By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Once upon a time, it was the most trusted broadcaster; to which the world turned for news without distortion or warped opinions. It has a heritage impossible to be matched; the pioneers of the trade, Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radio, and John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, both being closely associated with it. It was the world’s first national broadcaster and even today is the largest broadcaster, employing over 22,000 around the world. It began life as The British Broadcasting Company, formed on 18 October 1922 by a group of leading wireless manufacturers including Marconi himself. The successor, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), affectionately referred to as The Beeb, Auntie or Auntie Beeb by generations of listeners and viewers, was established by a Royal Charter in January 1927. In November 1929, using its frequencies, John Logie Baird added a new dimension to broadcasting with the first successful experimental television broadcasts from studios near Covent Garden in London. BBC World Service kept listeners around the globe informed during the Second World War. The first head of the BBC was John Reith and his directive, to “inform, educate and entertain”, which the Beeb claims to follow but, unfortunately, things are not what they were.
What has gone wrong since? That is the question on many a lip at the moment and the editorial “Auntie Beeb’s deceit” (The Island, 24 May) sums up the frustrations of many. In fact, the deceit surrounding ‘The Diana interview’ is far worse than what is referred to in the editorial. The inquiry by Lord Dyson, retired judge of the Supreme Court, uncovered not only the dishonesty of Martin Bashir but also the attempted cover-up by the BBC, reminding us of Watergate. Lord Dyson also queried the bizarre decision of the BBC, rehiring Bashir in 2016 as religious affairs correspondent, quickly promoting him to the post of BBC’s Religion Editor.
Martin Bashir, a son of Pakistani immigrants to the UK, who embraced Christianity in his late teens, hit the limelight with the ‘Diana interview’ in 1995, for which he and the BBC won many accolades. Bashir’s prestige was so high that the private broadcaster ITV, snatched him from BBC in 1999. Bashir justified ITV’s ‘purchase’ by scoring another triumph with the 2003 documentary “Living with Michael Jackson”.
However, unlike the Diana interview which raised controversies late, this raised controversy almost immediately, his colleagues claiming that Bashir landed the interview after promising Michael Jackson, that a trip to Africa would be planned for him to visit children with AIDS, accompanied by Kofi Annan, the then UN Secretary-General. This was a false promise and when this was put to Bashir, while under oath in a California court, he refused to answer. Following the broadcast, viewed by 14 million in the UK and 38 million in the US, Jackson complained to the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, accusing Bashir of ‘yellow’ journalism and released a rebuttal interview with clips made by his own cameraman during the interview. After Jackson’s death in 2009, Dieter Wiesner, Jackson’s manager from 1996 to 2003, lamented how Jackson was affected by Bashir’s documentary: “It broke him. It killed him. He took a long time to die, but it started that night. Previously the drugs were a crutch, but after that they became a necessity”
In spite of this controversy, Bashir was able to land lucrative assignments in the USA from 2004 to 2016, first as an anchor for ABC’s Nightline and then as a political commentator for MSNBC, hosting his own programme, and a correspondent for NBC’s Dateline NBC. He left MSNBC in December 2013, after making derogatory comments about the former Governor of Alaska and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, labelling her ‘a world class idiot’ and suggesting someone should defecate in her mouth.
At the time of Bashir’s rehiring by the BBC in 2016 in spite of all this, perhaps, it was no coincidence that Tony Hall, who was head of News at the time of the Diana Interview, was the Director-General. Lord Dyson found that Bashir carried out a sophisticated ruse and lied to his bosses about it, and that the BBC, having been alerted to his behaviour, mostly papered over it and sought to evade scrutiny on the topic. But, worse still, they rehired him!
Dyson report concludes that Bashir tricked Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, into introducing him to the troubled princess. Bashir told Spencer he was working on a story on the news media’s bad behaviour and showed Spencer fake bank statements, unwittingly created by a BBC graphic designer at the request of Bashir, which suggested that a member of Spencer’s security team was being paid by newspapers for information. The first bank documents were essentially the bait, Spencer told Dyson. Soon afterward, Bashir set the hook by showing Spencer a second set of false bank statements suggesting that two palace insiders had also received payments from the media — specifically Diana’s private secretary, Patrick Jephson, and Charles’s private secretary, Richard Aylard. After showing Spencer the fake bank statements, Bashir induced him to arrange a meeting with Diana. “By gaining access to Princess Diana in this way, Mr. Bashir was able to persuade her to agree to give the interview,” Lord Dyson wrote, calling such behaviour a “serious breach” of the BBC’s guidelines on “straight dealing.”
