I prepared a new timeline on the BBC’s handling of the Martin Bashir affair in time for the appearance of three BBC Directors-General, two past one current, before the DCMS Select Committee on 15 June 2021. The timeline helps to explain how the BBC document which helped lead the former Supreme Court judge, Lord Dyson, to his critical conclusions about the BBC management of 1996 was never handed over to him by the BBC. If a copy had not been given to Lord Dyson by a former BBC executive the outcome of the independent inquiry could have been very different and probably much less critical of the BBC. The apparent disappearance of this document inside the BBC also helps to explain why the executives who re-hired Bashir seemed to know so little about his past as a proven liar at the BBC.
In addition this new timeline also examines what the current BBC Director-General,Tim Davie, knew when about Lord Spencer’s 2020 allegations against Bashir. Tim Davie has received credit for setting up an independent inquiry under Lord Dyson but the latest information suggests that his decision was not made when he first heard of Lord Spencer’s detailed allegations against Bashir but when subsequent events left him no other option. I have built this new timeline from the work of investigative journalist Andy Webb and I give full credit to him.
28 March 1996
This is not the conventional starting date for a timeline about Martin Bashir’s BBC Panorama interview with Princess Diana, after all the programme was transmitted in December 1995.
But think of this date as the day somebody senior at the BBC realised something was wrong and raised an alarm.
Tim Gardam was the Head of Weekly Current Affairs, a man so intellectually gifted that when I interviewed him for the job of my successor as Editor of Channel Four News a decade earlier, my boss at ITN, Sir David Nicholas, suggested we had just met a future Director-General of the BBC. But we didn’t give him the job at ITN, nervous that when he said he ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ he meant it a little too much. Tim Gardam was subsequently appointed as Head of News and Current Affairs at the soon to be launched Channel Five and March 1996 was to be his final month at the BBC.
As Head of the Programme Department which had produced the Diana interview Gardam was asked to investigate allegations in the Mail on Sunday that Bashir had shown faked documents to Princess Diana’s brother, Lord Spencer.
Gardam wrote out in his own handwriting a record of what he had discovered and gave it to the office of the then Head of BBC News Tony Hall, later Lord Hall Director-General of the BBC. Gardam recounted how early on Bashir accepted that had asked a graphic designer to create faked documents, the preferred wording in the BBC became ‘graphicised documents’, but repeatedly denied to Gardam that he had shown them to anybody. After the Mail on Sunday pressed their allegation that he had shown them to Spencer, Gardam tried to get hold of Bashir again. Here is what he wrote at the time of his next conversation with Bashir:
‘he rang me and told me for the first time that he had shown, despite his specific denials on December 21st, and that morning, the graphicised documents to Earl Spencer’.
Gardam went on: ‘I told Bashir that this overturned every assurance the BBC had been given + the BBC would have to consider its position’.
This was a crucial moment, a BBC executive had discovered that Bashir had lied to him a number of times. Gardam later said: “It would never have occurred to me that a BBC journalist would lie to produce something to deceive someone, and then at the same time to lie to his editors and managers”.
According to Lord Dyson’s report, Tim Gardam completed his handwritten report, dated it 28 March 1996 and ‘and gave it to the office of Lord Hall’. It was in effect a handover note before he left for Channel Five. The statement was significant enough for Gardam and Tony Hall to agree that ‘the BBC needed to find out the entire truth behind Bashir’s activities’. Hall conducted that further inquiry himself with Gardam’s successor, Anne Sloman, an inquiry which Dyson was to call ‘woefully ineffective’.
When Hall later reported to the BBC Board of Governors he never mentioned this proven example of Bashir’s lies or that Bashir had breached the BBC guidelines. In fact he told them Bashir was an ‘honest and honourable man’.
It would be over 25 years before the public knew the Gardam statement existed. In fact at the next stop on this timeline the BBC specifically said it or anything similar did not exist.
The investigative journalist Andy Webb, a former BBC television reporter, submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the BBC for the files on the Bashir affair. He was told by the BBC there were no documents on file. The BBC reply said:
‘Any meetings to discuss this particular programme would not have been minuted and the number of people involved in the process kept to a need-to-know basis only’.
Andy Webb tried again thirteen years. He submitted a new FoI request. The BBC changed their view about the existence of relevant documents. ‘We should have taken steps to ascertain whether relevant information was held. We apologise that this was not done, and that the answer you received was inaccurate’.
19 October 2020
The BBC released some documents to Andy Webb under Freedom of Information. The Gardam note of 28 March 1996 was not among them but a new chain of events was begun which continues to the present day.The release came too late, possibly deliberately too late, for Webb’s documentary scheduled for two days later on Channel Four,
20 October 2020
Andy Webb decided to share with Lord Spencer one of the documents released by the BBC. Spencer was shocked by what he saw. This is what he later told Lord Dyson:
‘What I saw was utterly astonishing: a snippet from the Tony Hall report of April 1996, in which I seem to have been accused (in a heavily redacted passage) of having shown Bashir fake bank accounts to Alan Waller. I was outraged: I had done no such thing; and to make the lie worse, the BBC seemed to be falsely claiming that I had given Bashir the idea to resort to using his own fake bank statements’.
