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May 27, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:19am

BBC’s disregard for FoI and victimisation of whistleblowers among unresolved issues from Bashir scandal

By Dominic Ponsford

Update 27/5/21: One week after the Dyson report the BBC is addressing issues around its governance and culture and the rehiring of Martin Bashir – but victimisation of whistleblowers and the corporation’s disregard for the Freedom of Information Act remain open issues.

BBC bosses hoped that the Dyson report and an apology for events which happened “a quarter of a century” ago would put an end to the Bashir interview scandal, but pressure on the corporation intensified over the weekend as it become clear that the Dyson report raised as many questions as it answered.

Lord Dyson found that Martin Bashir commissioned fake bank statements and used “deceitful behaviour” in a “serious breach” of the BBC’s guidelines to secure his Panorama interview with Princess Diana in 1995.

The BBC’s refusal to put any senior managers forward for interview over the weekend, following publication of the report on Thursday, has only furthered the impression that far from being a historic scandal the BBC’s corporate failings are an ongoing issue.

These are the main questions around the Bashir affair which the BBC still needs to answer, and which Press Gazette has put to the corporation.

Bashir interview scandal: BBC’s unanswered questions

1) Why have no BBC managers been available for interview to talk about the Bashir affair since Thursday?

On Friday, Radio 4’s PM said: “We bid for an interview with a BBC manager but the BBC did not respond to our request.”

And on Sunday morning, BBC Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell said: “We put a request into the BBC, would they speak to us here on Radio 4, they said no they would not. Will that wash?”

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Guest on the programme, former Today presenter John Humphrys, said: “It’s outrageous they should be endlessly turning down requests for interviews. I can’t think of a single programme on the BBC, or indeed any other news or current affairs programme, that would not want to do an interview with somebody.

“We are told nobody is available, what a ridiculous expression to use. There are lots of them available. They choose not to make themselves available. What have they got to hide?”

Update 25/5/21: Tim Davie gave an interview to Today on Tuesday, 25 May

2) Why did the BBC re-hire Martin Bashir in 2016 as its religion editor?

Then head of news James Harding (pictured) was asked by Radio 4 on Friday if he knew at the time Bashir was re-hired that he had faked banks statements in the run-up to the Diana interview.

Harding said: “I didn’t know and if I had known of course he wouldn’t have got the job. I can’t help feeling that the fact that he was hired back in 2016 has made things more difficult for everyone and I’m sorry that he was.”

Asked repeatedly whether he spoke to then BBC director general Tony Hall about the rehiring of Bashir, he said: “The question of who said what to whom…the way I look at this and the way I think about it is I was running BBC News when Martin Bashir was hired back into BBC news and the responsibility for that sits with me.”

He said: “There was an interview process, a recruitment process, I know that and completely understand you want me to explain exactly how was that process run, who said what to whom, I can’t do that with the certainty or detail that you would want…”

Andy Webb, the journalist behind Channel 4 Documentary Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview, broadcast in October 2020, said (on Radio 4 PM on Friday): “He [Harding] must have been one of the few journalists in London who hadn’t heard some sort of gossip or rumours about the faked documents and indeed had not read a book by Andrew Morton where the story is clearly spelled out, or the semi-official history of Panorama by Richard Lindley  where the story is spelled out. This is what I found so extraordinary when I began investigating this in 2007. It seemed a crime had been committed in plain sight yet nothing had been done.

“One wonders how many people said ‘of course we know about the fake documents’ in a somewhat similar way to I think the reluctance to pursue inquiries into Jimmy Savile was ‘of course everybody knows he’s a bid odd’. It’s rather odd to hear that Martin Bashir did not come with a somewhat tarnished record.”

John Humphrys, who was a Today presenter in 2016 and one of the BBC’s highest-paid and most high-profile journalists, told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House on Sunday morning: “The rehiring is quite simply extraordinary. I don’t think there was a soul amongst us, amongst the ordinary hacks, who didn’t say: ‘What – Bashir – really?'”

Update (24/5/21): BBC chairman Richard Sharp told the BBC’s World at One: “I take comfort from the fact that Martin Bashir is no longer here. I don’t take comfort yet from understanding why he was rehired. We will find that out.”

