Former BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall has said he grilled Martin Bashir for an hour and a half in 1996 about the circumstances around his interview with Princess Diana, leaving him in tears.
The Dyson report last month found Bashir commissioned fake bank statements and used “deceitful behaviour” in a “serious breach” of the BBC’s producer guidelines to secure his Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the BBC’s biggest scoops.
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It also found that Lord Hall’s subsequent investigation into his behaviour was “woefully ineffective”.
The committee heard that Bashir was paid £80,000 per year, rising to £120,000 and appeared on air or on the BBC website six times in the space of three years.
Answering questions from MPs on Tuesday morning, Lord Hall (pictured) said he had wanted to come to his own conclusion about whether to believe Bashir, whether he understood what he had done was wrong, and whether he was remorseful. But he accepted he came to the “wrong judgment” about the journalist’s remorse.
He told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: “The decision that we had to make, and it is a decision lots of managers have to make in lots of different places, if someone breaches the guidelines and it is the first time they have done it, do you say, ‘That’s it, farewell, you’re sacked’ or do you say, ‘Alright, you are remorseful, we will give you a second chance’ and that is what we did.
“And we did it listening to him having talked to him 25 years ago. Now, in the light of what I know now about Bashir, was that the wrong judgment? Yes it was, but we trusted him and we clearly shouldn’t have done.”
Lord Hall, who in 1996 was director of news, interviewed Bashir for 90 minutes with Anne Sloman, then-acting head of weekly and special programmes. He said they “quizzed him really, really hard”.
In that meeting Bashir “ended up contrite and in tears saying that he understood he had made a mistake”, he said.
“We then decided at that point there was a clear breach of editorial guidelines on straight dealing with people who are prospective candidates for a programme. What he had done had not gone anywhere near air. If it had gone anywhere near air it would have been an extremely serious offence. We decided we would give him a second chance because he was so contrite and… he understood the mistake he had made.”
He said he was “astonished” to realise when reading the Dyson report that Bashir had not in fact realised the gravity of his actions.
Lord Hall, who has stepped down from his post-BBC role as chairman of the National Gallery amid the Bashir controversy, added: “One of the difficulties of looking back over 25 years is that he appeared to us at the time that he was contrite, that he was inexperienced an he was out of his depth.
“That’s why in the end instead of sacking him, and I can see the reasons for that, we gave him a second chance.” He described this as giving Bashir a “yellow card”.
‘Woefully ineffective’ investigation
Asked if he agreed with Lord Dyson that the 1996 internal BBC investigation was “woefully ineffective”, Lord Hall said: “We didn’t get to the bottom of the lies that Bashir had told us.
“We weren’t trying to conceal anything, I do want to stress that, but we were lied to and our trust was misplaced and bluntly, Bashir took us all in, from the director-general down to the programme editor Steve Hewlett.”
He accepted the investigation should have approached Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, who was not asked to take part.
“I accept that as a mistake 25 years on but we were trying to do our best and be as rigorous as we could with what we had then,” Lord Hall told MPs.
“You basically trust your reporters and your editors to tell the truth and in this case that trust was misplaced.”
But he denied he was not open minded during the investigation: “I wanted to get to the truth.”
‘Regret’ language used about whistleblower
Lord Hall was asked about Matt Wiessler, the graphic designer asked by Bashir to mock up the fake bank statements who was blacklisted by the BBC after he told then-director general Lord Birt he “will not work for the BBC again”.
He said: “Of course I regret the language we used about Mr Wiessler and also I think we could have managed that better.”
Current director-general Tim Davie met Wiessler earlier this month and gave him a personal apology. The BBC is also considering paying him compensation.
However Lord Birt, in a later session with MPs, refused to apologise to Wiessler, saying he did not “have enough evidence” to explain why the graphic designer was fired.
Lord Hall denied there was a cover-up at the BBC: “We have not tried to conceal from the public or anyone any of the conclusions we came to around this 25 years ago, the notion that there has been some consistent line that we have drawn under this to try to conceal something from the public is not true.
“We thought we’d come to a conclusion 25 years ago – an honest conclusion based on somebody who was trite and prepared to see he’d made a big mistake. Someone we thought was inexperienced and out of his depth. We got that wrong, we believed him, and I’m sorry for that.”
He insisted there was “absolutely nothing from me that said this is not to be reported on” when asked about why the BBC did not report on allegations broken by the Mail on Sunday surrounding the faked documents 25 years ago.
He also asked for the scandal not to “colour” his other work for the BBC over 35 years: “Twenty-five years ago myself and everybody believed Bashir, we made a mistake but please don’t let that colour the other things that I have done.
“I’ve done a hell of a lot for the BBC and I think for the arts and I regret this one thing that we all got wrong because we were lied to by Martin Bashir 25 years ago.”
Picture: Parliament TV/Screenshot