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Sensemaker: A dreadful place to be

Friday 21 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Palestinians welcomed a ceasefire in Gaza after 11 days of fighting and more than 200 deaths.
  • The European Commission approved a plan for free movement within the 27 member states for EU citizens with digital Covid-free certificates.
  • Oxford University said Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes would stay in place, with explanatory material to “contextualize” his legacy.

A dreadful place to be

Non-UK readers new to the story of how the BBC obtained an interview with Princess Diana in 1995 may wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s about deceit, complacency and a 20-year cover-up at the world’s richest public service broadcaster. And it’s music to the ears of Conservative ministers fixated on what they consider the BBC’s left-leaning bias and ready to seize any opportunity to limit its reach and threaten its funding. As the Beeb’s own media editor said last night, it leaves the corporation in “a dreadful place”.

What happened? 26 years ago Martin Bashir had some bank statements faked to persuade Diana’s brother Charles that she was being spied on by her own staff for the security services and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. This was a ruse to get her to agree to an interview. It worked. 23 million people watched Diana say there were three people in her marriage.

And then? An internal investigation by the BBC in 1996, overseen by Tony (now Lord) Hall, concluded Bashir was basically an honest reporter who’d made a mistake, even though by this time Hall knew Bashir had lied repeatedly to his editors as well as to the Spencers. 

Fast forward: a new report by Lord Dyson, commissioned last year by the BBC board and based partly on information from Charles Spencer, finds Bashir’s conduct was a serious breach of corporation guidelines and that (unnamed) managers covered it up. 

Is that it? No. Prince Harry and Charles Spencer have explicitly linked the deception and the failure to own up to it to Diana’s death two years later. Prince William has said it deepened his mother’s “paranoia and isolation” in her final years. But one line in a BBC Panorama special broadcast last night could have more bearing on Britain’s media culture than any of that. The programme found unpublished notes from an interview with Anne Sloman, the BBC’s chief political advisor at the time of its internal investigation. She said: “We concluded that faking documents had been going on as general practice… Our business creates monsters.”

Former Director-General of The BBC Lord Tony Hall accompanies Prince William as he visits The BBC, 2018

The upshot:

  • Culture secretary Oliver Dowden says the government will “consider whether further governance reforms at the BBC are needed in the mid-term charter review”. That review is next spring. Expect the corporation to do whatever it takes to defend its £3.5 billion license fee revenue between now and then, including looking kindly on Whitehall press office invitations to showcase ministers in hard hats on the nightly news.
  • A tough patch for Tony Hall, who will have signed off on Bashir’s re-hiring in 2016 as the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, an appointment that “flabbergasted” at least one former senior TV executive with experience of the beat.

For context (not that it absolves anyone of lies or cover-ups), David Aaronovitch, of both The Times and the BBC, tweets this morning that while he holds no brief for Bashir, “there is industrial level revision of history going on about whether Diana ‘would have given that interview’ if he hadn’t deceived her brother. Lord Dyson makes clear in para 1 that she would”.

New things technology, science, engineering

In the US at least, a lot of people are booking long summer trips on which they plan to combine working-from-laptop with pleasure. Nothing new here, you might say, except that for people used to taking a week off at a time at most, there is. Victoria Gryn is taking her family from Silicon Valley to Costa Rica for a month, two weeks of which she’ll work, two weeks she won’t. The WaPo is calling these working vacci-cations but the trend was coming before vaccines. Airbnb said last year that 60 per cent of people booking longer stays planned to work or study for at least part of them. If you just want to work, Tulsa, Oklahoma, will pay you $10,000 to move there and work remotely, as long as you stay at least a year.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Vegemite in 15 years 
Praise be. Australia and the UK are on course for a comprehensive trade deal that would allow the tariff-free, quota-free exchange of goods between these two great countries within (checks notes) 15 years. Three thoughts: this is a heck of a long time but it is at least realistic. Fifteen years is the standard accession time for a prospective member of the EU, for example. Second, UK farmers are already worried about being undercut by cheaper Australian produce, but if there’s a realistic carbon price by 2036 – and there’d better be – it seems unrealistic to expect that a jar of Vegemite could be cheaper than one of Marmite when shipping costs are factored in. Third, the Brexiteers are right. There is no way anyone would be seriously considering this if the UK were still in the EU.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Hot Arctic
On Wednesday it was hotter in the Russian Arctic village of Nizhnaya Pesha than on the beaches of Croatia or the South of France. It was 30 degrees C. The weather in Russia’s far north is literally out of control, and in this case weather pretty much = climate. This is a heat wave that will pass, but long-term warming in the region is two to three times faster than the global average. It could lead sooner than expected to feedback loops releasing huge amounts of methane from melting permafrost, and to forest fires blackening residual snow cover and thereby speeding up the rate at which it melts. And down south, the world’s biggest iceberg has just calved from Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf. Iceberg A-76 is 105 miles long and 15 wide and is now floating in the Weddell Sea.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

More or less anyone* can now get a Covid vaccination at Dracula’s castle in Romania. You can also get them as a walk-in in Bournemouth, on a bus in Bolton and on similar buses from Delaware to Washington state in the US. But you still can’t get one for love nor money in most of the world’s poorest countries. Join us to work out how to fix this at our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn on vaccinating the world at 1 pm today. 

* EU and Swiss citizens; no appointment needed

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Nothing to see there
35 Republicans joined House Democrats to approve a bill authorising an independent commission to investigate the 6 January insurrection on Capitol Hill. But 10 Republican senators’ support will be needed to get it through the upper house, and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader there, doesn’t back it. He says there are plenty of other investigations already under way. More importantly, Donald Trump doesn’t back it either. He fears a commission’s sweeping subpoena powers would reveal exactly who among his supporters communicated with whom among the insurrectionists in the days before they bashed up the seat of American democracy with crowbars and lead pipes. This man remains de facto leader of the party.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images, EU Copernicus Sentinel/Twitter

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