Politics

BBC faces ‘serious questions’ over the rehiring of Martin Bashir

The BBC is facing “serious questions” as to why Martin Bashir was rehired in a prominent role and then promoted despite longstanding allegations of “deceit” over the Princess Diana interview.

Julian Knight MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said he is writing to director-general Tim Davie to inquire as to why Mr Bashir was re-employed by the corporation in 2016 despite what Lord Dyson’s report this week concluded was a “serious breach” of editorial rules which was later covered up.

“There are serious questions still left to answer,” Mr Knight said. “Why was Martin Bashir rehired, with the BBC knowing what they knew?

“I want to know how the BBC can reassure the committee that there could be no repeat of the serious failings that have been highlighted by the Dyson report.”

Earlier, former director of BBC News, James Harding, sidestepped questions on whether the then director-general Lord Hall – who led the original “woefully ineffective” investigation – had had any role in the rehiring.

In an awkward interview aired on BBC News, Mr Harding said he was sorry Mr Bashir had returned to the corporation because it had made things “more difficult for everyone”.

But he was visibly uncomfortable when asked if Lord Hall had informed him of the earlier investigation into Mr Bashir.

“What I was saying is that BBC News hired Martin Bashir, and so the responsibility for that sits with me,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Davie has written to staff at the BBC, saying lessons must be learnt following the publication of the report, and adding that the findings were “particularly upsetting” in the light of the corporation’s commitment to honesty.

“Personally, I am deeply proud of the BBC that I run today, as I know you all are,” he wrote. “We should all take pride in continuing to work for the world’s leading public service broadcaster.

“Right now, the best way to build and preserve our reputation is to keep delivering outstanding work across the organisation, earning the trust of audiences. Thanks to all of you for continuing to achieve this as we go through this demanding period.

“We have much to reflect on. I know that we now have significantly stronger processes and governance in place to ensure that an event like this doesn’t happen again. However we must also learn lessons and keep improving.”

Mr Bashir left the BBC in 1999, four years after his Panorama interview with the Princess of Wales, to join ITV. In 2016 he was rehired as the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, before becoming religion editor.

Earlier this month, he stepped down from the role and left the BBC, citing health reasons following Covid-19 complications, shortly before the publication of the Dyson report.

“I can’t help feeling that the fact he was hired back in 2016 has made things more difficult for everyone, so I am sorry he was,” Mr Harding said.

“Lord Dyson’s report, as I understand and as I read, has clearly spoken to Lord Hall at some length. In terms of rehiring, the rehiring was done by BBC News. I ran BBC News; the responsibility for it sits with me.”

Lord Dyson did not investigate why Mr Bashir was rehired by the BBC because he did not consider it “sufficiently closely related” to his terms of reference.

A BBC spokesperson said Mr Bashir’s post “was filled after a competitive interview process”, adding: “We now of course have the Dyson report. We didn’t have it then. [Mr Bashir] has resigned from the BBC. There has been no pay-off.”

Ministers seized on Lord Dyson’s findings to make it clear that changes to BBC oversight will be discussed in a forthcoming review.

They are known to be considering appointing a new board staffed with more ex-editors and journalists to adjudicate on complaints about the BBC’s output.

But the move would come amid what is widely viewed as a “culture war” against other British institutions, and after the recent appointment of a senior Tory to the existing board.

Richard Ayre, a former member of the BBC Trust, condemned Martin Bashir’s now-notorious interview as “shameful” – but raised suspicions about the government’s motives.

“I don’t know what is to be gained by scrapping yet another board of governors at the BBC and coming up with something different, unless it is that politicians want to get ever tighter control of the BBC – which of course is always a real, real risk,” he said.

The midterm review of the BBC’s charter, starting next year, means the devastating findings of Lord Dyson’s review could not have come at “a worse time”, he continued.

“Every government will use a BBC crisis as leverage against the BBC, because every government wants to get the BBC under its thumb,” said Mr Ayre.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, echoed these fears, saying: “This historic wrongdoing must not be used as a reason for the government to try and further undermine the BBC’s status as a strong, impartial public sector broadcaster.

“Any changes to the editorial board must be free from government interference. In the wake of this scandal we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of maintaining a strong, independent free press which is able to provide robust scrutiny of the government of the day.”

The warnings came after culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the government would “consider whether further governance reforms at the BBC are needed in the mid-term charter review”.

Justice secretary Robert Buckland pointed to Mr Bashir’s use of “false documents, forgery etcetera”, laid bare in Lord Dyson’s 127-page report.

“The government has, in the light of these serious findings, to consider the matter very carefully and comprehensively indeed,” Mr Buckland said.

It was also announced that former BBC executive Tim Suter, who was part of the 1996 internal investigation, has stepped down from his role on the board of Ofcom in the wake of the report.

The Metropolitan Police said it would assess the report “to ensure there is no significant new evidence”, after having previously decided not to launch a criminal investigation.

And Boris Johnson, on a visit to Portsmouth, said: “I’m obviously concerned by the findings of Lord Dyson’s report. I’m very grateful to him for what he has done.

“I can only image the feelings of the royal family and I hope very much that the BBC will be taking every possible step to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

In his report, Lord Dyson said the “deceitful” Mr Bashir had used fake bank statements to gain access to Diana before playing on her fears about the royal family to trick her into being interviewed in November 1995.

The tactics had “seriously breached” BBC editorial rules, he said.

Michael Grade, a former BBC chair and a Conservative peer, led demands for reform, saying: “It’s time that there was a proper editorial board with real powers, reporting to the main board, but with specialist knowledge.

“People who are ex-journalists or have had senior editorial responsibility in the media, who know the questions to ask and know how to judge what’s going on.”

Government insiders insist there is no plan in place to overhaul BBC governance, despite ministers’ threats.

Mr Johnson’s spokesperson insisted the review would only look at the corporation’s governance and regulation, not its editorial independence.

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