BBC director general Tim Davie and two of his predecessors, Tony Hall and John Birt, have eaten large helpings of humble pie under intense questioning from British lawmakers over the Princess Diana scandal.
The three men appeared in front of British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) on Tuesday to discuss John Dyson’s inquiry into the BBC’s 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana, which concluded that former reporter Martin Bashir forged documents in order to secure the scoop.
Hall, who only stepped down as director general last year, said he was “sorry for the hurt caused” by the affair, which has been savaged by Prince William and Prince Harry, the latter of whom said it was part of a “culture of exploitation and unethical practices” that ultimately took his mother’s life in 1997.
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Hall led the BBC’s news operation at the time of the bombshell Panorama interview and oversaw an investigation into Bashir’s actions at the time, which culminated in him describing the former MSNBC anchor as an “honest and honorable man,” despite knowing he faked documents and broke BBC editorial rules.
Hall said told lawmakers his deliberation was “wrong” in light of Dyson’s conclusions. He added that the BBC gave Bashir a “second chance” because he had been “contrite” about his actions. “The thing I remember most vividly about this is he ended up in tears,” the former director general recalled.
DCMSC chair Julian Knight said he was “speechless” that Bashir was not fired immediately after the forgery was uncovered. “That is absolutely crazy. It’s completely against the ethos of the BBC,” the MP said.
Some 25 years on, Hall and Birt — who was director general at the time of the Panorama interview — both claimed that like Princess Diana, they too had been the victims of Bashir’s misleading behavior.
Hall told lawmakers that “we were lied to [by Bashir] and our trust was misplaced.” In a blistering assessment, Birt called Bashir a “serial liar” and “skilled confidence trickster,” adding that “it’s extremely difficult to catch a fraudster.” He described the interview as “one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting.”
In a separate section of the DCMSC hearing, current BBC chief Davie admitted that Dyson’s findings and the response of Princess Diana’s sons was “a very low moment” for the British broadcaster. “It was upsetting and it was a sad day,” he said, adding that he has since been in contact with the royal household.
All three of the BBC director generals acknowledged that Bashir should not have been rehired as the corporation’s religious affairs correspondent in 2016 on the basis of Dyson’s conclusions. “If we knew then what we know now then, of course, he wouldn’t have been rehired,” Hall said.
Hall implored lawmakers not to judge his entire BBC legacy on the Bashir affair. “I’ve done a hell of a lot for the BBC and for the arts. I regret this one thing that we all got wrong because we were lied to by Martin Bashir 25 years ago,” he said.