys and the girls in the new photographs. Jennifer Aniston and co don’t look much different from how they did back in the day, whereas the men definitely look their age. Has life really been that much harder for Joey, Chandler and Ross? Or are there some other mysterious forces at work?
● IS IT really so terrible that the Prime Minister was helped through lockdown by food parcels from upmarket grocer Daylesford Organic? At the time, he was dealing with the biggest national crisis since the war, had almost died from Covid, his fiancee had also had it (while pregnant) – and they had a newborn son to take care of. Personally I’m rather glad someone was making sure the man whose job is to take care of the entire country was enjoying his five a day.
Enough with the phoney pearl-clutching!
● THE Bury branch of Unite, which largely represents binmen, has come out in support of the Batley Grammar School teacher hounded out of his job for using an image of the Prophet Mohammed in an RE lesson. But not a peep from the teaching unions. Why am I not surprised?
● ON Thursday, the GPs’ union passed a vote of no confidence in senior officials at NHS England, effectively rejecting calls to start seeing more patients face to face. Apparently GPs are ‘incandescent with anger’ at the suggestion, accusing NHS England of ignoring ‘the needs of the profession’. And there’s me thinking the whole point of being a doctor was to serve the needs of the patient.
● OF course Oprah Winfrey would defend the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to tell all while at the same time demanding greater privacy. She’s the power (and money) broker at the heart of all this. The last thing she wants is Harry coming to his senses.
● DESPITE being in the midst of a deeply painful personal and public crisis, Prince William yesterday addressed the Church of Scotland in his capacity as Lord High Commissioner. He spoke of his love of Scotland, of the pain of hearing of his mother’s death at Balmoral, and of the solace he found in the Scottish hills. He’s not yet 40 but with each day that passes I’m more and more convinced that if anyone can set the Monarchy back on an even keel after the turmoil of recent years, it’s William.
● FATTY from the Bash Street Kids has been re-christened Freddie by the owners of the Beano to ‘celebrate’ the fact that children come ‘in all shapes and sizes’. That may be true, but the whole point of publications like the Beano is that they push the boundaries of what is acceptable. It’s why children like them. Remove the subversion and you might as well just buy The Guardian.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland says he will carry on wearing a face mask if he gets a cold – even after the pandemic. I agree, though for slightly different reasons: mine hides a multitude of chins.
Harry’s place of paranoia and pain
Charles Spencer used the phrase ‘amplifying anxiety’ to describe what Bashir did to Diana
One of the most disturbing things about the Bashir scandal is the unavoidable parallels between Diana’s state of mind at the time of the Panorama interview and Prince Harry’s current situation.
Charles Spencer used the phrase ‘amplifying anxiety’ to describe what Bashir did to Diana – effectively preying on small fears to turn them into huge demons.
It seems to me that this is what the Duchess of Sussex has also done to Harry – albeit unwittingly and without any malicious intent. In fact the opposite.
In encouraging him to explore his emotions at a much deeper level and endlessly revisiting traumatic events from his past, she has led him to a place of paranoia and pain.
Add to that the fact that he is now isolated from his family in America, and you have a situation not unlike the one Diana faced in the wake of Panorama. Heartbreaking.