The theory that Martin Bashir was rehired by the BBC to cover up events surrounding his Panorama interview with Princess Diana is “completely unfounded”, a review has found.
A BBC investigation has concluded that no one involved in Mr Bashir‘s recruitment in 2016 had knowledge of all of the matters contained in the Lord Dyson report released earlier this year, which criticised the methods used by the journalist to secure his bombshell 1995 interview.
However, there was some awareness of controversy surrounding the interview – and of other controversies involving Mr Bashir – before he was re-employed, the review found.
Mr Bashir returned to the broadcaster 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. He was promoted to religion editor in 2018, but quit citing health issues ahead of the Dyson report being published.
The review of his rehiring by Ken MacQuarrie concluded: “I have found no evidence that Martin Bashir was re-hired to contain and/or cover up the events surrounding the 1995 Panorama programme. In my view, that theory is entirely unfounded.”
Mr MacQuarrie found that while there were “some shortcomings in the process” by which Mr Bashir was re-employed, “I am satisfied that that he was ultimately appointed because his knowledge and experience were considered to be the best match to the requirements for the role at that time”.
However, writing about three individuals involved in rehiring Mr Bashir, Mr MacQuarrie said that one “had some recollection… about the controversy surrounding the 1995 Panorama programme” and “took steps to find out more about it”. After investigation, the allegations were considered “spent”, the review found.
The decision to rehire Mr Bashir was “ultimately taken” by then-director of news James Harding, who did not give “sufficient regard” to the other public controversies the journalist had been involved in, the review said.
These included being suspended from ABC News in 2008 after making allegedly sexist remarks during a dinner speech at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in Chicago and criticising US politician Sarah Palin in 2013 for comments she made comparing the Federal debt to slavery.
In response to the review’s findings, BBC Director-General Tim Davie said: “While the report finds processes were largely followed at the time, it is clear we need to reflect on the findings to ensure consistent best practice is applied in our recruitment.
“Finally, it is without doubt that had the organisation been aware of what is now publicly known because of the Dyson Report Martin Bashir would have never been reappointed.”
Mr Harding also responded to the review, saying in a statement that the responsibility for rehiring Mr Bashir “sits with me” but that the report “shows we chose the person we thought was the best candidate” for the role.
“As the report concludes, we didn’t know then what we know now,” Mr Harding said. “Of course, if I had known, he wouldn’t have got the job.”
The Dyson report, published in May, found that Mr Bashir “deceived and induced” Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer to secure his interview, and that by producing fake bank statements he made a “serious breach” of BBC guidelines. It also suggested the BBC had failed to uphold “governance, accountability and scrutiny”.
In response to the Dyson report, Mr Bashir apologised and said the faking of bank statements was a “stupid thing to do. But in an interview with the Sunday Times he said he did not believe he harmed Diana “in any way” and stopped short of admitting that he duped the princess.
Prince William has said the BBC’s failures surrounding the interview with his mother “contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation“.
Prince Harry criticised the media following the publication of the Dyson report, saying “practices like these – and even worse – are still widespread today”.
Featuring intimate details of Charles and Diana’s failed marriage and her life inside the Royal Family, Mr Bashir’s 1995 interview was watched by 23 million people.
Allegations about counterfeit bank statements shown to Earl Spencer – suggesting palace officials were taking money to spy on her – first surfaced not long after the interview aired. However, a BBC inquiry the following year cleared Mr Bashir of any wrongdoing.
The Lord Dyson report called the original inquiry “woefully ineffective”, and Earl Spencer said he would never have introduced Bashir to his sister had he not been shown faked documents.
Mr MacQuarrie’s review also looked into Lord Tony Hall, the former director-general of the BBC who led the internal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Panorama interview, who was heavily criticised by Lord Dyson.
Lord Hall did not play a part in the decision to rehire Mr Bashir, the review found, although “he would have at least known of the decision to appoint Martin Bashir”.
The publication of the latest review comes as Lord Hall and Lord Birt, another former BBC director-general, are set to be questioned by MPs about the Panorama interview.
Ahead of the DCMS (digital, culture, media and sport committee) hearing on Tuesday, DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said he was “deeply concerned” by revelations in the BBC’s report into the decision to rehire Mr Bashir.
“That the BBC considered rehiring Martin Bashir when there were high-level doubts over his integrity stretches incredulity to breaking point,” he said. “By this point, as the Dyson report concluded, senior members of the BBC knew that Bashir had lied about the use of faked bank statements to gain access to Princess Diana.”
Mr Knight added: “We look forward to getting answers tomorrow.”
Analysis: Explanations won’t cut it with those who cannot understand how Bashir was welcomed back
By Rhiannon Mills, royal correspondent
On the face of it you could at first think these conclusions look like a good day for the BBC. Ken MacQuarrie says he’s satisfied Bashir wasn’t given the religious affairs job as some sort of cover-up, that he got the role because of his knowledge and experience, and that those who interviewed him for the job didn’t have knowledge of all of the matters contained in the Dyson report.
But as you read through the 11 pages of the review it becomes clear that “shortcomings” he mentions revolve around the fact that some of the interview panel were aware of the questions surrounding how Bashir secured his Panorama interview.
One of the panel had been told Bashir had faked documents, but was in essence told the issue was “spent” and didn’t look any further. Two of the individuals on the panel were also aware that Bashir, during his time in America, had made crude and offensive comments while working for US networks.
The reason Ken MacQuarrie isn’t more critical is because he says he “can only assess the actions of individuals and the judgements made with their knowledge at the time” and that it would “not have been reasonable” to expect the panel members to “reinvestigate the incidents surrounding the 1995 Panorama programme at that stage”.
But that won’t cut it with those who cannot understand how Bashir was welcomed back into the BBC, and then promoted to religious affairs editor, when there were any kind of questions about his past record.
This is why the head of the DCMS committee has been so scathing. Tomorrow, the committee will expect more clarity as the two former BBC director-generals face questions – the first time we’ll have seen two key figures from the time of the interview properly questioned on what they knew and the failures that ensued.