The damage to the BBC from the Martin Bashir affair – and the fraudulently obtained interview in 1995 with Princess Diana – will lessen with time, but this week confirmed that it was a scandal and it remains a mess.
The saving grace for the corporation is that its current director-general, Tim Davie, has emerged largely unscathed, with the defence of only having been in charge for less than a year. But there are plenty of lessons for him about the perils attached to his office, along with a reminder that if he intends to reform the BBC, he must crack on with it.
Monday (14 June) saw the publication of the BBC executive Ken MacQuarrie’s report into why Bashir was rehired by the corporation in 2016 when Tony Hall, by then director-general, knew of his lies in securing the Diana interview. A veteran of BBC News describes the level of anger within the corporation about this as “white hot”, and trying to disentangle what happened was an unenviable job.
MacQuarrie’s report has large chunks of fudge, but he probably got the ultimate conclusion right. The appointment process was ghastly, and it was clearly designed to lever Bashir into the corporation. But there is no evidence that it was for corrupt reasons about buying his silence. It was, I would say, much more to do with trying to get a high-profile “name” into a low-profile job, and to bring a touch of showbiz to the post of religious affairs correspondent.
This was a terrible idea, with a woeful absence of checks on Bashir’s record, and the people who made the appointment will have to accept the blame for the return of the man now described as having perpetrated “one of the biggest crimes in broadcasting history”.
That line emerged from Tuesday’s (15 June) meeting of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in which three BBC director-generals lined up one after another for a grilling: Hall, John Birt and Davie. Any hopes that Hall might have had about defending his conduct subsided under unfriendly fire from MPs. A former top executive told me he thought it was baffling and unacceptable that, when questioned, Hall didn’t take the opportunity to apologise unreservedly to Matthew Wiessler, the graphic designer who blew the whistle on Bashir’s antics and was then abandoned by the BBC. But Hall, a generally likeable man, also had a rough time explaining his decision not to fire Bashir in 1996 for fraud and lies, and admitting that he was taken in by his tears and protestations of regret.
The problem for Hall about the original investigation remains the one I identified for the New Statesman on 21 May: that if Hall had found Bashir guilty and fired him, the next person to be sacked would very likely have been Hall himself. He was head of BBC News. The scoop of the century had been obtained by false pretences, and neither the reporter nor the board executive responsible could have survived the wrath of the BBC governors.
It is improbable that Birt, the director-general of the time, would have been able to stay in office, either. But the Birt who appeared before MPs this week turned in a more polished performance than Hall. It was he who stuck the “crime” label on to Bashir, adding that he was a “serial liar on an industrial scale”.
He dismissed any personal responsibility for the scapegoating of Wiessler by saying it had been dealt with by Hall and other trusted executives. Many people at senior levels of the BBC during Birt’s tenure are “surprised” at his lack of curiosity about some of the details, given his liking for personal scrutiny of difficult programmes and his detailed management of BBC business. But Birt’s defence has held in a way that Hall’s hasn’t.
When the MPs turned their attention to Davie, they understandably seemed more forgiving. He was almost a decade away from joining the BBC when the interview happened; he launched an inquiry led by a judge when new evidence emerged; and it is very unlikely that anything similar could happen now when we take whistle-blowers more seriously and when accountability has been sharpened.
But the lesson for Davie is inescapable: the structure of the BBC still demands too much of the director-general. Both Hall and Birt explained to MPs that they were very busy men and had needed to delegate to others, who had then taken some wrong decisions. But when a crisis hits, it still consumes the director-general, and exposes the impossibility of the hybrid role of CEO and editor-in-chief.
The obvious conclusion for any dispassionate observer of Tuesday’s parliamentary session, and the events that led up to it, is that the role of director-general of the BBC is no longer fit for purpose. The question is whether Davie will be bold enough to rethink his own job – and it is the fate of his predecessors that should be the spur.