Martin Bashir

Craig Byers: “BBC Hit By New Bashir Shame”

Craig Byers: “BBC Hit By New Bashir Shame”

“The BBC has a really grim bit of reading in The Mail on Sunday. This is another Martin Bashir-related story. Goes on for pages and pages and it is tough stuff for BBC people to read”, said Andrew Marr this morning.
He didn’t elaborate, or mention the story again.
This morning’s BBC News Channel paper review also merely mentioned it, with Victoria Derbyshire laying heavy emphasis on her own words, “it claims”.
The Mail on Sunday’s remarkable investigation into how Martin Bashir took the Babes In The Wood victim’s bloodied clothes from her mother, and then lost them, focuses on how that was followed by “derisory” efforts to find them by the BBC.
The loss, the Mail reports, was only found out when the mother asked for them back to help police review the evidence and help convict the chief suspect.
As with the Princess Diana scandal, it’s the allegations of a cover-up by the BBC that are particularly telling:

At the time, a BBC spokesman announced ‘extensive inquiries’ had been made to find them.

But we can reveal today that the Corporation failed to even carry out the most basic checks, including speaking directly to Bashir.

Key journalists who worked alongside him on the Babes In The Wood documentary also said they were never contacted.

Nor were the families of Karen and fellow victim Nicola Fellows, nor a forensic scientist named by the programme’s editor as an expert who could analyse scene-of-crime material.

The acting director-general of the BBC at the time, Mark Byford, has also admitted no ‘formal investigation’ was held into the missing clothes.

Well might Julian Knight MP say in reaction, “These allegations, if proven, would amount to one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the BBC. This could be the BBC’s Milly Dowler phone hacking moment.”

His Commons Culture select committee will be interviewing Tim Davie on Tuesday.

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Update – The story was discussed during this morning’s Broadcasting House paper review. Only one guest commented on it, namely  former Conservative MP for North Devon Peter Heaton-Jones, who also previously worked for…guess who?…yes, the BBC:

Paddy O’Connell: What is the front page of the Mail on Sunday, Peter?

Peter Heaton-Jones: Well, yes I thought I should dip into the world of journalism from my previous life Paddy, and so…the Mail on Sunday is obsessed with the BBC, has been for some time, shows no signs of waning. So you can read about the BBC and the Mail‘s view of it on pages 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 26, should you be so disposed. I love the BBC. I worked here for 20 years and I think that the licence fee is the right way to fund the BBC. Let me get that out of the way first. But the Mail says one thing in its editorial which I think has some substance to it, and it’s this: They…quote, “The BBC’s closed and haughty elite with its insistence on being judge and jury in any case where it comes under criticism, ploughs on regardless”. And I just think if there’s one lesson for the BBC to learn, it’s you can get it wrong sometimes, don’t always defend yourself to the hilt if someone accuses you of getting something wrong.

Paddy O’Connell: And this front page is another scandal involving the disgraced journalist Martin Bashir.

Peter Heaton-Jones: Yes, “BBC hit by new Bashir shame”, they say on page 1 – and about 18 other pages. It’s not a good story, which I don’t think I want to go into detail about Paddy, but it’s another example of how I think the Mail and certain other newspapers will try to find any chink in the BBC’s armour. They are there, but they find them very actively.

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Further update [Sunday evening] –  The BBC has radically undermined BBC apologist Peter Heaton-Jones tonight.

He said it wasn’t a good story, but the BBC obviously disagrees. They’ve taken onboard the Mail on Sunday‘s investigation.

As a result, the BBC has now issued an apology, saying they’re “extremely sorry over the loss of the murdered schoolgirl’s clothes.

This is important, and needs exploring further, though the BBC website report – true to form – spins the ‘cover-up’ claim as wrong, to the BBC’s advantage.

Maybe time will tell, or maybe it won’t.

Whatever, well done to the Mail on Sunday, however many pages they took over it.

Bashir wasn’t the first BBC royal interview scandal

Bashir wasn’t the first BBC royal interview scandal

DIGGING into the Martin Bashir affair for TCW has reminded me of another huge scandal about BBC integrity in 1985 in which I was centrally involved. It showed that then, as ten years later, nothing would stop senior BBC management from flagrantly breaking editorial guidelines if these got in their way. On that occasion it cost them a rumoured £750,000 in civil damages, equivalent to at least £2.3million today.

