BBC journalists and executives responsible for Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales were fuelled by “contagious, blind ambition”, according to former BBC governor Sir Richard Eyre.
The director, who sat on the corporation’s board at the time of the 1995 interview, said their punishment will be “public shame”.
Former director-general Lord Tony Hall, who was managing director of news and current affairs at the time of the interview, has come under fire since Lord Dyson’s blistering report in May, which criticised the methods used by Bashir to obtain his exclusive interview with the princess.
The Dyson report described Lord Hall’s internal investigation into the matter as “woefully ineffective”.
Appearing before MPs on Monday, the former director-general said he was “deeply sorry” for the “hurt” caused to the dukes of Cambridge and Sussex over the interview, while Lord John Birt, who was director-general at the time, described Bashir as a “serial liar on an industrial scale”.
Sir Richard told Sky News: “My explanation of the whole fiasco was that the people involved were consumed by contagious ambition, blind ambition.
“John Birt had come into the BBC as director-general, the third in the line, the previous two had been fired by the chairman Marmaduke Hussey. He came in with a specific programme of putting news on the front foot. He thought that the BBC news gathering and use of reporting of the time was very, very complacent and inward-looking.
“So he was encouraging the news department to go on the front foot.
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“Panorama, like a number of BBC programmes, was very self-contained and probably still is semi-autonomous.
“So there was this group who got this massive scoop. I don’t think anybody, maybe the Panorama people were, but certainly not John Birt and Tony Hall, were terribly interested in how Bashir had got access to Princess Diana.
“The whole thing was very much conducted in secrecy. Everybody outside that inner circle was astonished that Bashir, this totally unknown reporter, had got the interview.”
He said he did not believe it was true that Bashir forced his way into landing the interview, and instead thought Diana was “absolutely delighted” to meet a young journalist she could “manipulate”.
Asked what consequences senior BBC managers should face for the fact Bashir used forged documents to secure the interview, Sir Richard said: “I simply don’t know what possible punishment there is except shame. I mean, I think that Tony Hall has suffered excessively from the revelations and has apologised.
“I think John Birt has played a very good hand because of course, he was editor in chief so I feel he has to take responsibility for what happened.
“But what punishment can there be? It was 25, 26 years in the past. The punishment is public shame.”
Discussing if there should be broader consequences for the corporation, Sir Richard said: “Politicians have never liked the BBC. They can’t bear the idea that a state broadcasting company is independent of the state and doesn’t obey the mandate of the state.
“Also they hate the idea that it’s paid by a hypothecated tax, so the Treasury can’t play around with a tax.
“What can they do? Well, they can cut the legs off the BBC. That would be an act of massive cultural vandalism.
“The BBC is the most important cultural organisation in the world. And I very much hope that it’s going to have the power to remain so.”
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