Update (25/5/21): BBC director-general Tim Davie has promised a quick investigation into how and why Bashir was rehired.

3) Will the BBC be reviewing its compliance with the Freedom of Information Act following the revelation that it repeatedly refused to disclose documents about the Bashir affair, in breach of its legal responsibilities?

Andy Webb first wrote to the BBC in 2007 asking to see all documents relating to Bashir’s Diana interview. He was told that there were no documents on file.

In September 2015 the Mail on Sunday submitted an FoI request to the BBC asking it again to disclose all information related to the 1995 Diana interview. It said it received “15 pages of anodyne documents”.

Webb renewed his FoI request last year and finally received 67 documents about how the interview was planned and set up. This was two days before his Channel 4 documentary about the affair was broadcast.

Webb wrote in the Daily Mail: “I believe this information was released in the BBC’s full knowledge that I would not be able to use it in my investigation. Two days is not long enough to rewrite, reshoot and re-edit a documentary. Anyone in TV knows this.

“It would be shameful if BBC executives timed the release in the hope that, unable to make any use of the papers, I would simply glance at them then stuff them in a filing cabinet to be forgotten. But I suspect that is what they wanted.

“Instead, I decided to share them with the Princess’s brother, Lord Spencer. And when he saw them, the lid blew off the cover-up.

“Lord Spencer, unlike the BBC, had never lost sight of a single scrap of paper in his own files relating to the affair. He had always been convinced there were dirty dealings, but he’d been unable to prove it.”

Spencer went to Richard Kay of the Daily Mail with the information and praised Webb this week for his role in bringing the story to light.

The BBC has provided no response to this question as posed by Press Gazette.

4) Will the BBC apologise and pay compensation to the whistleblowers it punished for raising questions over Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana?

Graphic designer Matt Weissler (asked by Bashir to fake the bank statements) was the first person at the BBC to raise alarm bells about the Bashir interview back in 1995. Panorama producer Mark Killick, reporter Tom Mangold and Panoroma deputy editor Harry Dean all went to see then Panorama editor Steve Hewlett to raise their concerns.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mangold said Hewlett’s response was to say: “This was none of your fucking business.”

The Dyson report reveals how Lord Hall told then BBC director general Lord Birt in 1996: “We are taking steps to ensure that the graphic designer involved – Matthew Weissler – will not work for the BBC again (when a current contract expires in the next few weeks).

“In addition, between now and the summer, we will work to deal with leakers and remove persistent troublemakers from the programme.”

Weissler was duly sacked as a full-time freelance. Killick was dropped from the programme. Mangold says he was “let go” and “paid peanuts in compensation” and, according to Mangold, Dean “who was on his way up the BBC ladder” was warned by Hewlett “he had done himself no good”.

The BBC press office briefed that “envious colleagues” were behind allegations against Bashir.

Update (25/5/21): BBC director Tim Davie has said the corporation will hold a legal discussion on compensation for Matt Weissler, but he did not mention targeting of other whistleblowers.

5) Will the BBC review the way it regulates its news operation to ensure corporate cover-ups like this do not happen again?

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, former BBC chairman Lord Grade said: “I would urge the Government and the board of the BBC and Ofcom to consider devolving governance of BBC journalism from the main board to a new independent board (not government appointed), comprising only members qualified by their experience in senior editorial positions of responsibility.

“This new editorial board should be chaired by a specialist qualified editorial figure chosen from the main board. (There are two such highly qualified ex-journalists on the current board.) The task of this new editorial board would be to oversee and govern all the journalism of the BBC, with the director general (the BBC’s editor in chief) and his/her key editorial managers regularly and directly accountable to this board. It should include whistle-blowing within its remit.

“Historically, the problem for the main lay board of the BBC has always been that it has too big an agenda to allow effective scrutiny. This gives the executive huge power to steer the board to the outcomes of its choosing – the Yes Minister playbook writ large.

“But unless you have been a journalist, how can you know what questions to ask? You wouldn’t expect non-clinicians to cross examine, say, a surgeon suspected of malpractice.

