The confessional interview has become the most sacred ritual of our contemporary secular religion, celebrity. At unpredictable intervals, totemic figures sanctified by fame, however acquired, bare their souls for our worshipful attention. From their quavering lips come paeans sometimes of penitence, but more often of petulant self-justification, their credence depending heavily on the congregation's faith. We, the laity, marvel at the utterances of these demigods. If we dare, we snigger a bit as well, and leave the sofa chastened, excited and slightly ashamed.
This awesome rite has found its high priest. Darkly handsome, unfailingly courteous and endowed with a dash of unthreatening ethnicity, Martin Bashir affords dignity to a liturgy whose inherent absurdity might otherwise overwhelm it. Numbered among the many he has shrived are Michael Barrymore, George Best, Louise Woodward (that real-life Mary Poppins), Joanne Lees (the outback ambush survivor), the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence and, supremely, the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Nowadays, celebrities often say they will fess up on-screen only to Bashir. Perhaps they believe that without his charismatic presence, absolution cannot be guaranteed. Mary Archer is the latest and most fragrant luminary reported to be taking this line. Bashir wants her badly. If they get it together, clear your diary. The loyal and haughty wife of the jailed fantasist will be prime prey for Bashir.
At the age of 39, Bashir has himself become a considerable celebrity. However, he shows none of his victims' taste for exploiting his status. He rarely gives interviews himself, nor does he participate in the celeb whirligig in any other way. Off-screen he is an elusive, even mysterious, figure. What he thinks of the remarkable role he has acquired in the national pantomime, he keeps to himself. Yet it is no accident that he has ended up where he has.
Born in London of Pakistani parents, he made it to Southampton University via a Wandsworth comprehensive. Then he became a freelance football reporter, before joining the BBC in 1986. There he progressed through local programmes, taking six years to attain the relatively respectable post of Panorama reporter. Too long, in his view. His bosses had grown used to being buttonholed by urgent young Martin pressing his case for promotion, usually as they were putting on their coats to go home. They were not too impressed.
Nobody questioned Bashir's diligence, but to the BBC's Oxbridge mandarins, this was not altogether welcome. The fellow was "pushy", which was not the way to be. Instead of going with the flow like everyone else, he insisted on beavering away till all hours on unlikely but potentially earth-shattering projects. Because these never seemed to come to anything, they began to dismiss him as something of a Walter Mitty figure, forever fantasising about the big scoop that was going to show his many detractors what he was really made of.
When he mumbled something about getting the Princess of Wales into a studio to complain of spousal abuse, he was greeted with disbelief. Then it happened. In November 1995, Panorama carried the most sensational television interview in the history of the medium. Nineteen million people watched as, under Bashir's careful questioning, Diana complained of being bullied by the royal family and challenged her husband's suitability for the throne. The Queen insisted on a divorce, and the BBC made millions in overseas sales. The Royal Television Society anointed the hitherto unknown Panorama reporter as its Journalist of the Year.
Our Martin could hardly believe it himself. Those long years of thankless effort seemed at last to have paid off. At a stroke, he must surely have transformed his professional standing. Unfortunately, in the catty world of TV current affairs, the success of others is not always welcome. Bashir encountered jealousy and resentment as well as congratulations. When he asked his boss for a pay rise and promotion to national news-reading, he was met with a sardonic one-liner: "Martin, you've peaked." News of this witticism prompted smirks around TV Centre.
For Bashir, the glories of reading the One O'Clock News were to remain for ever out of reach. The BBC let him know that it appreciated his efforts, but could hardly be expected to upset its Buggins's turn promotion arrangements just to accommodate a reporter who happened to have struck lucky. Instead, Bashir went on to front a Radio 4 sports programme. In June 1998, he provided Panorama with another startling interviewee in the shape of Louise Woodward, but this time he was criticised for giving the nanny accused of killing her charge too easy a ride. Some of the carping came from inside the BBC itself.
It all rankled, but our hero bided his time. Unlike the corporation that employed him, he had gleaned a great truth from his experience. Confessional interviews could become a central feature of the cultural life of the nation. He knew how to do them. Even more important, he knew how to get them. One day they would bring him the respect and position he had craved all his life.
In April 1999, his day arrived. ITV was setting up a new network current affairs show, and it had to be top dog. The producers of Tonight with Trevor McDonald decided that big, exclusive interviews would need to be part of the mix. Though four years had elapsed since the Diana spectacular, that meant just one thing: get Bashir. The under-appreciated BBC man received an offer rather more generous than would have been necessary to entice him, and jumped ship.
A mysterious curse often afflicts TV performers who switch channels: Richard and Judy are among the more recent of its many victims. Yet at his new base on London's Gray's Inn Road, across town from TV Centre, Bashir has flourished. Unlike their BBC predecessors, his Granada handlers cosset their valued property, allowing him unprecedented freedom. In return, he works tirelessly. On other shows, interviewees are ferreted out by lowly researchers, but Bashir stalks his own prey, round the clock, and often for months on end. All this effort, combined with his reputation, delivers the goods. A string of Bashir triumphs has helped make Tonight the most popular current affairs show on the airwaves, and one of the few hits about which a bombed-out channel and humbled production company are currently able to boast.
Does Bashir deserve his success? In the business, he has plenty of critics, particularly among those still jealous of his hard-won standing. There are those who want to know why he doesn't give bad people a proper bashing, particularly when they are national hate figures, such as the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence. There are signs that Bashir is stung by such jibes. Lately, he has tried to toughen up his act, but the effect has been unhappy.
It is not Martin Bashir's job to be Jeremy Paxman. One critic called him more of a therapist than an interviewer, but that should be seen as a tribute rather than an insult. His skill lies in unlocking the hearts of the famous, not in prosecuting them. Those who meet him in real life are struck by how unlike a TV star he appears, how diffident and self-effacing. You could tell this chap anything. In the studio, they do.
It is a performance: the real Bashir is driven by ambition, not compassion. On one occasion, when he got a chance to read the breakfast news, the mask slipped. Bashir linked from a shocking report on the famine in Africa with the cheery words: "And now, with the business news, someone who certainly doesn't need a good meal . . ." Some feel that by naming his cat Lloyds, after his first bank, he further revealed a soul short on sentiment.
The methods he uses to snare his subjects have been questioned. In the heated aftermath of the Diana interview, he was accused of faking documents. He allegedly got the BBC graphics department to draw up some cod bank statements which would "prove" that one of Earl Spencer's former staff had been in the pay of Diana's enemies: this was to have convinced the conspiracy-minded Spencers of Bashir's loyalty to them. Still, nothing was ever proved, and plenty of editors would kill for reporters with that kind of enterprise.
The rules of confessional journalism are not those of the traditional kind. What, though, does Bashir think of the field over which he has achieved such unrivalled mastery? He seems less than thrilled. Celebrity may be a religion for the rest of us, but it is not for Bashir. As a committed, old-fashioned Christian, he is content with the real thing. Like that other arch-facilitator of celebrity, Max Clifford, he prefers the bosom of his family to the bright lights. His natural milieu is the south London home he shares with his wife and three children, not the Groucho Club.
Bashir likes to emphasise his non-confessional work, such as an ITV special about 11 September which won a commendation from the Independent Television Commission. Just as clowns always want to play Hamlet, although the world always wants clowns, Bashir, the supreme confessional interviewer, wants to play John Pilger. And some of Bashir's investigative work at the BBC was apparently brilliant. None the less, he now seems doomed to stay for ever typecast as confessor to Diana's ilk. Whether he likes it or not, our strange society has, for some reason, abiding need of his peculiar ministrations.