Subterranean Bullshit Blues: How the government will batter the BBC before its big birthday...

Using Bob Dylan and... uh... Max Mosley to explain what's next in the government's battle against the BBC.

It’s Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, but it’s barely being mentioned: If you can wade through the special supplements, extensive retrospective features, weird UnHerd articles litigating his rudeness and vast swathes of the Radio 4 schedule dedicated to burbling about Bob, you might miss it completely.

Major birthdays — the round numbers — inevitably lead to nostalgia and picking over the question of legacy. But if Bob’s birthday is a big one this year, the BBC’s next one is even bigger. The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded on 18th October 1922 and turns 100 next year.

But you can expect a government that’s gunning to put the Beeb in a box and nail the lid shut to still be talking about the villainous Martin Bashir when the birthday rolls around. Since Lord Dyson’s report into how Bashir’s infamous 1995 interview with Princess Diana was secured, ‘senior government sources’ — Oliver Dowden in various silly hats and Priti Patel dressed as an evil pirate — have been putting it about that the licence fee will be slashed as “the BBC’s world-class status has been compromised”.

The question is: In the wide sweep of the BBC’s history what does the Bashir report signify? Is he the career-shifting motorcycle accident that Dylan suffered just months after completing Blonde on Blonde? Or a minor moment of unpleasantness — Bob being beastly to Donovan in Don’t Look Back?

The government wants Bashir to be the smashup. In The Times, Oliver Dowden wrote a portentous op-ed headlined Bashir scandal: BBC needs to shine a light on its failings. In it, he writes:

The BBC must act quickly to restore trust and reassure the country that it will shine a light on any other areas falling short of the high standards we rightly expect from it. The new leadership deserves credit for having set up an independent investigation and accepting Lord Dyson’s findings in full and I expect them to act swiftly on all his recommendations.

We will not stand idly by in government either. We cannot and should not get involved in editorial decisions but we should reflect on the lack of oversight and challenge that these decisions exposed.

The failures detailed in Dyson’s report occurred in the 1990s. Since then fundamental changes to BBC governance have been made. The BBC Trust was clearly a flawed model and has been replaced by a more powerful board and an independent regulator in Ofcom, the latter being responsible for regulating “content and standards” and being the ultimate adjudicator of complaints.

We will now consider whether such failures of journalistic standards and governance could occur under the new structures.

Dowden, a malevolent Wurzel Gummage weaned on reading law at Cambridge and given access to the hairbrush that his boss Boris Johnson is so cruelly denied, speaks softly but is actually a massive prick — to deliberately garble a phrase. He’s pontificating about standards and trust in a government that treats both concepts with the level of contempt usually reserved for Mrs Brown’s Boys.

For example, in November 2020, Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on minister’s interests, resigned after Johnson ignored his advice to sack Priti Patel after an inquiry found that she was guilty of bullying staff.

Patel sails on in her post and, in common with other cabinet members whose brass necks could fetch significant sums if sold to a scrap dealer, she’s been speakin’ out about the BBC… on the BBC.

She told Andrew Marr on Sunday that:

Right now is a very, very important time for the BBC to very much look at itself and learn very important lessons from the publication of this report. There will be an opportunity not only for reflection but an opportunity to look at governance reforms and how effectively accountability and governance can be strengthened.

This is, remember, the woman who herself has learned two important lessons in government — 1) you can be sacked for running your own rogue foreign policy and return to government not just as a minister but in one of the great offices of state and 2) the takeaway from a report on your bullying nature is not that you should quit but that civil servants should toughen up and the Prime Minister can’t and won’t sack you.

Martin Bashir was and is a liar. He was enabled by piss-weak managers like Tony Hall, who kick the can rather than uncovering the deception and were happy to shove things under the carpet to protect a major ‘scoop’. But the BBC is being castigated by Priti Patel — a woman who makes Cruella de Vil look like a humanitarian and an animal lover.

In parliament yesterday, Lee Anderson, one of the Conservative Party’s 2019 intake, howled:

I personally have ripped up my TV licence! They won’t get another penny from me, EVER! Because in my opinion, the once-great BBC is ROTTEN!

Anderson, a former Labour councillor before he defected to the Tories over Brexit, was suspended from the party in 2018 after dumping boulders at the entrance to a local camp site in what he claimed was an attempt to stop travellers from staying there.

During the 2019 general election campaign, Anderson continued his unhinged ways by responding to a murder on a council estate in his constituency by saying that council tenants he didn’t approve of should be…

… in the field, picking potatoes or any other seasonal vegetables, back in the tent, cold shower, lights out, six o’clock, same again the next day.

His next wheeze was setting up a staged door-knock encounter with a friend while being filmed for a Mail+ report with Michael Crick. He was caught on camera phoning his friend and saying:

Make out you know who I am, that you know I’m the candidate, but not that you are a friend.