“It is likely that these statements were created by Mr. Bashir and contained information that he had fabricated,” the report states, adding “Mr. Bashir would have little difficulty in playing on her fears and paranoia,”
Prince William confirmed that this indeed was what happened. On release of the Dyson report he made a terse statement wherein he remarked “The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others. It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her”.
When the graphic designer who made fake bank statements for Bashir brought this to the attention of his superiors, he was sacked! Tony Hall, who held the inquiry, claimed he was satisfied with Bashir’s assurance that the statements were not used but failed in his duty by not seeking confirmation by contacting Diana’s brother. Dyson report states:
“And without knowing Earl Spencer’s version of the facts; without receiving from Mr Bashir a credible explanation of what he had done and why he had done it; and in the light of his serious and unexplained lies, Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded, as he did, that Mr Bashir was an honest and honourable man”
Though some argue that what Diana stated in the interview were known facts, it cannot be denied that some were distorted facts based on untruths fed to a vulnerable woman by a dishonest journalist. Much is made of the letter Diana had sent after the interview but this, again, had been done at the behest of Bashir. In fact, Earl Spencer stated in a subsequent BBC Panorama programme: “I have seen the content of the letter. It does not exonerate the BBC as far as I’m concerned because Diana is dealing from a position from having been lied to. She didn’t know that the whole obtaining of the interview was based on a series of falsehoods that led to her being vulnerable to this.” He added “Well, the irony is that I met Martin Bashir on 31 August 1995 because exactly two years later she died and I do draw a line between the two events.”
Beeb did its best to cover up but continued efforts of the British Tabloids, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday as well the TV journalist Andy Webb resulted in the new management, after Tony Hall left the BBC, requesting Lord Dyson to hold the inquiry. Writing in the Daily Mail, Andy Webb has this to say:
“The BBC’s deceit and lies over the Bashir/Diana debacle, in a cover-up that lasted more than 25 years, is for me the most shameful episode in its history. Lord Dyson’s blistering condemnation yesterday of BBC star reporter Martin Bashir and several of his bosses at the corporation has been a very long time coming.
I have witnessed the state broadcaster’s feints and dodges over this affair repeatedly. My requests for information — information the BBC was legally bound to provide — have been blocked and barricaded.
Patrick Jephson, the Princess’s private secretary, left her service immediately after the Panorama interview. Bashir falsely suggested he was in league with MI5 and was spying on her for Prince Charles. Jephson believes that broke the trust Diana held for him. When he spoke to me about this, he had tears in his eyes.
Tiggy Legge-Bourke, nanny to princes William and Harry, had her reputation utterly traduced. Bashir encouraged Diana to believe Tiggy had an affair with Charles and even aborted his baby. These people could certainly argue they have suffered lifelong hurt at the hands of the BBC.”
It looks as if the problems are not likely to end soon for Auntie Beeb. Those who lost their jobs, as a result of the actions of a rogue journalist and managers who attempted a cover-up, are likely to claim compensation and it is rumoured that Auntie may have cough up about five million pounds!
Unfortunately, this is not an incident in isolation. Most Brits of a certain generation are unlikely to ever forget Auntie Beeb’s malicious behaviour towards the national treasure, Sir Cliff Richard.
MPs can show their colours
I refer to this article, ‘Covid bonanza for….’ by Shamnidra Ferdinando.
It was obvious that the LC could not easily be cancelled. It will be interesting to know when the LC was actually opened; before or after Cabinet approval? The answer will be revealing.
Now that the vehicles will come in, come hell or high water with burning ships, there is a simple solution.
If the government is sincere in its intentions to reverse this totally unnecessary expenditure, which the country cannot afford, scraping the bottom of the vangediya as it is, then the vehicles can be sold in the open market, in a transparent manner and at a profit, too, and the wasted funds reimbursed to the Treasury. Personally, I know this will not happen, seeing what we are helplessly seeing being enacted in the country yesterday, today and alarmingly, tomorrow, too.
