Today three BBC directors general will give evidence to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, each facing questions about what they knew and when, about the cover-up of the deceitful methods used by Martin Bashir to secure his 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana.
For the past 25 years the corporation has maintained that there was no evidence Bashir had used deception to win the confidence first of Diana’s brother Charles Spencer, and then Diana herself. They used this defence to rubbish the claims of journalists to the contrary, while internally exonerating Bashir and going after the whistle-blowers who had sought to expose what had really gone on.
But the BBC knew they had never properly investigated the claims against Bashir, and that their corporate position on the affair was disingenuous. On March 28, 1996, Tim Gardam, who was head of weekly programmes in BBC news and current affairs, who had been tasked with leading the initial investigation into the allegations, wrote how Bashir had lied to them about the fact he had shown fake bank statements to Spencer, alleging people close to Diana were being paid to spy on her.
This led to a wider review being set up by Tony Hall, yet supposedly no copy of Gardam’s memo remained in the files at the BBC. Is that true, and if it is how could that have been the case? Hall should make clear whether he read Gardam’s note or was aware of its contents at that time.
The BBC investigation claimed that the fake documents had no bearing on Diana’s decision to do the interview, based on a statement they had received from her that, “Martin Bashir did not show me any documents nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of”. Yet the BBC never asked Spencer about his meeting with Bashir, the advice he subsequently gave to Diana about meeting him, and the influence the fake documents may have had on that decision.
Bashir also insinuated to the BBC that Diana had been the source of the information about the payments recorded in the fake bank statements, yet if the BBC had followed up on that claim, it would have discovered that Bashir commissioned the creation of the documents before he ever met Diana.
We’ll be told the BBC is a very different place now, and questions about this affair are really a discussion of past events. Yet, when the film-maker Andy Webb put in a freedom of information request to the BBC in 2007 asking for the release of documents relating to the investigation of Bashir’s interview with Diana, he was told that there was nothing on file.
This was a lie, but who made the decision to tell it? Last October, when the BBC released 67 pages of documents from the previously non-existent file, who decided what should be released? This was not the complete set of documents, but a selection that sought to corroborate the BBC’s history of this affair. Certain documents were withheld, ones that in the end would support the allegation that Bashir had lied, on the grounds that they were sensitive and the man himself was at that time in poor health. Yet the BBC did release a wrong and baseless allegation made by Bashir against Spencer, suggesting that it was he who had shown Bashir bank statements evidencing payments to courtiers. Again, who sanctioned this release?
This whole affair has raised concerns about a culture of cover up at the BBC, that was only exposed after an independent inquiry. Yet that inquiry was very limited in scope, only addressing the actions taken and mistakes made by the BBC in its investigation of these allegations in 1995-96.
Why was Lord Dyson not allowed to look at how the BBC responded to concerns raised with them about Bashir since that time, and in the way it dealt with whistle-blowers, and external requests for documents and information. The current director-general needs to set out how the BBC will adopt more independent processes for dealing with serious allegations against its employees and management in the future.
We can have little confidence now in the results of behind the scenes inquiries led by people with clear interests in and links to the people they are investigating.