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Newsmaker: Martin Bashir and the BBC — An erosion of trust

Some five decades ago, I was given a small portable radio for Christmas. I would take it to football games and listen along to the live commentary, use it to tune into BBC Radio One and its Top 20 countdown of the charts every Sunday evening and, more often than not, fall asleep to the crisp and dulcet tones of the BBC World Service, detailing the events of the day from every corner of the globe.

It all seemed so exotic and, if I’m honest, was probably what first whetted my appetite for travel and journalism. A decade later, at university in Dublin, we made fun of a friend who would listen to the BBC 6pm news each evening and mimic how they spoke. It made his North Dublin accent fade away — and he later became member of the Irish parliament. He was more electable because he sounded posh.

And so it was with the BBC. It seemed to exude quality and unbiased journalism, ethics and all of that we scribes commit ourselves to in bringing you, dear reader, the daily or hourly news. That is our covenant with you, that we play by the rules and do our best — some even die doing it — bringing you our most factual account as best we can for you to buy our newspapers or subscribe to our digital products.

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But what if the British Broadcasting Corporation didn’t play by the rules? What if it knowingly and immorally manipulated Diana, Princess of Wales, into giving a tell-all interview — one that forever changed the course of the UK monarchy, rooted feelings of paranoia into a vulnerable young mother and made the reputation of the broadcast journalist who landed that “scoop”?

That, dear reader is exactly what has happened as long-awaited Dyson report into the event surrounding Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana a quarter of a century ago.

But that was 1995 and why should it matter now? Exactly because there can never be a time limit on setting the record straight, there can never be a statute of limitations on immoral behaviour, and precisely because how the BBC acts matters most when it comes to providing clear, unbiased news — free of spin, gimmicks, underhandedness or trickery.

It’s just not done. It should not have been done. It should never happen again.

This is a scandal so unique that Prince William — the future King (a teenager when his mother spilled her heart out to Bashir and Panorama that there were three people in her marriage to Prince Charles) broke with Royal convention and made a televised statement castigating the BBC, its senior management and staff for wilfully feeding the paranoia of his mother in the years leading up to her tragic death in Paris.

Lord Dyson, who conducted the investigation, concluded that Bashir used “deceitful behaviour” to secure the Panorama interview. He found the journalist breached BBC rules by mocking up fake bank statements showing payments from a trust fund and News International into the account of Alan Waller, a former employee of Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer — and showing them to the earl to gain access to the princess.

Eye on facts

The inquiry also said the corporation covered up Bashir’s behaviour, and that it “fell short of high standards of integrity and transparency”.

Bashir, who left the BBC in 1999 to join rival ITV but was rehired by the corporation five years ago and subsequently promoted, says he cannot be held to blame for the events leading up to Princess Diana’s death — but bear in mind too that his denial should be viewed in the light of the Dyson report that found him to be a liar, and wilfully so.

Why did senior executives choose to believe Bashir so readily? He admitted lying to editors and BBC executives three times about showing the fake bank statements to anyone before he was forced to admit he had shown them to Earl Spencer following a Mail on Sunday story.

But during the BBC’s initial 1996 investigation, they believed Bashir when he said showing the documents had not been in the context of requesting an interview.

When questions about the graphics first came up, Princess Diana had sent a note saying she had not been shown the fake documents, which Lord Hall, then director of news before becoming director-general of the BBC, said made them think she was not influenced by the graphics.

The inquiry by Lord Hall said after talking Bashir, he was satisfied the graphic had “no part whatsoever in gaining the interview” with Diana.

Hall’s cursory inquiry was bereft of truth and detail, and his reputation now is shredded. And more so because Bashir was rehired by the BBC in 2016 under his watch when there were lingering questions over his practices — even if the Panorama episode made him a household name in journalism.

Fake statement

The graphic designer who made the bank statements for Bashir to show Earl Spencer, which he did not know were fake at the time, was burgled about a month after the interview aired. Two CDs containing the graphics he had created for Bashir had been removed from a box they were in at his house.

He had contacted the Panorama producers and editor after the interview had aired and said he was concerned he might have unwittingly played a role in obtaining the interview by deception.

Lord Dyson said the BBC gave “evasive answers” to questions posed by newspapers in 1996 about how Bashir secured the interview but he did not give any names of who prevented them from being answered. By April 1996, there were several press enquiries to the BBC about the situation, with the Mail on Sunday being told the bank statement graphics were never published, only used in the initial part of the investigation, and discarded when some of the information could not be substantiated.

The entire chapter will fundamentally change the BBC now — journalism too. But it has also damaged the reputations of many in the news business. It is an erosion of trust. And trust is a precious commodity.