“The BBC has always suffered from a board that is too easily bamboozled by the executive. Journalism can be a minefield, and often is for the BBC. The succession of high-profile failures is just the tip of a very big iceberg.

“How many horrors have not hit the headlines, one wonders?”

Scroll down to see details of the BBC governance review announced on Monday afternoon, 24/5/21.

6) Was a criminal offence committed and has the BBC passed any evidence of criminality on to the Met Police?

Obtaining financial advantage by forging bank statements would appear to be a criminal offence.

The Met Police told Press Gazette: “In March 2021, the MPS determined it was not appropriate to begin a criminal investigation into allegations of unlawful activity in connection with a documentary broadcast in 1995, but should any significant new evidence emerge it would be assessed.

“Following the publication of Lord Dyson’s report we will assess its contents to ensure there is no significant new evidence.”

No response on this point from the BBC.

7) Will the BBC apologise to the Mail on Sunday and its journalists?

The Bashir affair was first revealed by Mail on Sunday journalists Nick Fielding and Jason Lewis in April 1996.

The BBC response was to lie and say that their story was untrue.

The BBC issued a statement approved by Lord Hall and Steve Hewlett saying: “The documents were never connected in any way to the Panorama interview with Princess Diana.”

Fielding said: “I think the BBC owes the Mail on Sunday an apology.”

No response to this point from the BBC.

8) Will the BBC, and other broadcasters who hired Bashir, now review other stories he worked on to ensure they were not tainted by deception?

Former Channel 4 head of news Dorothy Byrne said: “I think that both BBC and ITV need to look at all his scoops. Other people who have been interviewed by Martin Bashir have complained that he lied to them and we know that the BBC wrote a formal letter to ITV about his conduct on several stories.”

Former Mail on Sunday journalist Jason Lewis said on Twitter yesterday: “I’d be interested to see the redacted material in the Dyson report on the [Terry] Venables programme. It was our belief then that this demonstrated a pattern of behaviour involving Bashir and others.”

No response to this point from the BBC.

Governance and culture: BBC board announces another review

The BBC board issued a statement at lunchtime on Tuesday, which appears to address the question around governance but not the other issues raised by Press Gazette.

It said: “We accepted Lord Dyson’s findings in full and reiterate the apology we have offered to all those affected by the failings identified. We recognise the impact that the events it describes has had on so many people, not least those whose lives were personally affected by what happened. We also acknowledge that audiences had a right to expect better from the BBC.

“As a Board we believe that the BBC is a different organisation today, with different and stronger governance, as well as improved processes. Nevertheless, Lord Dyson’s report speaks to historic failings of oversight and these should be reflected upon. We must not just assume that mistakes of the past cannot be repeated today – we must make sure that this is the case.

“We have confidence that the processes and guidelines in today’s BBC are much stronger than they were in 1995, but we know we must also do what we can to prevent such an incident happening again. As such, we think it is right that we review the effectiveness of the BBC’s editorial policies and governance in detail.

“In doing this, the Board will hold the Executive to account to ensure there are strong day to day editorial processes and a clear route by which to handle any specific issues arising from Lord Dyson’s report. The Board will look at the culture of the BBC as part of its remit to assess the effectiveness of policies and practice.

“This work will be undertaken by a group of non-executive Board Directors led by Sir Nick Serota, the BBC’s Senior Independent Director, and supported by Ian Hargreaves and Sir Robbie Gibb, non-executive members of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Standards Committee. It will report to the Board by September.

“Their work will focus on oversight of the BBC’s editorial practices and will consider in detail the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes in editorial areas. This will include communicating with internal and external stakeholders and taking expert independent advice on the BBC’s approach. Their work will moreover identify the lessons to be learned from Lord Dyson’s review which may be relevant today. The BBC will, of course, also participate fully in the next formal review of BBC governance, as set out in our Royal Charter.

“This has been a profoundly sobering period for us all. The Board of the BBC has absolute faith that the mission and purposes of the BBC endure. We must strive to reinforce confidence in our world-class journalism and prove that we deserve the trust of all our audiences.”

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