24 May 2021, The Tablet

The ethical failure behind Martin Bashir's lying subterfuge at the BBC

The ethical failure behind Martin Bashir's lying subterfuge at the BBC

A Daily Mail spread with the headline, BBC Lies: the Spencer Files

Does the end ever justify the means? When the means in question involves various forms of dishonest subterfuge, fraud and lying? Before we answer that question in the case of former BBC television journalist Martin Bashir, let us consider the contribution of the United States First Army Group, under the name of Operation Fortitude South, to the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. The army was completely fictitious: a gigantic lie. A vast assembly of fake rubber tanks and canvas landing craft was assembled in Kent, together with a large volume of radio traffic that such an army would normally generate. As a result Hitler kept 15 divisions in the Calais area to resist an assault that never came, troops that could have tipped the balance had they been deployed to foil the actual landings hundreds of miles away.

That was war time. That was part of a supreme effort to overthrow a murderous tyranny that had Europe by the throat. The end was good. Indeed far worse means had been employed by the allies to bring about eventual victory. But the example demonstrates that the principle of morally good ends never justifying morally bad means is not universally applicable.

The means used by Martin Bashir to persuade the brother of Princess Diana to facilitate a broadcast interview with her included showing him forged bank statements to prove that members of her staff were being paid by newspapers to spy on her. Bashir’s lying subterfuge was designed to encourage confidence in him, as someone who had the Princess’s interests at heart. She agreed to be interviewed by him, and in the course of it made sensational remarks such as the famous “there were three of us in his marriage so it was a bit crowded” – referring to the affair her husband was having with the then Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles.

Bashir has long admitted that it was wrong of him to use these forged documents, and to make other dishonest allegations to Earl Spencer, but he has denied putting them directly to her before or during the interview. But Earl Spencer passed them on. They undoubtedly helped to undermine her confidence in many of the people around her.

What do we make of this? Bashir’s ethics are neither here nor there, compared with the ethics of the BBC that employed him. Why was he not terrified he would be found out? Why would he not expect instant dismissal in disgrace, if he was? How come the BBC allowed one of its employees – and presumably most of them – to believe that such conduct was permissible, or at least excusable? Or was it in thrall to the doctrine that the end could justify the means, that some apparently harmless subterfuge was a legitimate tactic to use in obtaining a world scoop? How had the BBC failed to make its staff aware of its utter unacceptability, on pain of the sack? Did one of the BBC’s myriad of executive editors not know of and approve these tactics? If so did he or she not also fear instant dismissal? I have worked for many journalistic enterprises during my long career, and in none of them would I expect to get away with the methods used by Martin Bashir.  

The answer is that the BBC had let its conscience go blunt, and had grown to treat the world of television journalism as an amoral jungle where anything goes, a place where ends can justify means. Part of the reason is precisely the BBC’s very high standing in the world of journalism. It believes with good reason that it is one of the best broadcasters in the world. But the higher you  climb, the harder you fall. It is relevant that nothing Bashir stated in his actual interview with Diana, by way of a statement or question, was untrue. In its actual broadcasting, the BBC does not tell lies. It may sometimes edit its material to give a distorted impression, something of which I have had personal experience; and it is extremely hard to get it to admit to any fault. There is a culture of compliance rather than of genuine fairness, of observing the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

There is an institutional arrogance about the BBC that makes it hard to love, even by those who work for it. It has raised the pursuit of balance and impartiality to a fine art, even at the expense of sometimes giving a false impression of reality. Every controversial opinion has to be balanced by its opposite, or at least by an interviewer putting the opposite case by way of “on other hand some people might say...” or some such device. If Governments don’t like its often critical tone towards their successes and failures, that's because it’s doing its job.

At the end of the day the question, “Does the end ever justify the means?” turns on proportionality. Defeating Hitler was infinitely more important than avoiding lying to him. The same could apply to detecting serious crime, when the police use undercover officers in a deliberate deception in order to provide information on serious criminal activity. But on occasion such officers have been used to infiltrate political movements by befriending, and even marrying and having children with, female members of such movements. Such means are clearly disproportionate to the ends being sought. So it is not only the BBC which needs to sharpen up its ethical and moral intelligence. Ethics should be taught as a compulsory part of every training course, and included in every contract of employment. It should be given high priority in the culture of every institution, and demonstrated in practical ways in the normal course of business. Virtue ethics, the cultivation of good character, has never been more important – nor more missing. Rules are important, but never enough.

What do you think?


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