The deceit employed by Martin Bashir to land his sensational 1995 Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales has been branded “one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting” by John Birt, the BBC’s director general at the time.
Lord Birt, giving testimony to an inquiry by the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, said the lengths Bashir went to convince Diana and subsequently lie to bosses about his actions represented a “one-in-100-year occurrence of having a rogue reporter willing to deceive on this scale”.
Among his actions, Bashir faked bank statements to win the trust of Earl Spencer and, ultimately, Diana, then went on to lie to senior BBC executives who investigated his practices at the time.
“He started his BBC career on Songs of Praise and ends it as the BBC’s religious editor and in between perpetrates one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting,” said Lord Birt, in testimony to the culture select committee of MPs investigating the affair.
“This was a serial liar on an industrial scale.”
Last month, a damning inquiry, conducted by the former supreme court judge John Dyson, found Bashir used “deceitful behaviour” and said a 1996 internal investigation “covered up” known facts about how he secured the interview.
That investigation was led by the former director general Tony Hall, who was then head of BBC News, who ultimately concluded that Bashir was an “honest and honourable man”.
“I don’t think the words ‘honest and honourable’ 25 years on look appropriate at all,” Hall told the committee during a hostile one-hour session, in which he was asked if he destroyed a document pertinent to the internal investigation.
“We have not tried to conceal from the public – or anyone – any of the conclusions we came to 25 years ago. The notion that there’s been some consistent line that we’ve drawn under this trying to conceal something from the public is not true.”
Hall said Bashir had appeared “contrite, inexperienced and out of his depth” in a lengthy interview during the investigation, resulting in a “yellow card” approach that allowed him to remain at the BBC until 1999.
“The thing I remember most vividly was that he ended up in tears,” said Hall. “I, we, the team gave him a second chance and that was abused and misplaced. We didn’t get to the bottom of the lies Bashir told us.”
John Nicolson, an SNP MP and former BBC News presenter, said Hall should “forfeit some of his lavish [BBC] pension” over failures including not asking Spencer if he had been shown the faked bank statements.
“I have been a public servant for 35 years,” said Hall, who has also run the Royal Opera House. “I have done a hell of a lot for the BBC and I think for the arts. And I regret this one thing we all got wrong because we were lied to by Bashir 25 years ago.”
On Monday, an internal BBC investigation into the rehiring of Bashir in 2016, when Hall was director general, cleared all those involved and found “no evidence” it was done to cover up the events of 1995.