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Princess Diana Scandal: U.K. Lawmakers Grill Past and Present BBC Chiefs on Martin Bashir

BBC Directors General
David Vintiner/U.K. Parliament/BBC/Bank of England

Some 25 years after Martin Bashir’s bombshell interview with Princess Diana on BBC’s “Panorama” program, the scandal continues to rage on.

On Tuesday, a U.K. parliament House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee interviewed at length former BBC director generals Tony Hall and John Birt, current director general Tim Davie and current chair Richard Sharp.

An independent investigation commissioned by the BBC concluded that Bashir obtained the “Panorama” interview using deceitful means. Giving evidence to the committee first, Hall admitted that he knew that Bashir was lying.

“We were lied to, and our trust was misplaced and, bluntly, Bashir took us all in, from the director general down to the program editor,” Hall deposed.

Referring to the 1996 BBC enquiry into the matter, Hall said, “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’s been some consistent line that we’ve drawn under this trying to conceal something to the public is not true. We thought we come to a conclusion 25 ago, an honest conclusion based on somebody who was contrite and was prepared to see that he’d made a big mistake.”

“Some of us thought he was inexperienced and out of his depth,” Hall added. “We got that wrong. We believed him. And I’m sorry for that.”

Appearing next, Birt said that he’d had no alarm bells about Bashir initially, but doubts crept in subsequently. “I felt very uneasy about what he did with Michael Jackson,” Birt said. “And that was the first time my doubts started to kick in. And you can’t be definitive about what he did with Michael Jackson but I never liked the smell of that and the failure to reach proper conclusions in that. So I did subsequently think, ‘I’m not sure about this person.'”

“No BBC reporter should again work alone as a sole trader, and you have to have four eyes on the job,” Birt added. The former executive said that tougher standards of corroboration would apply today than 25 years ago and called for a BBC lawyer to be part of the team on such sensitive subjects.

“I don’t think this was a failure of governance, this was a failure of operation,” Birt said.

Davie and Sharp appeared before the committee together. Referring to the blistering attack by Prince William on the corporation, Davie said: “It was upsetting and it was a sad day. Primarily, I felt deep sympathy for the sons of Princess Diana. And, as you know, we offered and have offered an unconditional apology. And that was the primary thing in my mind, clearly, for us as an institution that cares so deeply and has an outstanding track record in terms of journalistic integrity. It was a very low moment for us.”

Addressing Bashir’s controversial rehiring by the BBC after he had left the corporation in 1999, Sharp said that there was “probably, to some extent, overlooking and underestimating some of the ethical considerations that he’d demonstrated in his prior behaviour.”