Enter Lord Birt, godfather of gobbledegook: HENRY DEEDES sees the BBC being savaged over Martin Bashir scandal
There’s a long-running and rather droll gag among BBC galley slaves that, in the event of a crisis, ‘deputy heads must roll’.
Whenever a major cock-up hits, you can guarantee it’ll be some poor peripheral sap who’s frogmarched from the building with his P45 and office yucca plant tucked under his arms.
Meanwhile, senior management responsible sail on regardless, trousering a new job title and a congratulatory licence fee-funded lunch at the River Café along the way.
For proof of this insidious culture, one need look no further than the Department of Media and Culture Committee’s savaging yesterday of the two ripest fromages at the centre of the Martin Bashir-Panorama controversy: Lord (Tony) Hall, then head of news, and Lord (John) Birt, who at the time served as director-general.
Former BBC Director General Lord John Birt appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee today
On the face of it, two very different creatures.
Hall – luvvyish, eager to please, naïve to the point of hopelessness. Birt – defensive, waffly, mind-numbingly technocratic.
Yet both men are blessed in the art of backside-covering that has proved so crucial throughout their glistening public careers.
Hall’s appearance was an embarrassment. A one-hour session of buck-passing and responsibility-dodging.
At times, the committee were left scratching their heads as to how Hall had risen beyond cub reporter, let alone scaled the lofty peaks to become D-G.
It did not help that he wore a pair of oversized tortoiseshell specs, which lent him the hapless air of one of Charles Hawtrey’s bumbling creations.
Regarding his original investigation into Bashir back in 1996 over the faked bank documents used by the disgraced reporter to secure Panorama’s now-notorious interview with Princess Diana, Hall admitted his description of Bashir as an ‘honest and honourable man’ was probably ‘not appropriate’. That’s putting it mildly.
However, Hall revealed, Bashir had shown contrition. He’d also burst into tears under interrogation. Apparently this made him worthy of a second chance.
As for Matt Wiessler, the luckless graphic designer blacklisted by the Beeb for blowing the whistle on Bashir, Hall admitted he could have managed him better.
At this, committee chairman Julian Knight’s jowls juddered. An honest man’s career had been destroyed. ‘This wasn’t just a failure of management,’ fumed Knight. ‘It was a failure of morality!’
Steve Brine (Con, Winchester) pointed out that Bashir had been small fry when he landed the Diana exclusive. As head of news, hadn’t Hall asked how someone so junior had produced such a plum scoop?
He hadn’t, Hall replied. He simply assumed Panorama’s late editor Steve Hewlett had ensured that everything was above board.
Knight let out a long sigh. Hall’s cheeks by now were as ripe as August nectarines. Talk turned to Bashir being rehired by the BBC in 2016, by which time Hall had also returned as director-general. Why hire a known liar?
Hall said that was the doing of James Harding, then the head of news. Nowt to do with him. He even claimed he’d had no idea Bashir was coming back.
‘It was the talk of the newsroom!’ rasped John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil) himself an ex-BBC hack.
Ex BBC boss Lord Tony Hall was quizzed by MPs today about the Panorama interview
Bashir’s return turned out to be rotten value for money.
Knight worked out that in his three years as religion editor, he earned the best part of £100,000 a year yet filed six stories. ‘Probably not an effective use of a correspondent,’ admitted Hall, squirming. Yet during that time Bashir had also made a programme for ITV.
How was that allowed? No idea, replied Hall. Someone else’s responsibility again – quelle surprise.
Nicolson, who hails from parsimonious Glasgow, suggested Hall give up some of his generous BBC pension. Hall didn’t sound keen on that. He’d done a ‘helluva lot’ for the BBC.
He’d even given up his cushy posting at the Royal Opera House to rescue it after the Jimmy Savile shambles. ‘Some rescue, Lord Hall,’ Nicolson growled. Quite.
As Hall hobbled away, a familiar face appeared, squinting and gurning down the webcam.
Enter Lord Birt of Liverpool, godfather of gobbledegook, baron of blue-skies thinking.
Birt’s thesis was that Bashir was ‘beguiling and persuasive’ and a ‘serial liar’. He and his management colleagues had been sucked in by a ‘skilled confidence trickster’. Weren’t they supposed to be hard-bitten journalists?
How well had Birt known Bashir at the BBC? He hadn’t. ‘I doubt I was even aware of him,’ Birt replied sniffily. Too busy mixing it with the great and the good, no doubt.
He vaguely remembered seeing Bashir’s interview with Michael Jackson after the reporter had left for ITV, and never ‘liked the smell’ of him after that.
Arrogant fellow, Birt. Each answer came in essay form, with sub-clauses and parentheses.
At one point, Knight suggested he might wish to apologise to Wiessler over the way he was treated by the BBC. Birt stared back as though he’d been asked to crack a raw egg in his mouth. Apologise, moi?
Nicolson asked Birt why Hall had kept him in the dark about Bashir’s behaviour at the time. Birt suggested he speak to Hall about that.
‘On the basis of today, I don’t think he’ll be back again,’ replied Nicolson. No, I think that’s a given.
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