An investigation into the BBC’s rehiring of Martin Bashir as its religious affairs correspondent in 2016 has cleared all of those involved in his recruitment, while also finding there were some “shortcomings” in the process.
The rapid internal investigation, led by the longstanding BBC executive Ken MacQuarrie, found that none of those involved in rehiring Bashir had knowledge of the deceitful methods he had used to secure the famous Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995.
“I have found no evidence that Martin Bashir was rehired to contain and/or cover up the events surrounding the 1995 Panorama programme,” said MacQuarrie.
“In my view, that theory is entirely unfounded. None of the individuals involved in the recruitment of Martin Bashir had knowledge of all of the matters contained in the Dyson report. I have no doubt that if any of the individuals … had been aware of what is now publicly known … Martin Bashir would never have been reappointed at the BBC.”
Last month a damning inquiry, conducted by the former supreme court judge John Dyson, found that Bashir had engaged in “deceitful behaviour” by commissioning fake bank statements to land the interview.
Bashir left the BBC in 1999 but was rehired as religion correspondent in late 2016, despite the history of controversy and allegations about the methods he used to obtain the Diana interview that made him a star. He was later promoted to religion editor.
Julian Knight, the chair of the culture select committee of MPs who are set to question former BBC executives about Bashir on Tuesday, was scathing of MacQuarrie’s decision to clear those involved in his rehiring.
“That the BBC considered rehiring Martin Bashir when there were high-level doubts over his integrity stretches incredulity to breaking point,” he said. “By this point, as the Dyson report concluded, senior members of the BBC knew that Bashir had lied about the use of fake bank statements. If the BBC considered him ‘unanimously’ the best candidate, where was the due diligence?”
Bashir was hired by a panel comprising James Harding, the BBC’s former director of news; the head of current affairs, Joanna Carr; and Jonathan Munro, then head of newsgathering. They were unanimous in selecting Bashir as the best candidate.
Harding said he “could not recall having any prior knowledge of the events surrounding the 1995 Panorama programme”, Munro said he had “some recollection” about the 1995 Panorama interview controversy, while Carr said she had “no recollection”.
Munro said he subsequently did some background research on Bashir and became aware of the fake documents scandal, but he considered the allegations “spent” when he learned that the BBC had a handwritten note from Diana saying the documents did not influence her decision to be interviewed – and he raised it with Harding.
MacQuarrie said: “I think it would have been appropriate for James Harding to have a discussion with [then director general] Tony Hall about this matter to ensure that he was properly informed.”
He also considered that Harding did not give “sufficient regard” to other public Bashir transgressions, including suspension by the US network ABC in 2008 for “crude and sexist” comments in a speech at a journalist convention, and his resignation from MSNBC in 2013 after making derogatory remarks about the US politician Sarah Palin.
“Although it is not possible to say whether or not consideration of these matters would have changed the recruitment outcome, I consider that James Harding, as the individual ultimately responsible for the appointment, should have given proper consideration to these matters prior to appointing Martin Bashir,” said MacQuarrie. “In my view, this was not done.”
The Dyson report also criticised Tony Hall, who oversaw an internal investigation of the interview in 1996 when he was head of BBC News.
Dyson said the investigation was “woefully ineffective”, that Hall was aware Bashir was telling “serious and unexplained lies” lies about his methods and that the BBC “covered up in its press logs” what it knew when media began asking questions about how the world exclusive was landed.
MacQuarrie said he found no evidence that Hall sanctioned the reappointment of Bashir in 2016, although said he would have at least been aware of the decision to re-hire him. Harding told MacQuarrie: “There was no nod. There was no wink. BBC News hired him.”
While MacQuarrie’s overall determination was that Bashir was appointed because his “knowledge and experience were considered to be the best match to the requirements for the role”, he also highlighted concerns “about how fair and transparent the process was”.
“It appears to me that Martin Bashir was viewed as the leading candidate for the appointment from an early stage,” he said. “Identifying a strong candidate is not itself flawed but on this occasion led to other candidates or potential candidates being disadvantaged.”
MacQuarrie found that Bashir had met BBC several executives involved in the process prior to the role being advertised to external candidates, and before Bashir applied, with Harding already deciding that he wanted to interview him for the role.
The BBC UK news editor, Richard Burgess, who had successfully made the case to raise the salary offered and move beyond internal candidates after a “disappointing response”, told the best internal applicant competing with Bashir, named as Candidate X in the report, that there was a “favourite” for the role.
MacQuarrie said he did not consider that Harding selected the internal BBC candidate for second round interviews to “simply give the perception of a competitive process”.
“In my view, at the time it was improbable, but not impossible, that Candidate X would be the successful candidate,” he said.
Knight said that the rehiring process raises “disturbing” concerns. “What is disturbing is that it appeared the BBC wanted to interview Bashir at the outset, regardless of who else applied for the job,” he said.