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The entrnace to the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation in London on Oct. 30, 2017.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Bower is a writer and journalist and former BBC TV employee.

On the eve of its hundredth birthday, the British Broadcasting Corporation is fighting for its existence. Once globally renowned as an outstanding broadcaster, the Beeb is now tarnished as deceitful, untrustworthy and increasingly unpopular. Last week’s publication of a report by Lord Dyson, a respected judge, about the dishonest circumstances in which Princess Diana was persuaded in 1995 to give her epic interview to Panorama, the BBC’s flagship public affairs program, shamed a slew of the Corporation’s most senior former executives. The most important was Tony Hall, a lifelong BBC employee who retired as the BBC’s director-general in August last year.

In 1995 and 1996, Mr. Hall ran the BBC’s news and current affairs coverage. Together with others, he unreasonably accepted the explanation by Panorama reporter Martin Bashir about a slew of lies he told Diana to secure an amazing scoop, which included Diana’s unforgettable observation about Prince Charles’s adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

For 25 years, Mr. Bashir’s lies were concealed until Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, exposed the truth. But in self-preservation, Lord Dyson’s remit was limited by the BBC to 1995-1996. The cover-up, which lasted until October last year, remains uninvestigated – not least because the perpetrators are still employed at the BBC.

BBC investigation finds journalist tricked Diana into interview

Pertinently, at the very moment in 2020 when the BBC broadcast a self-righteous three-part series denouncing Rupert Murdoch and a phone-hacking scandal at his News Corp., BBC managers were still falsely denying that any internal files regarding the Panorama program existed. So the systemic rottenness burrowed deep into the BBC’s highest echelons remains. Only another inquiry will expose the Corporation’s total dishonesty.

Scandals and outrage have dogged the BBC since the 1950s. Inevitably, a creative organization employing young, irreverent risk-takers seeking fame treads on toes. The payoff that always saved the BBC from serious retribution was its global fame for producing outstanding and original drama, comedy and journalism – sadly, no more.

Eclipsed on the one side by Netflix and Amazon, the BBC has also succumbed to the curse of political correctness, which suffocated originality and risk. The downward spiral started in the wake of another, long-forgotten scandal.

In 1984, in an episode called Maggie’s Militant Tendency, Panorama exposed a group of Tory MPs as fascists. The MPs sued for libel and won. Margaret Thatcher, a BBC-hater, demanded vengeance. The BBC’s fame was sufficient to rebut her worst demands, but the solution sowed the seeds of the BBC’s self-destruction.

Just as in the wake of Dianagate, the BBC’s critics screeched for “more governance.” Their demands now are enhanced by a succession of recent and unforgivable scandals. A decent former Tory treasurer, Alistair McAlpine, was hounded by a BBC TV program that led people to believe he was a pedophile. That incorrect allegation, motivated by the Corporation’s anti-Tory bias, accelerated Mr. McAlpine’s death. A second scandal involved Jimmy Savile, a famous entertainer employed by the BBC. To protect its reputation, the Corporation concealed before and after his death its knowledge that Jimmy Savile was a rampant pedophile, picking on children appearing on Top of the Pops. Third, but unfortunately not finally, the BBC hired a helicopter to broadcast live a police raid on the home of pop star Cliff Richard, wrongly accused of sex offences. He recovered more than £2-million in compensation from the BBC but still suffers from the allegations.

Peppered among all those appalling misjudgments has been a steady decline in the quality of BBC TV and radio programs. That would not matter except that every home with a TV is compelled to pay £159 annually for a licence or face a criminal conviction. Understandably, the resentment among the army of those who ignore the BBC is growing.

In the wake of Dianagate, the fate of the BBC – a hitherto irreplaceable national institution – is uncertain. Understanding why this former hothouse of creativity declined into dross is key to understanding the fate of public broadcasters across the world. In a word, the British illness is called “Birtism.”

Appointed as the BBC’s director-general in 1992, John Birt was a successful TV producer famous for the Frost-Nixon interviews and much more. In the course of his meteoric rise, Mr. Birt had become obsessed that TV adopt a “mission to explain.” Journalists could only leave the BBC’s premises after their controllers had commandeered the facts and dictated the story to be broadcast. Facts were fashioned to suit the narrative approved by in-house editors. Part of the justification was to prevent a repetition of Maggie’s Militant Tendency.

Experienced gumshoe journalists were controlled by ambitious, safety-first bureaucratic desk-supremos like Tony Hall. United in their contempt for “troublemakers,” Mr. Hall led the distrust of maverick journalists who were galvanized by anti-establishment skepticism and risk-taking.

As an in-house program editor, Mr. Hall had spent little time in the tiresome business of travelling to secure and check a story. He had never confronted a liar while filming a story or experienced the delight of seeing a guilty man squirm on celluloid. Without that experience, he lacked mature judgment.

Mr. Hall’s credulity was damned by Lord Dyson as “woeful.” (Outrageously, the judge passed no comment on the troublemakers who Mr. Hall fired for doubting Mr. Bashir’s honesty and then speaking to the media.)

As a Birtist, Mr. Hall has replaced the brilliant mavericks fronting BBC TV news with dullards who can now only manage repetitious theatrical pieces on camera. Instead of featuring as successors the likes of Keith Graves and Martin Bell – outstanding risk-takers famous for excellent journalism and amazing pictures – today’s BBC news reporters rarely deliver an original story because their editors resemble Mr. Hall, who appointed them. Untalented and unimaginative, Mr. Hall’s clones cannot now change or improve the BBC. The spiral of decline could be irreversible.

That second profound damage caused by Birtism is the removal of creative risk-taking producers across all departments of the BBC. They have been replaced by layers of safe, box-ticking, diversity-conscious placemen and women who have rarely produced an outstanding program. And the BBC’s new director-general resembles that stock.

Imagine hiring as a surgeon a person who has never studied medicine, and the appalling nature of last year’s appointment of Tim Davie as director-general becomes obvious. Mr. Davie, a marketing man who has never produced a single program, is meant to repair his flawed inheritance from Mr. Hall. While Davie can undoubtedly sell Pepsi and even BBC programs, he has little idea how to rebuild the BBC’s former creative genius. He not only lacks the cutting-room experience to analyze why a program has failed, but so far has not shown that he can identify the talent to restore what used to be the world’s finest broadcaster. The BBC’s tragedy is that Mr. Davie was the best internal candidate.

The first solution to Mr. Davie’s problem is obvious. He should recognize his deficiencies and quickly appoint as deputy an outstanding broadcast journalist. That deputy should replace the newsroom dross with hungry, imaginative journalists and sharp supervisors who have taken risks themselves, and in their maturity can decide whether a story is watertight and true. Next, he should remove all those commissioning editors who stifle originality by their inherent caution because they have never made a good program. Finally, he should resist all the demands for yet another layer of governance. The BBC is suffocated by bureaucrats. To save the venerable broadcaster, program-makers, not in-house politicians, should rule.

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