One of the good things about the BBC is that it is prepared publicly to investigate its own mistakes, though admittedly it usually does so late in the day, and rather grudgingly.
So a development last November was heartening. The Corporation’s Director-General, Tim Davie, asked the distinguished retired senior judge Lord Dyson to lead an independent inquiry into Martin Bashir’s famous Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, which took place in November 1995.
This followed excoriating allegations — as revealed in the Mail — by the Princess’s brother, Earl Spencer, that Mr Bashir had told 32 lies in persuading Diana to give an interview. These included the fiction that her phone was being tapped, that Prince Charles was in love with her sons’ nanny, and that Prince Edward was receiving treatment for Aids.
One of the good things about the BBC is that it is prepared publicly to investigate its own mistakes, though admittedly it usually does so late in the day, and rather grudgingly. Martin Bashir is pictured above
It was also cheering when it was announced at the end of the year that Panorama would carry out its own investigation into the affair, overseen by the fearless and respected journalist John Ware.
His programme — which sources say is highly critical of Mr Bashir — should have appeared on our screens last night. It didn’t, to the dismay of many BBC journalists. The reason is that it was pulled at the last minute by Mr Davie owing to a ‘significant duty of care issue’.
This presumably refers to Mr Bashir’s poor health. He is said to have had ‘long Covid’. He also underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation last year, and a further heart procedure in recent weeks.
That Mr Bashir, who has just stepped down from his job as the BBC’s Religion Editor, is unwell can hardly be disputed. He has clearly had a terrible time, and everyone will hope he gets better soon.
The question must nonetheless be asked as to whether he is so ill that an edition of Panorama which is critical of him would have a serious effect on his health. I confess that I have my doubts.
And these doubts are increased by plausible rumours that the withheld programme will be shown after all, very possibly as soon as this week. If this happens, it seems likely that it will be aired after Lord Dyson’s report (already in Mr Davie’s hands, and also believed to criticise Mr Bashir) has been released.
For if Mr Bashir’s health might have been jeopardised by showing the programme yesterday evening, why would it not be equally undermined by broadcasting it later in the week? It is very hard not to conclude that the BBC is playing games in which the calculations of management are being put in front of the Corporation’s reputation for editorial integrity and independence.
Whether or not the edition of Panorama is broadcast in the next few days, one must ask why it has taken so long. Originally, it was due to be shown on April 12, but was reasonably postponed because of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death.
However, the official period of mourning ended a month ago. That the programme was not scheduled to go out until yesterday suggests indecision and foot-dragging on the part of BBC management.
Possibly the delay was the result of wrangling between Mr Bashir, or his legal representatives, and the Corporation. Whatever the reason, a programme that looks into an apparently disgraceful episode in the BBC’s recent history has still not been broadcast.
The indulgence shown towards Mr Bashir is pretty breathtaking, notwithstanding his poor health. It is virtually unprecedented for the Beeb to postpone an investigation out of consideration for one of its subjects. Normally, it sails on regardless — even when allegations are baseless.
Diana, Princess of Wales, during her interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC in 1995
One notorious example concerns the late Lord McAlpine, a leading Tory. In November 2012 he was falsely accused by BBC2’s Newsnight of being a paedophile. The Corporation agreed damages of £185,000 plus costs 13 days after the broadcast.
Lord McAlpine, who also had severe heart problems, died 14 months later. He had said that it had been ‘terrifying’ to find himself ‘a figure of public hatred’. Some of his friends believe that the egregious programme contributed to his death.
Whereas Lord McAlpine was the victim of a lazy fabrication, the allegations against Mr Bashir are, by contrast, formidable. And yet the former BBC reporter is being afforded kid-glove treatment.
Even more striking is the gulf between the ‘significant duty of care’ extended to Mr Bashir and the normal human decency that was denied Diana. So desperate was Auntie to obtain an interview which would rock the monarchy and cause embarrassment to Prince Charles that huge liberties were apparently taken.
Here was a vulnerable woman with possible paranoid tendencies. If it is true that a string of lies was told to induce her to unburden herself in front of 23 million viewers, that was a wicked thing to have done.
Her remarks during that interview astonished the country. They must have devastated her family, and in particular William and Harry. Diana memorably said that ‘there were three of us in this marriage’, referring to Prince Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, and spoke frankly about her difficulties with post-natal depression and bulimia.
She was, of course, speaking the truth. If she had agreed to give the interview without being misled or manipulated, there would be no question of blaming the BBC. But this seems very far from being the case.
All one can hope is that Lord Dyson’s report, and the Panorama programme that may be shown after it, do not spare BBC journalists who are found to be culpable. Martin Bashir is certainly not the only suspect.
Lord Hall — BBC Director-General from 2013 until 2020, and Managing Director of News at the time of the interview — also has serious questions to answer. He was in charge of a 1996 internal investigation into the interview that was patently inadequate.
In particular, the graphic designer Matt Wiessler was apparently scapegoated by the BBC. On Martin Bashir’s instructions, he mocked up fake bank statements, believing they were faithful reproductions of genuine documents. These helped trick Diana into agreeing to the interview.
But whereas Mr Bashir was exonerated by Lord Hall’s inquiry as ‘an honest man’, poor Mr Wiessler was told he would never work for the BBC again. Some justice!
The BBC is on the receiving end of very grave allegations. When Mr Davie announced Lord Dyson’s inquiry, I inwardly cheered (especially as it was reported that he wished to clean out the Augean Stables) and I cheered even more loudly when John Ware’s Panorama investigation was commissioned.
But my faith in Mr Davie has been rocked by the postponement of the airing of the programme, supposedly out of deference to Mr Bashir, followed by strong rumours that it will soon be shown after all.
Whose interests are being defended here? Not the public’s, nor Diana’s. Martin Bashir is still being indulged — and a nervous management is watching its back at the expense of the Beeb’s journalistic reputation.
This is a frivolous way of treating a very serious matter. Auntie seems still not to have fully grasped the severity of the accusations against her. If she did, she would stop playing silly games.