The BBC forged documents and lied to obtain a 1995 interview with Princess Diana, then covered it up. But that scandal is just the undercard. Get ready for Oprah v. The Queen.
Fake News, British Style
A serious breach of BBC Guidelines on straight dealing
British judge Lord Dyson issued a damning reporting of BBC misconduct surrounding the 1995 interview.
The BBC published and accepted the report in full.
The report found that BBC reporter Martin Bashir forged bank statements and other documents showing payoffs from British PR and media firms to senior staffers of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Bashir presented the fake documents to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, deceiving and inducing him to arrange a meeting between Bashir and the Princess.
The resulting interview made Bashir’s career. According to Diana’s elder son, HRH William, Duke of Cambridge, the deception also contributed to his mother’s “fear, paranoia and isolation.” Her younger son, Harry, Duke of Sussex, explicitly blamed the media for his mother’s death.
Compounding Lies With A Cover-Up
Pressured in 1996 to conduct an internal investigation, BBC officials’ “woefully ineffective” effort amounted to a cover up, which, among other things, omitted from press logs “such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview…and…fail[ed] to mention Bashir’s activities or the BBC investigations of them on any news programme.”
According to Amos Gelb, Executive Director of Washington Media Institute and former Senior Producer for CNN Investigative, “Usually, one says of scandal, ‘It’s not the crime; it’s the cover up.’ Here, it’s both. Like the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandal, Bashirgate suggests that BBC’s ethical gold-standard has been perhaps more hollow than hallowed.”
In prototypically British understatement, Lord Dyson concludes: “[T]he BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark.”
Ironically, Dyson’s statement may itself deceive. A hallmark is “an official mark stamped on gold and silver articles in England to attest their purity.” Associating the BBC with articles warranting hallmarks seems a stretch.
In fact, portraying journalism as a profession, noble or otherwise, represents a recent conceit.
In 1807, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Former newspaperman Mark Twain declared in 1873, “The trouble is that…people…believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.”
Oprah v. The Queen
In the Netflix series The Crown, the Queen Mother laments the decline of the British monarchy “from ruling to reigning…to being nothing at all.”
The Power of Brand
The Queen Mother speaks from a 19th-century perspective, however. A 21st century viewpoint, on the other hand, sees the British monarchy as an intangible — a brand.
And in the Age of Information, brand is everything.
Having ceded virtually all of its temporal power, the British monarchy — known by the Royal Family as “The Firm” — retains the power of its brand. The Firm comprises a Palace bureaucracy and social Establishment, while enjoying alliances with numerous newspapers and media groups. The Firm has refined itself over decades into a formidable image and PR machine.
Hence the import of Oprah v The Queen, which is the latest round in a decades-long struggle between media and monarchy.
Battle of Titans
Oprah Winfrey is a self-made, multi-billionaire communications genius. Like her opponent, she only need go by her first name.
Oprah interviewed in prime time two disaffected, former members of The Firm, Meghan Markle and Harry Windsor (aka The Duchess and Duke of Sussex). The Sussexes accused the Royal Family of a range of failings and sins, from calculated snubs to racism.
In short, Oprah and a large section of the American media took on The Firm.
The interview and subsequent statements and coverage may have centered on Meghan and Harry, but only in the way soccer centers on a ball. The Sussexes are merely the instruments for the competition, not the players or the stakes for which the game is played.
In light of this clash, “one wonders,” as the Queen might say, about the timing of the Dyson Report’s release. The report temporarily gave Diana’s supposedly feuding sons common cause. The release also calls into question the integrity, motives, and truthfulness of any coverage of The Firm.
Oprah vs The Queen involves media media forces that can bend, if not create, reality.
The only sure thing about this game is its lack of both referee and rules.