Why the independent inquiry I called for into the Princess Diana interview has finally got to the truth but holds back on its ‘cover-up’ conclusion.

In November last year, in an interview on the BBC Radio Four programme ‘Today’, I called for an ‘independent element’ in the Corporation’s promised inquiry into Earl Spencer’s claims that Martin Bashir used ‘dirty tricks’ to land his 1995 interview with Spencer’s sister Princess Diana. In response the BBC appointed a fully independent inquiry led by a former judge, Lord Dyson. His report has now been published http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/reports/dyson-report-20-may-21.pdf

Licence-fee payers have waited 25 years to have it confirmed that the BBC statement of 7th April 1996, that the ‘draft graphic reconstructions’ commissioned by Martin Bashir were ‘never connected in any way to the Panorama on Princess Diana, was completely untrue. But at least Lord Dyson has now got to the truth. Perhaps now the BBC can apologise to those employees -staff and freelance -who tried to help find the truth back then and were branded ‘persistent trouble-makers’.

I first became a sceptic about the role of the BBC’s Governors as the corporation’s regulators in the 1990s when, to combine the cliches of the time, they were the ‘supreme body’ of the BBC who were its ‘cheerleaders’ but also ‘marked its own homework’. Later, as Ofcom’s content regulator in the late 2000s, I dealt with the successors to the Governors, the BBC Trust, and saw at first-hand the BBC management’s reluctance to volunteer the full relevant facts during inquiries into controversies. So I did not mourn the end of ‘self-regulation’ when in the 2010s Parliament finally appointed Ofcom as the BBC’s fully independent regulator. 

But now in 2021 even I am shocked by the evidence in Lord Dyson’s report on the events of 1995 and 1996 when the Governors still existed. Lord Dyson has confirmed allegations that Panorama reporter Martin Bashir commissioned a graphic designer to fake documents which he showed to Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer. Dyson decided ‘Mr Bashir deceived and induced him to arrange a meeting with Princess Diana. ..It seems to me that the obvious reason was that he wanted to encourage Earl Spencer to introduce him to Princess Diana’. Having got the introduction he was able to arrange the interview.

Dyson says of other documents: ‘It is likely that these statements were not the product of the work of a graphic designer, but that they were created by Mr Bashir and that the information allegedly contained in them was fabricated by him’. Of Mr Bashir he says ‘there are significant parts of Mr Bashir’s account which I am unable to accept’.The word ‘lie’ appears regularly in Dyson’s report. He has ‘real reservations about Mr Bashir’s credibility and the reliability of important parts of his account and I treat his evidence with caution’.

‘I found Earl Spencer a credible witness. Regrettably, I cannot say the same of Mr Bashir’. Lord Dyson goes even further: ‘there were significant parts of Mr Bashir’s account that I reject as incredible, unreliable and, in some cases, dishonest’.

Of Bashir’s claim that it was Princess Diana who gave him the information which he put into fake documents and showed to Earl Spencer, Dyson says: ‘I conclude that Mr Bashir showed the fake statements to Earl Spencer before there was any contact between Princess Diana and himself; and certainly before he had established a close relationship with her’. In other words Princess Diana couldn’t have told him because he hadn’t met her by then.

Lord Dyson’s critique of the BBC’s handling of their 1995-6 inquiry into the affair is devastating. He calls it woeful, names names and regrets: ‘They did not approach Earl Spencer to ask him for his version of what had happened. They accepted the account that Mr Bashir gave them as truthful’.

By comparison the conclusion in his summary is noticeably restrained. He does not name any individual as being involved in a very specific ‘cover-up’ he cites.

I believe there are three major failings by the BBC in 1996 which go to the heart of the regulation of the BBC: 

1.When allegations against Martin Bashir first surfaced the inquiry by BBC management was not good enough.

2. Some significant facts which they did uncover were not revealed to the BBC Governors.

3.The Governors did not follow up on such warning signs that did appear in the management’s report to them .

If any future management of the BBC ever tried to do to Ofcom what the 1996 BBC management did to the Governors there would be one hell of a row.

These are my own detailed conclusions on the ‘Bashir’ affair ;

1.Getting the interview 

Understanding this is essential in order to to make sense of what happened later. The BBC system for requesting royal interviews at that time was called ‘Royal Liaison’. A senior executive was responsible for sifting through proposals from inside the BBC, deciding which to submit and then passing them on to the royal household. The requests would not go directly to members of the Royal Family such as Princess Diana. Lord Dyson reports: ‘On 11 February 1993, Lord Hall wrote to Commander Patrick Jephson, her Private Secretary asking whether she would be interested in taking part in a BBC Television Interview. He said that he envisaged an interview with “a respected figure, perhaps Sue Lawley”. This request was politely, but firmly refused by Commander Jephson in his letter dated 17 March 1993’. Dyson also reports that in 1995 the BBC tried again with a request for an interview, this time with BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell and there were even plans for a meeting which the Princess herself had hoped to attend: “I am v. keen to be in this meeting, so please let me know when possible, the time”.