In a High Court ruling, the Corporation were adjudged to be guilty of a ‘scandalous breach of copyright’ against the ITV breakfast channel TV-am, which was at that time trouncing the BBC’s Breakfast Time in the ratings, much to senior management’s chagrin.

The fulcrum of the case was the BBC’s piracy of an interview secured by TV-am presenter Nick Owen with Princess Michael of Kent concerning her father’s alleged involvement with the Nazi SS during the Second World War. News of the connection was a huge national story and everybody wanted to get the princess’s reaction.

Owen had known her for some time, and he said at the time that she decided to talk him exclusively to avoid a media scrum and to get the ordeal over in one go.

The BBC were having none of that.

I had joined TV-am as head of the press office from the BBC, where I had been head of news and current affairs publicity, just two weeks earlier.

TV-am boss Bruce Gyngell put me in charge of all external relations in connection with the interview, one of the first major news exclusives secured by TV-am. The station had been through a disastrous launch – to a significant extent because the BBC set out to sabotage it – and in early 1985 was beginning a determined and successful fight back under Gyngell’s expert leadership. In that context, the interview was ratings gold dust, and Bruce was determined to keep it as an exclusive.

The BBC argued however that because Princess Michael was a royal, the material should be made available to other stations under established pooling arrangements which applied on royal events to limit the size of the media pack.

Our legal advice was that this interview was emphatically not pool material because Princess Michael had decreed otherwise. So when, as the hours ticked down to transmission, the editor of BBC Breakfast Time rang me and asked for a copy of the interview for their programme the following day, my answer was an emphatic ‘no’.

He was not happy, and during the evening there followed a series of calls to me from BBC executives of escalating seniority, culminating with the overall boss of BBC News.

They used every trick in the book from honeyed words to outright threats to try to crack my defences, but my instruction from Bruce Gyngell against the onslaught was to stand firm.

At 11pm came the final weapon in the BBC’s arsenal. It was an Exocet. That evening the Queen was hosting a state dinner at Windsor Castle for Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi. Still on duty, I picked up the phone. ‘Are you David Keighley?’ a cut-glass voice inquired. When I replied that I was, the voice continued, ‘Well, I am Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary.’ He told me he was rather displeased with TV-am because he been called out of the banquet and acidly continued, ‘And I am telling you, no, ordering you, to give the Princess Michael interview to the BBC because the royal rota rules apply.’

Somewhat shaken, I responded that I disagreed and told him that our legal advice was that it was our exclusive. Shea’s tone turned icy. He told me in very direct language that (a) I was wrong, and (b) there would be ‘consequences’.

We stuck to our guns, but the following morning at 6.50am BBC Breakfast Time showed the interview almost in its entirety. We had started broadcasting 25 minutes earlier and they simply recorded it and re-ran it. As brazen as that. Aware of the possibility that the BBC would try this, we had made our TV-am strapline at the foot of the screen double the usual size. The BBC blanked out the lower half of the screen to obliterate our ID, so on their version it looked as if Nick Owen and the princess were peering over a wall! There was no attribution whatsoever of how the interview had been obtained. In their arrogance the BBC had indulged in an act of major copyright piracy.

After we came off air at 9am, the TV-am news director Bill Ludford and I hurried from Camden Lock to the Inner Temple where we instructed our legal team in seeking a High Court injunction to stop further showings of our interview and return the pirated copies of it. We also applied for substantial damages for breach of copyright.

Two hours later, the injunction and return order were granted with Mr Justice Walton in the Chancery Division calling it a ‘scandalous breach of copyright’. The BBC, again in its arrogance, and with flagrant disregard for licence fee cash, appealed. Another hour later, that too was turned down in equally forthright language.

The subsequent damages case was resolved out of court in TV-am’s favour.

The episode showed in spades that when it comes to journalistic integrity, the Corporation has the morals of an alley cat. TV-am at that stage, thanks to the BBC’s blunderbuss attempts to sink it, was a struggling minnow which had only recently been on the edge of bankruptcy. But BBC news chiefs could not bear the idea of being outflanked or told they were wrong. Their flagrant act of copyright piracy, as with the Bashir and Cliff Richard cases, illustrates that in pursuit of their interests their editorial guidelines are little more than a window-dressing sham.