Spencer reacted by outlining to Webb his most serious allegations against Bashir, the first time he had set them out.
21 October 2020
Webb passed on Lord Spencer’s allegations to the BBC in a detailed, private, note. These allegations involved Bashir’s use of forged bank statements, his claims that Princess Diana’s staff were agents for MI5, and that a plot existed to murder the Spencer family.
Andy Webb asked the BBC whether, in light of these very serious allegations, the BBC would consider ordering an independent inquiry’.
23 October 2020
Charlotte Morgan in the BBC Press Office replied to Andy Webb that: ‘The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago.’
On the same day as the BBC reply, Lord Spencer emailed the Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, asking for a full inquiry.
An email conversation began between the two of them. The details of most of these emails have not yet been released but we do know the content of one.
28 October 2020
Tim Davie emailed Lord Spencer: ‘You say the BBC’s sequence of events is incorrect and that Mr Bashir had shown you the documents before you had introduced him to the Princess of Wales. Unfortunately, the account you give does not accord with the account that Mr Bashir gave the BBC at the time. Our records show that he told us that although he had mocked up the statements before the Princess of Wales agreed to give the interview, you had already introduced them to one another and the relationship was therefore established. With Mr Bashir indisposed, unfortunately the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’.
It was now eight days since the BBC was made aware of the detailed allegations by Lord Spencer. Rather than propose an inquiry of any kind, their initial response was ‘to take no further action’ and their second response – specifically from the BBC DG – was that nothing more than be done for the time being. Their phrase ‘the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’ would prove to have a sting in the tail.
1 November 2020
An unconfirmed timeline published by the Metro newspaper says that on this date: ‘Following Earl Spencer’s claims, BBC Director-General Tim Davie is thought to have apologised for the false statements. He reportedly wrote to Earl Spencer to make the apology but declined to open an investigation into Bashir’s conduct’. The Daily Mail also reported that doing this period Davie offered Lord Spencer a ‘piecemeal apology’.
After the response from Tim Davie to his emails, Lord Spencer is believed to have concluded that he had taken the private dialogue with the BBC as far as he could. He would now air his allegations in public.
2 November 2020.
Lord Spencer emailed Davie enclosing a copy of a fax signed by Bashir, making lurid allegations against Tiggy Legge Bourke.
3 November 2020
The first Daily Mail front page appeared, detailing Spencer’s evidence of Bashir’s campaign of lies.
4 November 2020.
A BBC spokesperson said the corporation was happy to apologise again to Lord Spencer and promised to investigate any ‘substantive new information’. The BBC added: ‘We have asked Earl Spencer to share further information with the BBC. Unfortunately, we are hampered at the moment by the simple fact that we are unable to discuss any of this with Martin Bashir, as he is seriously unwell. When he is well, we will of course hold an investigation into these new issues’.
6 November 2020
In an interview with the BBC Radio Four programme ‘Today’ I called for an independent element in any BBC inquiry. I rejected the notion that such an inquiry had to wait for Bashir’s recovery from ill health, pointing out out that a review of the BBC’s documents could begin immediately.
The BBC later announced publicly for the first time that an inquiry would be held.
18 November 2020.
The BBC announced that a former Supreme Court Judge, Lord Dyson, would conduct a fully independent inquiry.
20 May 2021.
The BBC published the report by Lord Dyson and said ‘We recognise that it has taken far too long to get to the truth’. Tim Gardam’s statement of 28 March 1996 was published for the first time within Dyson’s report. It was a significant element proving that the BBC had established as far back as 1996 that Bashir was a proven liar. In his cross-examination of former BBC executives Lord Dyson often referred to Gardam’s statement.
25 May 2021
Tim Davie was interviewed by Justin Webb on the Today programme. Here are some extracts:
Webb: When did you first know that Martin Bashir had lied about these documents?
Davie: Um personally,(hesitation) I think I knew when I read Dyson, I’m sorry I’m not being evasive, because I’d heard the claims of Earl Spencer. I’d read reports but when I knew it was when I got that Supreme Court judge to go and do the analysis and talk to everyone.
Webb: Different question then, when did you suspect it?
Davie: When I saw evidence coming to me that was firm evidence that there was clearly things that had gone horribly wrong in that investigation. If you look at what happened in late October documents were emerging and Earl Spencer put them into the public domain, they clearly indicated there were bigger problems with this investigation, that were known about and within days we had announced an investigation.
Webb: You say documents were emerging, it was a Channel Four documentary wasn’t it and the point made by the documentary-maker is that the documents that he asked for were given to him two days before he made the documentary, this is October last year, in a way that must have been down could not be included in the documentary. He thinks that was deliberately done.
Davie. It wasn’t.
Webb: So on your watch, everything has been done as openly as you would like.
Davie; I think we have acted appropriately and openly and responded in the right way.
Webb: So when the BBC issued a statement saying ‘As Managing Director of News Mr Hall fulfilled his management responsibilities’ , this statement issued last November, that was with your approval?
