The BBC’s quick report about the rehiring of Martin Bashir tells us very little and raises fresh questions.
We know the BBC advertised internally for a religious affairs correspondent for 12 days from 13 July and that the internal candidates were not considered to be up to snuff. The role was then posted to the BBC external recruitment website for six days from 30 August. But none of the external applicants were even considered worthy of interview.
To find how the real recruitment for the role happened we need to rewind to a couple of informal meetings over coffee.
Bashir met then BBC head of newsgathering Jonathan Munro on 23 June (just over a week after the BBC announced that Caroline Wyatt was stepping down from the role of religious affairs correspondent).
And on 8 August Bashir met then BBC head of news James Harding for a coffee to discuss the role (well before any other external applicants even knew the role would be advertised).
Bashir appears to have had the inside track on the role with the rest of the recruitment process an exercise in box-ticking.
Six days seems an exceptionally short amount of time to advertise a role, as it was only on the BBC’s own job board one has to assume news of the position would have reached a very limited audience.
The questions which remain are:
Why was Bashir considered for the role in the first place? Did he put himself forward using his own BBC connections or was he headhunted?
What was spoken about over those informal coffees?
How far does this cosy coffee-based interviewing culture go at the BBC? This is public money after all and closed clubby recruitment practices clearly lead us into some bad places.
We have to accept that there was an outbreak of collective amnesia at the BBC over Bashir’s chequered history.
But it is not correct to say that prior to the Dyson report Bashir’s dodgy past was in any way a secret.
Andy Webb, the journalist behind Channel 4 Documentary Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview, broadcast in October 2020, said of Bashir’s rehiring: “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: “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?’”
There was not only the well-known questions about Bashir’s role in the Diana documentary, there were also subsequent issues around his career in the US.
In 2008 Bashir was suspended by ABC after making crude comments about “Asian babes” in a speech to the Asian American Journalists’ Association.
And in 2013 he resigned from his role as an anchor on MSNBC after reading out vivid descriptions of brutal treatment of slaves on air then saying: “When Mrs [Sarah] Palin invokes slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate.”
We can add to these the other unanswered questions around the Bashir scandal at the BBC.
Has the BBC reviewed how it fulfils its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act? The BBC withheld key documents about the Bashir scandal for many years despite repeated requests and a clear legal obligation towards disclosure.
The BBC has apologised to whistleblower Matt Wiessler but what about the other BBC journalists who were victimised for raising concerns about Bashir?
Will the BBC also apologise to the Mail on Sunday and its journalists for dishonestly denying the initial April 1996 story about Bashir faking bank statements to secure the Diana interview?
And will the BBC (and ITV where Bashir also worked) be reviewing all the other stories he worked on?
Former Channel 4 head of news Dorothy Byrne said: “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.”
Harding probably thought that Bashir would bring stardust to a relatively dull beat. But one does wonder why no serious attempt appears to have been made to see if any other external applicants were suitable for the role.