Former BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall has told MPs that he “trusted” Martin Bashir and “gave him a second chance” – but that trust was “abused and misplaced”.
Lord Tony Hall is giving evidence to the DCMS (digital, culture, media and sport committee) about events leading up to Bashir‘s now infamous Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995, as well as the broadcaster’s handling of investigations into how he obtained the world exclusive scoop.
It comes following the publication of the Dyson report in May, which criticised methods used to secure the bombshell interview, including showing faked bank statements that suggested the princess was being spied on to her brother, Earl Spencer. The Dyson report also criticised the BBC’s internal investigation into the issue, carried out in 1996, as “woefully ineffective”.
Bashir returned to the BBC as religion correspondent in 2016, some two decades after the Panorama episode that made him a household name in journalism and 17 years after he originally left for ITV – despite allegations about his conduct emerging not long after the Diana interview. He was promoted to religion editor in 2018, but quit citing health issues ahead of the Dyson report being published.
DCMS committee chairman Julian Knight said it was “utterly extraordinary” that the BBC would re-employ Bashir – “a known liar” – as religious affairs correspondent in 2016.
Lord Hall was director-general of the BBC from April 2013 to August 2020 and led the 1996 internal inquiry into Bashir.
Asked during the hearing why he had reported to the board of governors following the inquiry that the journalist was an “honest and honourable man”, Lord Hall said: “In the end we came to a judgment about his lack of experience, that he was out of his depth, that he was contrite, and we gave him a second chance.
“We trusted him and it turns out we couldn’t.”
Lord Hall said Bashir was “in tears” as he was quizzed for an hour-and-a-half during the internal investigation.
“He appeared to us that he was contrite, inexperienced and out of his depth and that is why in the end rather than sacking him, and I can see the reasons for that, he was given a second chance.”
Lord Hall said he was not going to second guess the people who were filling the role, and added: “If we knew then what we know now, of course he wouldn’t have been re-hired.”
Asked what work Bashir carried out for his salary, estimated to be between £80,000 and £120,000, Lord Hall said those questions would be better answered by the people who were in charge of him.
Bashir appeared on air and on the BBC website about half a dozen times over three years, Mr Knight told Lord Hall, adding: “That’s about £45,000 a time, nice work if you can get it.”
Lord Hall admitted: “That is not effective use of a correspondent, not a good record.”
Asked if he agreed with Lord Dyson’s conclusion that the 1996 internal investigation into Bashir was “woefully ineffective”, Lord Hall said: “We didn’t get to the bottom of the lies that Bashir had told us, we weren’t trying to conceal anything, I do want to stress that, but we were lied to and our trust was misplaced and bluntly, Bashir took us all in, from the director-general to the programme editor.”
Lord Hall was also pressed about the likelihood that journalists who re-hired Bashir in 2016 were not aware of the controversy surrounding him.
“We didn’t know 25 years ago the scale of what Martin Bashir had done to gain access to the Princess of Wales through Earl Spencer. If we knew now, through Lord Dyson, what we know about Martin Bashir then of course he wouldn’t have been re-employed.”