This confirms my experiences back In the mid-1980s when I made a series of ITV programmes with the Prince and Princess. She told me her ambition was to appear on BBC Panorama. I have no reason to believe Martin Bashir or anybody else on Panorama was aware of this ambition but what this does illustrate is that if somebody on the programme could get a request to her she would give it serious consideration. Lord Dyson seems to confirm this when he says: ‘it is important to add that Princess Diana would probably have agreed to be interviewed by Mr Witchell, or a BBC journalist of similar experience and reputation, even without the intervention of Mr Bashir.. It is clear that by early to mid-August 1995 at the latest, she was very keen on the idea. This was some time before Mr Bashir’s first meeting with Earl Spencer on 31 August 1995’.

But Bashir was not to know this at the time and, according to the BBC management’s original statement to the Board of Governors, in the early stages of his research that led to the interview, ‘Bashir decided that to move the story on he needed to get to the Princess of Wales and that the best route might be through Earl Spencer’. In other words by-passing the gatekeepers.

2. The BBC management’s handling of events leading up to the transmission of the interview in November 1995.

I can see no evidence that Bashir’s editor, the late Steve Hewlett, or the BBC editorial hierarchy above him, did anything wrong during this period believing as they did that Bashir was conducting a legitimate journalistic investigation. Lord Dyson says; ‘I am inclined to conclude that, having regard to the sensitivity and high-profile nature of the story, there was insufficient supervision of what Mr Bashir did, in particular in the run-up to the meeting with Princess Diana which led directly to the interview itself.’ But he goes on: ‘I am not persuaded that better supervision would have prevented Mr Bashir’s successful deception’.

3. The first allegations against Martin Bashir .

At the time of transmission the BBC editorial management took pride in their exclusive. But in April 1996 the Mail on Sunday reported that Bashir had ‘faked private bank documents just weeks before the astonishing broadcast. In an extraordinary breach of BBC journalistic ethics, he ordered a graphic designer for the flagship current affairs programme to create two bank statements’.The front page story concluded: ‘The BBC has confirmed that the documents were created but said they had not been shown on screen’.

4. The management’s inquiry into the allegations made against Martin Bashir . Lord Dyson calls it ‘woefully ineffective’.

The management failed to produce a detailed, robust timeline of events. The timeline in the documents finally released by the BBC after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2020, the only one that is known to exist, does not meet that high standard. It is revealing to compare that timeline, produced by BBC executives, with the one I produced into the Savile affair in 2012 as an academic working with three students (https://profpurvis.com/2012/11/22/the-newsnight-crisis-at-the-bbc-a-new-timeline-from-the-death-of-savile-to-the-appointment-of-hall/) As a result of this weakness in their methodology the BBC Management either did not notice or chose not to highlight the glaring inconsistencies in Bashir’s account. 

The significance of this weakness is shown up in this comment by Lord Dyson to Lord Hall:’The trouble is….that you seem to have believed everything that Bashir told you about when he first met Diana, and the fact that he’d already got an established relationship with her before these documents were shown to Earl Spencer. All that comes from Bashir. But you never check that, that time sequence with Spencer, because he would have told you he fundamentally disagreed with it?’

One key moment during the internal inquiry was when Martin Bashir, after multiple denials that he had ever shown faked documents to Earl Spencer, was questioned again by Tim Gardam, then Head of BBC Weekly Current Affairs. Lord Dyson reveals: ‘This time Mr Bashir admitted having shown the documents to Earl Spencer. Mr Gardam told Mr Bashir that this overturned every assurance the BBC had been given and the BBC would have to consider its position. At his Investigation interview, Mr Gardam said:“….this [date] I remember absolutely crystal clear, because, you know, it was one of those moments when you just go cold, and I know exactly where I was standing at the time and (inaudible). I actually took a great effort not—to keep temperate, actually because I was absolutely staggered that a BBC journalist…..could have behaved like this. It would never have occurred to me that a BBC journalist would lie (a) to produce something to deceive someone, and then at the same time to lie to his editor and managers’. Extraordinarily this episode was never reported to the BBC Governors which was especially significant because, as Dyson observes: ‘There is no doubt that Mr Bashir had lied and maintained the lie until he realised that it was no longer sustainable’.

