FFor many years, as the head of news and current affairs for Channel 4, the first thing I did every morning was read the Daily Mail or, on my day off, its sister newspaper, the Mail on Sunday. I am assuming from the revelations this week that this is not something the top executives at BBC News do.
I read the Mail because it contains many fantastic stories, many of them true. Also, what the Mail says today is likely to be said by a conservative politician tomorrow and I like to hear the news first from its true source. In contrast, some BBC News seem to have nothing at all about some important stories, even when those stories are about their own institution, if they have not been broadcast by the BBC.
This week, the BBC published a hilarious report on how on earth, or even in heaven, they succeeded in appointing one of the most notorious television journalists of our time, Martin Bashir, as a religious affairs correspondent, and then promoting him to editor, religion: which in terms of the British establishment is only one step below the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some have asked if it was part of an evil BBC cover-up, but even Satan himself would draw the line on something so ridiculous.
More than 25 years ago, the BBC’s Panorama program got its biggest scoop. It was not, I regret to say, the exposure of the thalidomide scandal or the terrible political corruption involving arms dealers, but an interview with a desperate young woman named Princess Diana. Wow, the BBC was proud of this, and they were, from what I can understand, all guys. All those guys got that vulnerable young woman to reveal her pain. Well done, guys. Have a drink.
And other guys on TV gave them all the awards you can imagine. Prince William has said that the content of that interview was fueled by the poison that Martin Bashir allegedly poured into his mother’s ear. We will never know how much, but the scoop obtained through deception and lies is tainted.
Some say that supporters of public service broadcasting should not attack the BBC for the interview, because the right wing is using the scandal to undermine the institution. I, as someone who believes enormously in the importance of the BBC and has spearheaded news and current affairs on publicly owned Channel 4 for almost 20 years, I think otherwise. If those of us who support our public service broadcasting system do not denounce this, we lose all credibility. What Bashir did was appalling, as was the BBC cover-up at the time, and we must say it.
Very soon after that ghastly and glorious success, people started asking questions and the Mail on Sunday ran an excellent newspaper article exposing how the interview had been obtained. He revealed that Bashir, to gain trust, had shown Princess Diana’s brother fake bank statements stating that one of his own key employees was paid by News of the World.
This was a story of great importance that shocked British journalists. But this week’s BBC report, written by a former BBC executive, finds that neither 2016 news chief James Harding nor current affairs director Joanna Carr had read or heard of this exhibit. . With that level of ignorance about the most important television interview of our time, neither of us would have landed a job on Channel 4.
A third executive on the interview panel knew something about it, but his investigation of the matter took the form of asking the guy in charge of Panorama for reassurance at the time of the interview. Guess what! He got it.
But hey, they didn’t just have to read the newspapers. That information also appeared in a book. Here’s another potential source of information that was available to them when Bashir applied for that position on religious matters: Former BBC Director General Tony Hall knew that Bashir had falsified those bank statements because he had been involved in the initial investigations.
No doubt Hall would have been briefed on the plan to name Bashir. He had been a news chief himself when questions arose about how the interview was obtained. Then the investigation found that Bashir was a good guy, but the poor freelance graphic designer tasked with creating the fake documents was a bad guy. What Bashir had done was known throughout the television industry and was considered a great scandal. And that information became known on the BBC in 2016, when Bashir was given the job.
A senior person in the BBC news and current affairs department when the appointment was made told me: “There were cries of disbelief. The jaws dropped. Some of us are speechless. ”Another described Harding, who had previously edited the Times, as an“ overseas idiot ”who knew nothing about the history of television journalism.
On Channel 4 we received the news with horrified joy. And that wasn’t just because of the interview with Princess Diana. In the world of television news they were repeated questions about how Bashir got his firstfruits. The mother of one of the girls killed by Russell Bishop, the killer of so-called “babies in the woods,” said that Bashir, while filming a movie for the BBC, had lost her dead son’s blood-stained clothing. Bashir denied it.
I think the BBC needs to investigate these allegations. Bashir went to work for ITV some time after the interview with Diana. There, there were more questions, including highly publicized complaints about his interview with Michael Jackson.
Ironically, he was the subject of a letter of complaint sent by the BBC to ITV. BBC executives said that Bashir had made up two false stories about them. He had allegedly told the Metropolitan Police that the BBC was withholding important evidence about the Soho pub bomber 1999, which was completely untrue. The BBC also complained that Bashir had told the children of the victims of mass murderer Harold Shipman that Panorama intended to air his film about the case before trial, which could have caused him to get out: a terrible lie.
A spokesperson for Bashir said: “Both claims are false and are categorically denied. Mr. Bashir did not have any such conversations with the metropolitan police. Mr. Bashir carried out only part of the work for this investigation, most of it was completed by a colleague. With regard to the second claim (relating to the information on the case of Dr. Harold Shipman), Mr. Bashir only had dealings with one family and all those meetings were held with a fellow senior producer. “
This week’s BBC report makes no reference to that letter. But there was even more damaging evidence on Bashir. After working at ITV, Bashir went to the United States. There he was suspended by ABC for making rude and sexist comments at an awards ceremony, and later resigned from MSNBC after making disparaging comments about American politics Sarah Palin. One of the members of the BBC interview panel examined this and it was decided that making vile and sexist comments in public did not make you ineligible to comment on religion and morality.
This week’s report challenges that view, but does not condemn the BBC for naming Bashir. Apparently he was the best man for the job at the time and had “a deep understanding of theology.” He also had, as was widely known within and outside the BBC at the time he was appointed, a questionable understanding of ethics. His appointment was outrageous and all true BBC supporters should say so.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism