Freelance journalist Andy Webb has explained why he is continuing his Freedom of Information fight with the BBC after it made 20,000 redactions to emails relating to the Bashir scandal.
On Wednesday, following a judge’s order at a FOI tribunal, the BBC released more than 3,000 emails from September, October and November 2020 relating to former BBC journalist Martin Bashir’s 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana.
Webb is now making a further legal appeal to overturn some of the redactions to those emails, which he says may take another six weeks. Whereas the BBC has spent £150,000 in legal fees fighting to keep the Bashir emails secret, Webb says he has only spent his own time and the cost of printer paper.
The emails released last week show that Bashir blamed classism, racism and professional jealousy for the scandal that ensued when it came to light he had forged bank statements in order to persuade Diana to agree to an interview.
But Webb told Press Gazette on Thursday he felt it was ironic the content of the emails had attracted such attention given they hold so much information back.
“It is extraordinary that they are so thoroughly redacted, which I fully expected,” he said. “But I think it’s really impossible at this stage to make any sense of what’s there.”
He said the 3,000 emails are collectively more than 10,000 pages long and contain more than 20,000 redactions.
Webb said he understood the redaction of personal information such as phone numbers and email addresses. “But when you see a run of four or five pages that simply say ‘page withheld’, or a massive space that just has across it ‘Section 40’ – which has to do with protecting allegedly personal information – it’s just difficult to really know how usefully to address that.”
However, within the 3,000 documents, Webb said there is “a discrete body of roughly 300 which the BBC say are protected under FOIA Section 42, which has to do with legal protection”.
The BBC must argue there is a public interest to maintain the FOI exemption for those 300 emails, and Webb intends to argue against such an exemption at a Tribunal of the First Tier GRC (general regulatory chamber).
What is Webb looking for, and why has the BBC challenged his requests?
In 2021 an inquiry commissioned by the BBC and led by former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson concluded that Bashir had used deceit to get Princess Diana to agree to his interview. The inquiry also determined the BBC had “covered up” the scandal in its incomplete responses to the press in the nineties.
Webb produced a Channel 4 documentary about Bashir’s actions for the 25th anniversary of the Panorama interview in 2020. Two days before it was broadcast, Webb received the results of an FOI request to the BBC which included an internal report from 1996 alleging Bashir had created the forged bank statements with the cooperation of the princess’ brother, Earl Spencer.
Spencer strongly denied this, prompting Webb to make his FOI request in an attempt to find out who was responsible for the attempt “to blacken Spencer’s name”.
Webb says the corporation initially told him it had 80 emails relevant to that FOI request, all of which were legally protected. After Webb began his complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office the BBC carried out further electronic searches, which showed there were actually 3,288 relevant emails.
Webb accuses the BBC of duplicity in this change of tack, saying: “where’s the best place to hide a tree except in a forest?”
He claims this constituted a second cover-up, the goal of which is to protect former BBC director-general Tony Hall. Hall carried out the original 1996 investigation into Bashir’s conduct, which Dyson described as “woefully ineffective”.
Webb told Press Gazette that some of today’s BBC management “were literally still in school” at the time of the Panorama interview, so in 2020 “there wouldn’t have been too much concern about what happened to Bashir in all of this”.
However, he argues, “there was a huge concern – certainly from a body of management – about how this would impact on good old Tony, who [was] literally only just out the door, his director-general’s seat still warm.
“And I think that is what prevailed – that the decision was taken that, ‘well, matters have remained under wraps for 25 years, so let’s see if they can remain under wraps for a further 25.’”
The BBC disputes Webb’s allegations, saying the redactions cover either personal details or legally privileged information.
A spokesperson for the corporation said: “This latest disclosure includes many hundreds of pages of duplicates and material that was not related to the 1995 Panorama, but was nevertheless caught by the electronic searches.
“We have made redactions, where necessary, consistent with the Freedom of Information Act. There is nothing to support the allegations that the BBC acted in bad faith in 2020 and we maintain this suggestion is simply wrong…
“As has been said many times, far from attempting to conceal or cover up matters, the BBC commissioned Lord Dyson to conduct an independent investigation so that he could gain a full picture of what happened in 1995 – including by obtaining any additional materials that people other than the BBC might possess.”
‘A really interesting test of the whole freedom of information process’
Webb told Press Gazette he thought his freedom of information campaign has “a good distance to run” yet.
“The timetable that was decided upon was that submissions from the BBC explaining the exemptions they’re claiming won’t be submitted for a further two weeks,” he said.
“So I then [will] look at their submissions and say, ‘Ah, right, now I understand why that page is missing and that page is missing’. I then have a two-week period to respond.” A tribunal will then consider the submissions and responses and may decide to itself look behind the redactions.
Webb believes the absolute earliest he may know what is in the redacted emails is six weeks from now.
“It seems to me that it is a really interesting test of the whole freedom of information process here,” he said. “We’re saying there is legitimate – if not suspicion, then legitimate scepticism – about the way the BBC has behaved in this. Yet I as the requester am not allowed to have open view of this vast body of emails.”
He nonetheless feels he has a good chance of success. The tribunal has agreed that they will, if required, look at what has been redacted before deciding whether they should be published.
Unlike the BBC, which has spent £150,000 on legal counsel to fight the FOI request, Webb said “I haven’t, fortunately, spent a penny on this, I would say, apart from paper for the printer.” It has required a lot of his time, however.
“I always do try to show people I’m not just a swivel-eyed looney in the attic on this every waking moment of every day,” he said. “I do have a day job, I do make documentaries. There’s a couple at the moment primed to go out and I start a brand new project literally on Monday.”
Asked why he spent so much time chasing the BBC through the FOI process given his other commitments, Webb said: “I genuinely, genuinely believe that this story does have a historic resonance in a way that many, many, many stories do not…
“I would not want to spend huge swathes of time trying to nail people such as Huw Edwards, Russell Brand, people like that. Because although that is a fantastically wonderful journalistic endeavour, in 100 years time, people are not going to care one whit about what Huw Edwards did with his young pal.
“But I do know for a fact, I just know, that in 100 years’ time historians will be interested to know why we didn’t have a Queen Diana.”
He described it as a “fascinating” story, the nub of which “has been kept from me”.
“I’m like the donkey with the carrot dangling from his forehead. It’s a story where there are clear goals visible in front of you…
“We read Wolf Hall and we’re fascinated to inquire whether Anne Boleyn was at it with the lute player. In possibly 500 years’ time, these matters will still be under discussion – so as a journalist, I do feel that I’m kind of well and truly writing the old clichéd first draft of history.”
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