He tried to bluff his way out of it before apologising several weeks later.

Anderson was also one of three Tory candidates investigated by the party over claims of antisemitism during the election campaign. Anderson was a member of a Facebook group that included supporters of Tommy Robinson and promoted conspiracy theories about George Soros. He also co-signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph announcing the formation of the ‘Common Sense Group’ of Tory MPs which used the antisemitic phrase “cultural marxism”.

The Conservative Party said Anderson and Sally-Ann Hart, the MP for Hastings, who was also investigated for antisemitism after posting a Soros conspiracy theory video and liking a comment featuring a Nazi slogan, undertook training from the Antisemitism Policy Trust. Curiously though, the results of the party’s investigations into the three candidates were never published.

I raise the actions of this minor backbencher — common sense and all — purely to point out that whether it’s Priti Patel bullying staff or Lee Anderson indulging in antisemitic conspiracy theories, the Conservative Party is plenty rotten itself. The difference between it and the BBC is that the rot is expected, even celebrated, among the Tories.

But contemporary scandals in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party don’t get nearly the time and space that Rupert Murdoch’s titles are giving to Bashir’s actions 25 years ago. Bashir is back on The Times front page today with comments from Conservative MP Julian Knight that there is “more than a whiff of criminality” around how the Princess Diana interview was secured.

Knight — the chair of the Culture, Media & Sport select committee — must have a very refined nose as a member of the Conservative Party, able to detect the subtle differences between the scent of scandals that can be ignored and ones where the ‘whiff’ is very politically useful. Knight published a book advocating tax avoidance back in 2015, so he’s a past master of things that stink.

In his comments in the Commons, Knight also suggested that Bashir had been rehired by the BBC years later in an effort to “keep his mouth shut” about the deception. The BBC tells The Times that:

We have written to Julian Knight to say the information he was given and referred to in his comments in the House is not correct, and we can confirm there was an interview process for this position, and that Martin Bashir was interviewed.

Elsewhere in today’s Times, William Hague, former baseball cap-sporting leader of the notoriously always clean Conservatives, contributes a piece headlined A strong institution doesn’t evade scrutiny. He writes:

In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identified the key role of parties in acting as “gatekeepers” in a democracy… filtering out candidates who are a danger to the whole system… but in the 2020s, the gatekeepers are fleeing the gates.

Why is this happening? Partly it is because too many people in the 21st century are beguiled by the appeal of the “authentic” leader to a mass electorate, hence the rise of the “strong man” such as Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Trump. The role of leaders in nurturing all the other institutions we need, and building up their integrity, reputation and capacity so that they can be pillars of a democratic society, is often forgotten.

Curiously, Hague neglects to mention one name in that pileup of populists — Boris Johnson, a man who acts as though integrity and reputation are celebrity fragrances that he was once bought for Christmas but has never worn.

He does, however, find space to praise current BBC Director-General and former Conservative Party council candidate Tim Davie:

While more diversity in the media should be welcomed, provided it is balanced, there can be no doubt that a BBC worthy of respect is an institution we need. The current director-general, Tim Davie, seems the best hope of achieving that for some time. Doing so will require further reform to entrench integrity and accountability into a system that lacked both.

Davie and the recently installed BBC chairman, Richard Sharp — a former advisor and mentor to Rishi Sunak, who previously donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party — are bending over backwards to accommodate the government’s demands while the corporation’s reporters continue to engage in acts of self-flagellation for a scandal which was nothing to do with them.

Yesterday, I was sent the internal email that accompanied the BBC Board’s statement on Lord Dyson’s affair. In it Sharp writes:

I’m sure this last week has been disturbing for each of you as we are all proud to be part of the BBC and it is very painful to see its reputation damaged. We believe the way that we respond to this situation will ultimately leave the BBC stronger, more effective and more resilient.

We are an organisation of over 20,000 people, committed to the success of the BBC. In my opinion, we are the world’s leading broadcaster and our ability to tell the truth has never been more important. However, we know that our trust has to be earned every day, by each of us. We must reflect on what Lord Dyson’s report has found and we will do so.

It’s a typically bloodless statement and despite Sharp’s claim to be proud of working for the BBC — he’s only been there since February and was put there because his worldview is in line with the government’s. He’s a cuckoo; put in the BBC’s nest not to protect its eggs but to fry them up ready to be gobbled up by the private sector.

The non-executive Board Directors asked to ‘investigate’ the BBC’s current editorial practices are Sir Nick Serota — the former director of the Tate — and two former BBC News employees…

Sir Robbie Gibb, the brother of Tory MP Nick Gibb, who served as Theresa May’s Head of Communications and was, until recently, an advisor to GB News. After working at Conservative Campaign HQ in the 1990s, he rejoined the BBC — where he had started out as a researcher — in 2001 as a Newsnight staffer and rose to become Head of BBC Westminster & Editor of Live Political Programmes in 2008, a role he held until 2017. He has since been a strident critic of the BBC.