The BBC management also failed to speak to Earl Spencer. When a news organisation begins an investigation into alleged misconduct it is understandable that it is initially an internal inquiry. Until a management has got a grip of the basic facts it will want to hold off press inquiries and that can involve not speaking to outside individuals who themselves might pass on information about the internal process to the press. However there comes a moment when that risk has to be taken in order to get to the truth. Nobody from the BBC ever approached Earl Spencer other than the Editor of Panorama, the late Steve Hewlett, at an earlier stage. Lord Dyson says “this was a big mistake and the points they (and Lord Birt, the former Director-General) have made to justify their not doing so are rejected’..In my view, the failure to interview Earl Spencer was a most serious flaw in the investigation’.

Dyson goes further on the next stage of the internal investigation which was by Tony Hall (now Lord Hall, then Managing Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC) and Anne Sloman (who had taken over from Tim Gardam in Weekly Currrent Affairs ).This stage included interviewing Martin Bashir. ‘The failure to question Earl Spencer was not the only mistake that Lord Hall and Mrs Sloman made. In my view, they cannot have scrutinised Mr Bashir’s account with the necessary degree of scepticism. Even without Earl Spencer’s version of the facts, they should have approached what Mr Bashir said with great caution for two reasons. First, they knew that Mr Bashir had lied three times on the centrally important question of whether he had shown the faked statements to anyone. This alone should have caused them to have serious doubts about his credibility. As I have said, it seems that they did not investigate the reasons for these lies. Secondly, the fact that Mr Bashir was unable to provide them with any explanation of why he had commissioned the faked statements should also have caused them to have serious doubts as to whether he was being open and honest with them’.

Which helps to explain the background to Lord Dyson’s most damning paragraph about the inquiry by Tony Hall and Anne Sloman:

‘without knowing Earl Spencer’s version of the facts; without receiving from Mr Bashir a credible explanation of what he had done and why he had done it; and in the light of his serious and unexplained lies Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded that Mr Bashir was an honest and honourable man and should not have done so’…’the investigation conducted by Lord Hall and Mrs Sloman was flawed and woefully ineffective.’

One footnote to the investigation by BBC News management. Richard Ayre, then the BBC’s Controller of Editorial Policy who had done the pre-transmission compliance on the original programme is never mentioned during the post-transmission inquiry, only briefly in its aftermath. He told Lord Dyson that Bashir’s behaviour had been ‘clearly completely unacceptable’. So where was he during the original inquiry?

5. The BBC News management’s report to the BBC Board of Management .

One key line from Dyson about that meeting: ‘Lord Hall presented these facts to the Board as if they were uncontroversial. And yet he knew (but did not tell the Board) that they derived from Mr Bashir’s uncorroborated version of the facts and that Mr Bashir had lied on three occasions on a matter of considerable importance, i.e. whether he had shown the fake statements to anyone and, in particular, to Earl Spencer.’ Ouch.

6. The BBC Management’s Report to the Board of Governors.

In 1995 and 1996 the Governors were the highest body of the BBC but also its principal regulator. There was one external regulator, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) , which in the words of a Broadcasting Minister of the time ‘adjudicates upon complaints of unjust treatment of broadcast programmes which affect an individual who is mentioned or referred to or who has something to do with the programme”. I can find no evidence that the BCC investigated the programme which left the BBC Governors as the sole arbiter of its compliance with the BBC’s own standards. (Subsequent Acts of Parliament abolished the Governors and eventually handed over powers of external regulation to Ofcom).

I have serious concerns about how Tony Hall, then the Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, reported to the BBC Governors. There was a central flaw in his argument. Hall, reporting on Bashir’s pre-interview investigation, said the faked graphics ‘had no impact on the investigation or the interview’. A BBC statement on 7 April 1996 said the documents ‘were never connected in any way to the Panorama on Princess Diana’.Yet elsewhere Hall said, as mentioned earlier, that Bashir ‘needed to get to the Princess of Wales and that the best route might be through Earl Spencer’. But clearly if the faked graphics were the way that helped get him to the Princess through Spencer they did have an ‘impact on the investigation or the interview’.