Davie: We absolutely had to judge things on the facts we had and that’s what we did.
Webb: You had the facts then didn’t you, you had the facts presented to you, you knew perfectly well that Mr Bashir had fraudulent documents, you knew perfectly well the background within the BBC , there’s no questions about that is there.
Davie; No but within days of getting substantive evidence we absolutely , Justin I can’t have been more robust personally to have called in a Supreme Court Judge, until you get to that point you deal with what you’ve got. As soon as I had substantive evidence .. ..I have to say no other organisation in the world, in terms of the BBC ,we hold ourselves to account in a way that is unlike every other. ..
‘I’m only interested in getting to the truth’ .
A number of journalists were struck by how uncomfortable Davie sounded when asked what he knew and when. Repeating a phrase from the BBC’s statement of 4 November he said he acted ‘as soon as I had substantive evidence’.
But Andy Webb had emailed Lord Spencer’s detailed allegations to the BBC a full two weeks days before the BBC acknowledged the need for any inquiry of any kind and had replied to Andy Webb that ‘The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago’. When Lord Spencer emailed Davie the email exchange ended with Davie saying that because of Bashir’s illness there was nothing more he could do. The bottom line is that the BBC only acted once the same ‘substantive evidence’ appeared in the Daily Mail.
11 June 2021
A newspaper was about to publish a story about the BBC’s handling of Lord Spencer’d allegations when the BBC Press Office issued a statement to them. It said that Tim Davie had not seen Tim Gardam’s 28 March 1996 statement because it was not in the BBC dossier given to Dyson. If true Davie had not known until Dyson’s report that the BBC had evidence from 1996 of Bashir’s lying.This raised the immediate question of how the statement came to be in Lord Dyson’s report. The BBC didn’t have an answer to that.
14 June 2021
Lord Dyson’s team confirmed that it was in fact Tim Gardam who had given them a copy of his March 1996 statement. In his report Dyson had said that Gardam had given the original ‘to the office of Lord Hall’ so presumably there can be no doubt that it was once in the hands of the BBC. In fact its existence is mentioned in other BBC documents. So where did it go? Unlike another missing document, the letter from Princess Diana to the BBC, this one was never tracked down. How hard did the BBC try? Just as important how fortunate was it that Tim Gardam still had a copy and gave it to Lord Dyson. Without that copy Dyson would not have got to the truth. It really is as simple as that.
15 June 2021
Three BBC Directors-General, one current and two past, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. The Committee said’Former BBC Director-Generals Lord Hall and Lord Birt will be questioned about events leading up to Panorama’s landmark interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and the broadcaster’s handling of investigations into how reporter Martin Bashir obtained it’.
The current DG ,Tim Davie, and the current Chairman, Richard Sharp, also appeared.Some of the questions put to Hall and Davie appeared to be based on information in this post.
Why all this matters
The BBC is accountable to licence-fee payers and to Parliament. That accountability requires proper keeping of documents and, at the appropriate times, proper disclosure of those documents. The events of the past year raise the following twelve questions for Tim Davie:
1.The BBC having said in 2007 that there were no documents to release, who decided in 2020 that some should be released?
2. Who decided which documents should be released?
3. Was the Tim Gardam statement of 28 March 1996 in the BBC’s files at that point? If it was why wasn’t it released, if it wasn’t where had it gone?
4.Do you accept that if Tim Gardam had not kept a copy and given it to Lord Dyson the public would not have been given the full truth?
5. Was the disappearance of this document also one of the reasons why BBC executives don’t seem to have known the full background on Bashir when they re-hired him?
6. Why was this fact not included in the McQuarrie report published on 14 June into the re-hiring?
7.When were you, as DG of the BBC, first aware of the disappearance of the BBC’s original of the Gardam statement and did you consider it significant enough to release that information?
8. Turning now to Lord Spencer’s allegations against Bashir last October, you have said that you acted ‘within days of getting substantive evidence’. Do you accept that after the BBC was informed on 21 October of Lord Spencer’s allegations against Martin Bashir your press office said ‘The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago.’
8. Do you accept that when Lord Spencer emailed you personally with the detail of his allegations an email exchange followed which ended with you saying : ‘With Mr Bashir indisposed, unfortunately the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’.
9, Do you now accept that this statement was flawed because the BBC’s ‘historical records’ did not include the Gardam statement.
10, Do you accept that you only began to announce and set up any kind of inquiry after Lord Spencer’s very same allegations appeared in the Daily Mail on 2 November ?
11. In what way was the Daily Mail reporting any more ‘substantive evidence’ than the allegations already reported to the BBC on 21 October and emailed you personally by Lord Spencer on 23rd October?
12. Do you accept that rather than act once you had received ‘substantive evidence’ you sought to reach an agreement with Lord Spencer which would involve an apology but avoid an independent inquiry and that you only had to abandon that position after he refused to accept that and went to the Daily Mail.
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 was a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four for the past seven years, my term finished at the end of May 2021, but I 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 past director of Channel Four.