After writing for The Telegraph in August 2020 that…

… the BBC has been culturally captured by the woke-dominated group-think of some of its own staff. There is a default left-leaning attitude from a metropolitan workforce mostly drawn from a similar social and economic background…

… and specifically attacking Newsnight’s Policy Editor, Lewis Goodall, on Twitter in the same month (“Is there anyone more damaging to the BBC’s reputation for impartiality than Lewis Goodall?”), he was appointed to the BBC Board in April 2021. He was saying all the right things to please the government.

At the time of Gibb’s appointment, Amol Rajan, the BBC’s Media Editor, wrote credulously:

The appointment clearly strengthens the BBC’s links not just with Westminster, but with the Conservative Party specifically.

No shit, Amol.

The other member of the gang of three is Ian Hargreaves, who is currently Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University, but whose CV is mostly comprised of jobs in journalism, including Deputy Editor of The Financial Times, Editor of The Independent, Editor of The New Statesman, and Director of BBC News and Current Affairs. It’s the last one that The Daily Mail will be digging into even as I type this.

I’ve already written extensively about how the British press’ worst bastards and glasshouse dwellers are chucking rocks at the BBC over the Bashir scandal. Their hypocrisy is writ large again in the coverage of the death of Max Mosley, a man for whom the phrase “complicated personal life” is a wild understatement.

The son of fascist power couple and fervent lifelong Hitler fanatics Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mosley (née Mitford), Max Mosley actively supported his father’s political ambitions way into adulthood and never publicly rejected his views, despite going on to be a supporter of the Conservative Party then a controversial Labour donor later in life.

In 2019, he told an interviewer:

I do not tolerate racism and, like most people, my political views have changed over time.

He met his wife, Joan Taylor, in 1961 while he was protesting against an anti-apartheid march.

Mosley’s work life was in Formula 1 where he had a huge effect and coverage of him from the 1970s onwards was largely confined to that sphere. But in 2008, he was splashed on the front page of the News of the World in a story that made baseless allegations that BDSM orgies in which he took part had a Nazi theme.

He was right to fight the story and bought a privacy action against the News of the World, which he won. The judge in the case concluded that “there was no public interest or other justification” for the publication of video of him and that there was no Nazi theme to the activities.

His win was an extremely bittersweet one — shortly after his first legal victory against the News of the World, his son Alexander died of a drugs overdose aged 39. Mosley believed the tabloid’s story had played a huge role in the tragedy.

Mosley continued to campaign against British newspapers, unsuccessfully attempting to convince the European Court of Human Rights to introduce a requirement for papers to give advance notice to people whose privacy they planned to invaded, and underwriting the legal costs of those fighting News International in phone hacking cases.

Revelling in the fact that you cannot libel the dead, the British newspapers are having their delayed revenge this morning. The Telegraph writes:

This was the Mosley modus operandi: ignore the unpleasant facts staring you in the face; challenge instead the basis on which those facts might be relayed. It was the tactic deployed when in 2008 he sued The News of the World for reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic orgy, in which he had whipped prostitutes dressed in striped pyjamas while counting in German.

It was the tactic deployed ever after in an attempt to scrub the record books of the detail that such an orgy had even taken place. Whether belly-aching about privacy or data protection, the reality was that Mosley – who died of cancer on Sunday, aged 81 – wanted to manage and control information, and not just new information, but the historic record too. 

To most people the very attempt to whip, truss and dominate reality in this way would have been outlandish, if not outrageous.

While The Sun, in one of several stories, writes beneath the headline Max Mosley dead: F1 boss, son of fascist leader & enemy of press exposed over prostitute orgy dies of cancer at 81:

ENEMY of the free press and ex-Formula One boss Max Mosley has died aged 81.

The millionaire, whose Hitler sympathiser dad Oswald led the British fascist movement, was famously filmed at a sadomasochistic orgy with prostitutes.

And The Daily Mailthe “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” Daily Mail — says:

No doubt other obituaries will see him praised for his stewardship at Formula One, his road safety campaigning and donations to medical research. But Max Mosley never threw off the chill shadow of his family's past.

Well, it would know about the “chill shadow” of a fascist past, wouldn’t it?

Max Mosley got 81 years on this planet. Bob Dylan has reached 80. The BBC is on the cusp of its 100th birthday. In the sweep of histories — both of people and organisations — there are many events you can focus on, many moments you can decide are the decisive ones.

Will the Bashir scandal be that moment for the BBC? The government and its media outriders will do everything they can to make it so.

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Correction: An earlier version of this edition incorrectly attributed Michael Crick’s 2019 election report on Lee Anderson to Channel 4 News rather than Mail+. Thanks to Martin SFP Bryant for spotting the error.