Former BBC director-general Lord John Birt has branded Martin Bashir a “serial liar on an industrial scale” – blaming him for the Panorama interview scandal which has helped tarnish the broadcaster’s reputation.
Last month Lord Dyson’s report found Mr Bashir used deceit to obtain his 1995 interview with Princess Diana – but also criticised the BBC for covering up the details after a “woefully ineffective” internal inquiry in 1996.
“It is an absolute horror story and it should never have happened, and it is a complete embarrassment that it did happen,” said Lord Birt on the interview scandal at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday.
The former BBC chief said senior figures at the corporation had been fed a “completely flawed understanding” of the way Mr Bashir secured his interview with the princess.
He added: “It is simply not the case that anyone set out to deceive other than Martin Bashir … Unless you understand that this was a serial liar on an industrial scale you simply can’t understand the story.”
Lord Birt held the senior position at the corporation in 1996, when Lord Tony Hall conducted an internal inquiry was launched into the events surrounding the explosive interview.
Defending Lord Hall, who would later become director-general at the BBC, Lord Birt said: “Tony reported up his best understanding – we now know a completely flawed understanding of what exactly had happened.”
Lord Birt added: “We all believed that was an honest account and that was one that was shared by the board of management and board of governors.”
The session saw Lord Birt asked by Tory MP Steve Brine whether he believed the interview helped worsen Diana’s mental state and contributed to her death in Paris in 1997.
He replied: “It is a tragic occurrence … My heart goes out to the sons of Princess Diana but none of us can truly speculate and understand what the consequences [of the Panorama interview] were.”
In his evidence, Lord Hall said he was “deeply sorry” to Diana’s family for the hurt caused by the Panorama interview scandal, and expressed his regret about trusting Mr Bashir’s account of events in 1996.
“I trusted a journalist, I gave him a second chance and that trust was abused and was misplaced,” Lord Hall old the committee on Tuesday.
The former senior BBC figure was grilled for two hours on his own botched 1996 inquiry, heavily criticised in last month’s independent Dyson report.
Lord Dyson had said it was puzzling that Lord Hall had accepted Mr Bashir’s explanations – since it was already known he had lied three times about not showing forged bank documents to Diana’s brother Earl Spencer.
Lord Hall said Mr Bashir was “contrite and in tears” about what he had done, and said he felt the journalist had deserved a second chance. But Lord Hall admitted it was the “wrong judgment” to have made.
“We didn’t get to the bottom of the lies that Bashir had told us,” said the former director general, who stepped down last year.
“We weren’t trying to conceal anything, I do want to stress that, but we were lied to and our trust was misplaced and bluntly, Bashir took us all in... We trusted him and it turns out we couldn’t.”
The former director-general said Mr Bashir told him he had already met Diana before he created the fake bank documents – rather than use them to secure the interview – and said he decided to believe him.
“We believed… that the documents he had made were from information from the Princess of Wales and Earl Spencer – we know of course now that’s not the case.”
Lord Hall said he accepted it was a mistake not to have gone to Earl Spencer to find out how documents had been used.
The BBC’s current director-general Tim Davie was also questioned by MPs, who pressed him on why Mr Bashir had been rehired as religious affairs correspondent in 2016.
Mr Davie said the senior BBC staff responsible for giving him the job “were aware of some of the controversies of the time … But they did not see them as substantive enough to block a re-hiring or stop them”.
Citing the “glory of hindsight”, he added: “With what I know now having personally commissioned Lord Dyson to go at this, that hiring would never have been made, there’s no doubt about that.”
Asked how he felt when hearing Prince William’s criticism after the release of the Dyson report, Mr Davie said: “It was upsetting and it was a sad day. Primarily, I felt deep sympathy for the sons of Princess Diana … we offered and have offered an unconditional apology.”
The BBC chief said he had “engaged with the royal household directly” to apologise, but declined to reveal whom he had spoken to, saying the meetings were private.
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