 

Photo by Anthony from Pexels
Hall and Birt deny responsibility for Bashir fiasco

Hall and Birt deny responsibility for Bashir fiasco

THE Lord Dyson report established that the BBC acted appallingly in its handling in 1995 of the interview of Princess Diana.

Prince William reacted by stating that it showed his mother had been ‘deceived’ and asserted that ‘the ripple effect of (the BBC’s) culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life’. He also said: ‘She was failed not just by a rogue reporter, but by leaders at the BBC who looked the other way rather than asking tough questions.

Serious charges indeed from the second in line to the throne. But who was to blame in this catalogue of coercion, forgery, gross professional incompetence and cover-ups?

Why had Martin Bashir been, in effect, cleared of misconduct in 1996 even though he owned up soon after the interview to forging documents? Who were the ‘leaders’ at the BBC who had looked the other way? And why was Bashir, a proven liar, re-hired by the BBC as religious affairs editor in 2016?

That was what the Department of Culture (DCMS) select committee sought to find out last week.  Summoned to appear before the MPs were Lord Birt, director general of the BBC in 1995, Lord Hall, the then director of BBC News (and director general from 2012-20), along with Tim Davie, the current director general and Richard Sharp, the current BBC chairman.

How did the committee, chaired by Conservative MP Julian Knight, fare in its task?  You can judge for yourself here from the 32,000 words or so of transcript.

Put bluntly, it was a textbook example of BBC stonewalling and obfuscation. Far from owning up to failures of leadership, the corporation doubled down in its insistence that such was not the case.

One element stands out like a Belisha beacon. This was that, according to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the inquiry, the Lords Birt and Hall – both looking like insolent schoolboys called to see the headmaster – Martin Bashir was the villain of the piece. He was a rogue reporter, a conman and a charlatan who had lied and practised deception on a monumental scale, and had duped senior management into trusting him.

Was anyone else at the BBC at fault? They themselves? Other senior management figures such as the editor of Panorama, who broadcast the show and was thus editorially responsible for the content as well as the conduct of his staff?

Goodness me, no! In both lords’ views, the actions of the main senior management figures involved – Steve Hewlett, the editor of Panorama, Tim Gardam, the head of current affairs, Tim Suter, the managing editor of all BBC news and current affairs, Richard Ayre, the director of BBC editorial standards, and Anne Sloman, the BBC chief political adviser – were beyond reproach.

Not only that, said the two peers of the realm, they had talked the matter through among themselves and with Steve, the two Tims, Richard and Anne, and all agreed they were on the right track and had handled matters correctly. That, they believed, proved that no one was to blame for the fiasco. They knew it to be the case and, lo! – it therefore was.

The MPs on the committee – some of them former BBC staff, including chairman Knight, the SNP’s John Nicholson and Steve Brine – pulled no punches in their attempt to hold Lords Birt and Hall to account. Their tenacity was impressive.

They may have failed in their task of obtaining direct confessions, but in response to their efforts, Hall and Birt did some monumental buck-passing. They showed that then, as now, the BBC is a disgrace to journalism, that those who run it are arrogantly unaware of their shortcomings and that as an institution, the BBC is rotten to the core with shared values of the gutter.

After the Dyson report appeared, on TCW and Briefings for Britain I wrote:

‘Don’t hold your breath [expecting reform] . . . The danger is that despite the evidence of incompetence, almost unlimited arrogance and moral turpitude, the corporation carries on regardless because no one has the political guts or will to tackle a massive overhaul. The core problem is that the BBC will never admit misconduct, and has been immune to outside complaints for most of its history because it is its own judge and jury in that domain in most respects.’

The testimonies of Lord Birt, Lord Hall, Tim Davie and Richard Sharp are remarkable for the reasons already outlined above, but they deserve further analysis in future blogs, and these will appear on TCW in the coming weeks.

As a taster, current director general Davie revealed that – although he never discussed Bashir with him – he ‘fairly regularly’ talks to Lord Birt, and believes him to be ‘a wise and trusted source of advice for me around how we reform the BBC, how we go through this job’.

Be afraid, be very afraid. The man who in 1993 playwright Dennis Potter called a ‘croak-voiced Dalek’ in his approach to BBC management and reform still has a hand on the tiller almost 30 years on.