The next best option is for those MPs who oppose this criminal waste of public funds, to work out a method by which they can sell the vehicles presented to them by the starving masses, in a transparent manner and utilise the proceeds again in a transparent manner to uplift the lives of the millions of poor citizens in their electorates.
ACabinet given opportunity for Members of Parliament to show their true, even if highly faded and smudged, colours!
Gazette Bill in blatant conflict with Constitution
The Colombo Port City Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Bill had been gazetted on March 24 after Cabinet approval, and placed in the order paper of Parliament on April 9. Normally, before placing a Bill on the order paper of the Parliament, it goes through the levels of the Legal Draftsman, Attorney General, Ministry of Justice, and the Cabinet of Ministers.
According to a news item that appeared in the Daily News, on April 27, the Attorney General has informed the Presidential Secretary that the Port City Economic Commission Draft Bill is not inconsistent with the Constitution. But the same Attorney General has advanced the submissions and amendments in court, during the hearing of 18 petitions filed by members of civil society alleging the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution.
The Supreme Court has found more than one third of its clauses are conflicting with the Constitution – the supreme law of Sri Lanka. Thus, it has been proved the Gazette Bill was in blatant conflict with the Constitution.
High officials of the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General and the Legal Draftsman who are supposed to have been involved in the drafting of this Bill are professionals of recognized capability. They are committed to follow the best practices of their professions and should adhere to standards in procedural manuals and professional codes of conduct and ethics. They are bound by the oath taken by them in line with the Constitution and the accountability of the offices they hold. They also would have been supported by several legal eagles and experienced politicians in the Cabinet.
Citizens are confused as to how on earth such a Bill, in blatant conflict with the Constitution, could have been approved by the Attorney General and be drafted by the Legal Draftsman. 149 Members of Parliament have voted to amend 26 clauses of 75 clauses of the Legal Draftsman’s Bill. This is tantamount to a No Confidence Motion on the Legal Draftsman.
Probe into expressway construction and floods
The news item appearing in your issue of 10th June, regarding the Expressway Construction and Floods, is of interest to me, as I had handled Road Projects when attached to the then Department of Public Works [PWD] and later the Ministry for Highways.
It’s stated that Minister Johnston Fernando had instructed his Ministry Secretary to investigate immediately, whether there was any truth in the claim that some areas in Gampaha were inundated owing to the construction work, in the first phase of the Central Expressway, from Kadawatha to Mirigama; and continues to say ‘Yahapalana adjustments to the construction master plan may have lead to the present situation’, which could be insinuated as placing the blame on the previous Yahapalana government. This is the usual blame-game adopted by bankrupt politicians. It will not be surprising if the present government will be blamed when a new government is formed, for mismanagement of projects carried out now.
As far as I know, while construction is on, there comes up certain problems, which may necessitate altering or deviating from the original design. Hence the responsibility lies entirely on the Engineer, and not on any politician or government in power. Here the integrity of the Engineer counts. Sad to say, there have been accusations where professionals have given way to political pressure and projects have become failures. I would like to quote Moeller’s theory “One of the major reasons for a country to be subjected to bad governance is when its professionals do not speak out, but worst still, these professionals actually gang up with those committing anarchy for their own benefit. What the professionals do not realize is that in the long term, they too would be subjected to the worst treatment by these despotic dictators whom they were keen to protect. Moeller’s theory being proved time and again consorting with an autocratic regime is a worst act of treason against one’s own country and its people”
To the credit of Minister Johnston Fernando, he also mentions the likelihood of this flooding by saying “We must keep in mind that the highest rainfall in the known history was reported from this area”. Whatever, the findings of the investigations be, the accusation should be taken as fault finding of Engineers, and they should now come forward to protect their prestigious profession and give reasons, which lay, incompetent politicians, do not have the capacity to understand. Hope the Sri Lanka Institute of Engineers will expose the viles of politicians to steer this country in the correct direction. This goes for other professions as well.
G. A. D. SIRIMAL
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