There was a failure to highlight that BBC Editorial Guidelines had been breached. Broadcast regulation is based on codes and whether broadcasters observe them. The ‘Producer Guidelines’ of the time were the ones which the BBC had published in 1993. The then Director-General John Birt said in his introduction, they would ‘enable programme-makers and the public to see the editorial and ethical principles that drive the BBC’. Chapter 1 ’Straight dealing in programmes’ began with Sections 1 and 2 which include ‘Programme making for the BBC must be based on straight dealing’  and ‘The need for straight dealing covers all the activities involved in making a programme’. This latter phrase is important because it highlights that the guidelines cover all aspects of programme-making, not just what is transmitted. By arranging for fake documents to be produced and showing them to Earl Spencer Martin Bashir was – in my view- clearly not ‘straight-dealing’  and there was no public interest defence for doing that. Dyson agrees. According to his inquiries, the view inside BBC management was that ‘the creation and use of some material in the early preparation for the programme was in breach of the BBC’s Guidelines on straight dealing’. 

But, in Tony Hall’s speaking notes, eventually released by the BBC and the only evidence we have of what he said at that meeting, there is no reference to this. Therefore it seems that the BBC’s supreme body and regulator were not told that Martin Bashir had broken the rule which ‘enable programme-makers and the public to see the editorial and ethical principles that drive the BBC’. Nor did Tony Hall propose any sanction on Bashir other than a warning letter Hall would write to him. No such letter was released by the BBC in its FOI documentation. Lord Dyson says that a letter to Bashir was drafted but it was not from Tony Hall and ‘It seems probable that this letter of reprimand was not sent’.

Revealingly the draft letter ends ‘We believe that no purpose is served by making this a matter of public record’. That policy seems to have extended to telling the public’s guardians at the BBC, the Governors.

The only sanctions Tony Hall ever mentioned at the time would be against those individuals who had expressed concern at a possible breach of the guidelines.They were called ‘persistent trouble-makers’. Tony Hall told the then Director-General John Birt; ‘between now and the summer, we will work to deal with leakers and remove persistent trouble- makers from the programme’.

We now know some of what else that meant. A former Publicity Officer for Panorama gave evidence to Lord Dyson that she recalled being asked to inform the Panorama team that the BBC was briefing the press that it suspected that stories about fake bank statements were being leaked by jealous colleagues. ‘I was asked to make this remark. I do recall it, yes, and I do recall a certain amount of hostility about that, which was tricky for me, because obviously I had to work with all of those journalists on different programmes each week’.

Lord Dyson’s verdict on that : ‘Lord Hall rightly recognised that such briefing was quite wrong and fell far below the standards of fairness and integrity for which the BBC is renowned’.

There was a failure to report the limitations of the investigation. Nothing in Tony Hall’s statement to the Board of Governors on his ‘personal investigation’ indicates any limitations on how it was conducted or in what he could report to the Board about it. For example the Governors were not told that despite the significance of Bashir’s meetings with Lord Spencer the BBC management had not spoken to Spencer about them. Therefore the Board was entitled to assume that he had come to an unqualified conclusion when he said that he was “certain there had been no question of Bashir trying to mislead or do anything improper with the document”.

6. The response of the BBC Governors

So far no evidence has been produced by the BBC then or now to suggest that the Governors raised any concerns about what Tony Hall told them or even asked questions. For example none of them seems to have raised the central flaw in the report to them, that if the faked documents helped get Bashir to Spencer and onwards to the Princess they did have a relevance and importance. It would appear that the Governors simply accepted the report. It is very significant that Lord Dyson only mentions the Governors once in his whole report. Which tells you how insignificant they were as a regulator in this case.

7. The BBC’s subsequent reliance on the ‘Diana letter’. 

Back in 1996 a letter sent by the Princess to the BBC was pointed to by the Corporation as evidence that the faked documents had played no part in her decision to give an interview to Panorama. The letter said: ‘Martin Bashir did not show me any documents nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of. I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure and have no regrets’.

A careful reading of this letter suggests that it is a much more limited vindication of Bashir than has been suggested. Nothing the Princess says clears Bashir of the charge that he used a forged document or documents to get access to Earl Spencer and thus to her. Saying that Bashir did not show her any documents that she was ‘not previously aware of’ has limited significance. She may already have been aware of them because of what Bashir had claimed to Earl Spencer. Her phrase ‘I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure’ has to be seen in the context of the Princess’s ambition to appear on Panorama. In short the Princess did not clear Martin Bashir of the specific charges against him.

The Editorial Policy executive at the time, Richard Ayre, told Lord Dyson: “She said that he had given her no information “that I was not previously aware of”. That would seem to me not to exclude the possibility that he gave her what she calls information about alleged payments or alleged spying on her, or whatever, which she did believe she was previously aware of. In other words, if he reinforced a belief she already had, and if he reinforced it by telling her something which he did not know to be true, then that would still be deception’. Again where was Ayre when the BBC was making much of the significance of the letter.

