Reporter who has upstaged Michael Jackson: But what, exactly, is Martin Bashir's game?

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The Independent US

As a man who was once mistaken for the singer Johnny Mathis while he researched a BBC documentary on paedophiles in Cornwall, the television journalist Martin Bashir evidently feels he has travelled a long way in life.

As a man who was once mistaken for the singer Johnny Mathis while he researched a BBC documentary on paedophiles in Cornwall, the television journalist Martin Bashir evidently feels he has travelled a long way in life.

Yesterday he was basking in the worldwide publicity provoked by his appearance as the star witness in the trial of Michael Jackson. The British journalist is coming close to upstaging Jackson himself in what is inevitably being described as the trial of the century. He faces a fine and possibly even jail after refusing to answer a number of questions put to him by the prosecution.

Mr Bashir continues to stonewall Tom Sneddon, the chief prosecution attorney, in the trial, after offering a caustic reply to the lawyer's definition of his work. "What do you mean by video documentaries?" he asked. "I call them current affairs films."

His Living with Michael Jackson "film" has been played in its 110-minute entirety to the trial jury, although given that 38 million US viewers watched it on television and a further 27 million stayed tuned for a subsequent interview (with the reporter, not the pop star) the prosecution need hardly have bothered.

Mr Bashir's ability to secure the interviews that others may only dream of (Diana, Princess of Wales, Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted of killing an eight-month-old baby, Michael Barrymore and the Stephen Lawrence murder suspects) resulted in him being poached by the US broadcaster ABC last year in a deal worth $1m (£530,000) a year.

Yet the Jackson's defence team's allegations that Jackson was reeled in when Mr Bashir promised to introduce him to the UN secretary general Kofi Annan and told him that his way with children "makes me weep" (a statement that can be read two ways) have revived some long-forgotten questions about the interviewer's modus operandi. To some, the Panorama interview in which the late princess laid bare her "crowded marriage" and her desire to be "the queen of hearts"was a reward for years of endeavour. Bashir, a committed Christian who was educated at a south London comprehensive and raised on a council estate where the "only book in the home was the rent book" had slogged away as a reporter for London Plus and Newsroom South East before Panorama and enjoyed only one other celebrity moment, as guest presenter on Songs of Praise.

But six months after the broadcast, the BBC said that it had been investigating suspicions, raised by Panorama journalists, that Bashir procured the royal interview under false pretences, by feeding on the fears of Diana's brother, Earl Spencer. Central to the accusations were two false NatWest bank statements, made up for Mr Bashir by a BBC graphic designer, one of which showed a £4,000 payment from News International, publishers of the News of the World, to a former employee of Earl Spencer.

The earl feared that his family's privacy was being breached and there were suggestions that the statements led him to encourage the Princess of Wales to put the record straight, through Mr Bashir. The reporter was cleared of wrongdoing, but the BBC admitted the documents were created "for graphic purposes in the early part of [an investigation into the Royal Family and security services]."

It is not the only time Mr Bashir has been accused of misrepresentation. He and his team were also censured by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission for misleading the father of a runaway teenager to secure an interview.

George Best branded Mr Bashir "Bash Ear" and complained he only talked about himself and "what a great operator he was". Even the Bishop of St Albans launched an attack from the pulpit on the interviewer, claiming he was "stitched up" after an interview that was to be about church schools ended up being about selection.

Some former colleagues say all this typifies "Bash", as he was known to many. "He was the swerviest man on earth," one former colleague reported yesterday. "He is incredibly charming, but such a slippery character. It was entrepreneurial journalism he was about- just like the tabloids do - and there is often an element of bullshit about it. He always talked a good game, always had a mate who knew someone."

The former Panorama producer Mark Killick, who worked with Mr Bashir on the Diana story, is one of a number who did not see eye-to-eye with him. "He has got some pretty impressive scalps but there was a big falling out and there was a parting of company. I'm saying no more," he said yesterday.

Yet it is hard not to admire the way Mr Bashir quietly stole into Clarence House for the interview, about which none of the Princess of Wales' advisers had been informed. Security staff were told to expect the delivery of a new hi-fi system "in boxes", so Mr Bashir and his cameraman walked straight up.

His determination is unwavering, too. When the idea was floated at Panorama of investigating tabloid editors and their ways, some feared the obvious consequences, but not "Bash". "He said he'd do it. He said he had no skeletons in the closet," a colleague said. The idea was later dropped.

After the Princess of Wales, Mr Bashir never looked back. Suddenly, everyone wanted a chance to tell him their story. Both Steve Anderson, who worked with Mr Bashir at the BBC and is now ITV's controller of news and current affairs, and Mr Bashir's former Panorama editor Steve Hewlett say his success lies in his ability to perceive what makes his subjects tick. "He has the skill of a psychologist, to get inside people's heads and get them to talk to him," Anderson said last year.

But Max Clifford, who advised the Lawrence suspects before their interview with Mr Bashir, has a different take. "You wouldn't want Martin Bashir getting close to your star because you know you would be putting them in jeopardy," he said. "Could you trust him? Of course you couldn't. But that doesn't make him anything other than a professional."

THE CV

Born 19 January 1963 to parents of Pakistani descent from a Battersea council estate

Education Comprehensive in Wandsworth, south London; 1st class honours in English at Southampton University

Family Married to Debbie, a nurse; three children

Career Freelance football writer for Sunday Times

1986: Joins BBC as reporter for London Plus and Newsroom South East

1989: Social affairs reporter on Public Eye

1992: Joins Panorama

1999: Joins Granada's new flagship current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald

2004: Joins ABC's news magazine 20/20 in New York

Film career: Cameo role alongside Ricky Tomlinson in the film Mike Bassett - England Manager

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