Former BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall has defended his decision to give Martin Bashir a “second chance” after the botched internal investigation into the journalist’s Panorama interview with Princess Diana.
Lord Hall was grilled by MPs about why he had called Mr Bashir an “honest and honourable man” following the BBC’s 1996 inquiry into the way the now-notorious interview was secured.
“I trusted a journalist, I gave him a second chance and that trust was abused and was misplaced,” Lord Hall explained to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday.
Admitting his regrets, the former director-general said: “I don’t think the words ‘honest and honourable’, 25 years on, look appropriate at all.”
Last month, Lord Dyson’s independent probe found a “serious breach” of editorial rules at the BBC, condemning the methods Mr Bashir used to secure his bombshell Diana interview – including the use of fake bank statements.
The Dyson report also found the breach was later covered up by the BBC – and criticised Lord Hall’s “woefully ineffective” 1996 internal investigation into the way the interview was secured.
Lord Hall told MPs he had taken the “unusual step” of interviewing Mr Bashir himself during the 1996 inquiry. “Why? Because I had to establish whether I believed Bashir, whether I should therefore give him a yellow card or dismiss him.”
He added: “In the end we came to a judgment about his lack of experience, that he was out of his depth, that he was contrite, and we gave him a second chance.”
Lord Dyson’s report concluded that when Mr Bashir admitted in 1996 to lying about the fake bank statements it “should have set alarm bells ringing”.
Lord Dyson 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.
Committee chairman Julian Knight MP told Lord Hall it was “absolutely against the ethos of the BBC” for Mr Bashir to have faked documents – accusing BBC managers of “a failure of morality” on the issue.
Lord Hall said Mr Bashir was “contrite and in tears” about what he had done, explaining that he felt the journalist deserved a second chance. But he admitted it was the “wrong judgment” to have made.
The former director-general denied that he and others at the BBC had been motivated by an attempt to “conceal” Mr Bashir’s deceptions.
Asked if he agreed with Lord Dyson’s conclusion that the internal inquiry was “woefully ineffective”, Lord Hall said: “We didn’t get to the bottom of the lies that Bashir had told us.”
The former director-general said Mr Bashir told him he had already met Diana before he created the fake documents – rather than use them to secure the interview – and said he decided to believe him.
Lord Hall said it had been a mistake not to have gone to Earl Spencer to ask him what he knew about how exactly the documents were used.
He added: “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, from the director-general to the programme editor ... We trusted him and it turns out we couldn’t.”
Mr Knight said it was “utterly extraordinary” that the BBC would rehire Mr Bashir as religious affairs correspondent in 2016, and asked how it came to be that a “known liar” was brought back to the corporation.
Lord Hall said he was not going to second guess the people who were responsible for filling the role, and added: “If we knew then what we know now, of course he wouldn’t have been rehired.”
Lord Birt, who was BBC director-general from 1992 and 2000, described Mr Bashir as a “serial liar on an industrial scale” during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
On the 1996 internal inquiry, he said Lord Hall had reported up to him “his best understanding” of what had happened. “We now know a completely flawed understanding of what exactly had happened.”
Lord Birt was asked by Tory MP MP Steve Brine whether he believed the infamous Panorama interview helped worsen Diana’s mental state.
He said: “It is a tragic occurrence. It is an absolute horror story and it should never have happened – and it is a complete embarrassment that it did happen. None of us can speculate.”
Lord Hall acknowledged “how hard this has been for the royal family, for the two princes and I’m sorry for the hurt caused” during Tuesday’s committee hearing.