Lord Dyson’s conclusion in his summary.

Considering all of the above and all the other detail in the Dyson report his conclusion is extremely limited in scope.

‘Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark by (i) covering up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview [201] to [298] and [300]; and (ii) failing to mention Mr Bashir’s activities’.

So what are these press logs Dyson refers to? These are where the BBC records the statements prepared in response to questions from the Mail on Sunday, statements such as ‘the draft graphic reconstructions on which this story are based have no validity and have never been published. They were set up in the early part of an investigation and were discarded when some of the information could not be substantiated. They were never in any way connected to the ‘Panorama’ on Princess Diana, and there was never any intention to publish them in the form in which they have been leaked’.

Claiming that the ‘draft graphic reconstructions’ were ‘never in any way connected to the Panorama on Princess Diana’ and a subsequent exchange with the Independent led Dyson to talk of a BBC cover-up : ‘I am satisfied that the BBC covered up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview’.

There is no suggestion in Lord Dyson’s conclusion in his summary that the cover-up went any further or higher. But in the body of his report he asks openly ‘WAS THERE A COVER UP BY THE BBC? He points a finger at an unnamed somebody, expressing scepticism that every BBC News editor chose not to report the newspaper allegations against Bashir without a ‘party line’ being issued: ‘there was no good reason not to mention the issue at all on any news programme. By failing to do so, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark. The documents that I have read and the oral testimony that I have heard do not enable me to make a finding as to who was responsible for deciding that the story should not be covered by the BBC and for issuing the “official line” to editors to which I have referred. It must have been someone from senior management, but I can’t say who it was’.

I cannot remember any previous independent inquiry going so deeply into editorial decision-making at the BBC. But other than whoever that ‘someone from senior management’ might be or the unspecified person or people who were responsible for the press logs, Lord Dyson chooses not to name anybody in his allegation of a cover-up. Nor does he choose to extend the allegation of a cover-up to the briefings given to the Board of Management and the Board of Governors. I suspect the hand of a lawyer or two is involved.

Issues not covered by Lord Dyson

‘The Right Honourable Lord Dyson’, as he signs off, also mentions a number of times that a certain issue ‘is of no direct relevance to my Terms of Reference’. He lists five ‘ISSUES I HAVE NOT ADDRESSED IN THIS REPORT’. I think two of them are especially significant, numbers three and four on his list:

‘The third is why Mr Bashir was re-engaged by the BBC in 2016. Although it might be argued that this question is in some way related to my Terms of Reference, I do not consider that it is sufficiently closely related to them to justify my examining and reaching any conclusions on it. The BBC’s investigations were completed twenty years before Mr Bashir was re- engaged.The fourth is whether there was a culture at the BBC of hostility towards whistleblowers’.

In my own opinion these two issues have to be addressed by current BBC management before they can claim to ‘move on’. I would add one further issue; why did the BBC management claim for so long in response to Freedom of Information requests that there were no files on the Bashir affair when we now know these did exist.

And Finally.

Having read all 322 paragraphs of Lord Dyson’s report, I would point to the section beginning at paragraph 247.Two sentences written by a senior BBC executive at the time reflected their attitude then to the allegations against Bashir. Anne Sloman who had interviewed Bashir with Tony Hall, wrote this about what she called this ‘sordid saga’:

‘The Diana story is probably now dead, unless Spencer talks. There’s no indication that he will’.

Questioned by Lord Dyson she said ‘It was unfortunate wording’ and concluded ‘it was true, wasn’t it? It was true for 25 years’.

Maybe now this chapter can close with a new generation of broadcast journalists hopefully realising that ‘straight dealing’ means what it says.

Disclosure of Interests: I was a BBC News journalist from 1969 to 1972 . I then joined BBC News’s principal competitor, ITN. While I was Deputy Editor of ITN in the early 1980s Martin Bashir was a freelance producer on the ITV Lunchtime News. I went on to become ITN’s Editor and Chief Executive. I subsequently became Ofcom’s Partner for Content and Standards where I led the investigations into breaches of the Broadcasting Code by the BBC and other broadcasters. I have been a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four for the past seven years, my term finishes at the end of May 2021, but I have played no role in the Channel’s own investigations into Martin Bashir. The views in this post are written in my personal capacity and not as a director of Channel Four. At one point in the preparation of their new investigation into the Bashir affair the current BBC Panorama team asked my views on the regulatory aspects but I was not interviewed for the programme.

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