John Birt, the director general of the BBC at the time of Martin Bashir’s famous Panorama interview with Princess Diana, now says Bashir was a “serial liar on an industrial scale.”
Lord Birt, who was the head of the BBC from 1992 to 2000, was being grilled Tuesday by British lawmakers in the wake of a report, published last month, that concluded that Bashir had launched a mendacious and deceitful campaign to manipulate Diana into doing the interview, and that the BBC had known about Bashir’s methods and chosen to cover them up.
In the most explosive interview in generations of royal life, Diana accused Prince Charles—the future king of England—of cheating on her in the years after their fairytale wedding.
The report found that Bashir landed the interview by feeding her untruths that fueled her paranoia, including, as The Daily Beast reported, “allegations that she was being spied on by security services, that her staff were betraying her to the tabloids, that Prince Edward had AIDS, and that her husband was having an affair with her son’s nanny.”
British newspaper the Guardian has been running a liveblog of the committee hearing.
Birt, who answered questions via video link, told the committee he was taken in by Bashir and that there were “absolutely no alarm bells at all” owing to his “quiet, gentle, emotionally sympathetic manner.”
The Guardian reported that Birt said he began to be “uneasy” about Bashir after his interview with Michael Jackson in which the singer admitted sharing his bed with children.
Birt said, “I felt very uneasy about what he did with Michael Jackson. And that was the first time my doubts started to kick in. And you can’t be definitive about what he did with Michael Jackson, but I never liked the smell of that and the failure to reach proper conclusions in that. So I did subsequently think: ‘I’m not sure about this person.’”
Birt also said he was concerned by the “appalling things he said about Sarah Palin.”
Bashir resigned from MSNBC after he suggested Palin should be force-fed human waste, a slave-era punishment, after she flippantly compared the situation of Americans saddled with a huge national debt to being enslaved.
Prince Harry and Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, speaking separately after the report was published, said that they believed the interview led directly to Diana’s death.
Birt was pressed on this point by one MP who asked, the Guardian reports, if the interview “sparked a train of events which less than two years later would see the events in that underpass in Paris.”
Birt replied, “It is a tragic occurrence. It is an absolute horror story, and it should never have happened. And it is a complete embarrassment that it did happen. None of us can speculate. My heart goes out to the sons of Princess Diana, but none of us can truly understand what the consequences were. What we can understand is that this was a plane crash.”
In 2016, long after Birt had left the BBC, Bashir, who had started his career on the BBC’s weekly church broadcast Songs of Praise, was rehired as the corporation’s religion editor.
Birt said, “There is a terrible irony in all of this because [Bashir] starts his BBC career on Songs of Praise and ends it as the BBC’s religion editor. And, in between, perpetrates one of the biggest crimes in the history of broadcasting.”
Another witness called before MPs was Lord Tony Hall, who was director general at the BBC from 2013 to 2020, his tenure coinciding with the decision to rehire Bashir.
Hall apologized directly to Prince William for the debacle, saying, “I have a huge amount of respect for the prince—I’ve worked with him on various things in the past and I’m deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused to him, and I really do want to make that clear.”