Artillery Row Sketch

“I trusted a journalist …”

MPs shocked to discover a liar could have risen so far

“We trusted him – we clearly shouldn’t have done.”

Conservative MPs were trying to understand how a proven liar had come to be given a position of huge responsibility on a generous taxpayer salary. Obviously, this is not the sort of thing that they would ever be involved in. No, this was part of the Never-Ending-Parliamentary-Inquiry-Into-The-Awfulness-Of-The-BBC.

This inquiry has taken many forms over the years. Currently its focus is Martin Bashir, and how he got an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, 25 years ago. The Sketch finds itself at the interesting life stage where it views the Diana interview as essentially current affairs, while being aware that few people under 30 have much idea what it was. At least with Watergate we had a decent film to help us catch up.

Anyway, late in the last century – hell, late in the last millennium – Prince Charles’s wife gave the BBC an interview in which she talked about how miserable their marriage was. It was a big deal at the time. You have to remember we only had four television channels in those days, and no Netflix. Not much chilling, either, as the Sketch recalls it.

There is now a scandal about the interview and MPs on the Culture Committee were very upset about it. Some might feel there are other more recent scandals that should be exercising them, but not the Sketch. The Sketch is all in favour of going after journalists who behaved badly during the 1990s. Readers wouldn’t believe the jobs that some of them are doing these days.

The committee was talking to Lords Hall and Birt.

Conservative MPs were trying to understand how a proven liar had come to be given a position of huge responsibility on a generous taxpayer salary

Hall and Birt turned out not, disappointingly, to be singers of light comic songs of the sort that used to be so popular in the 1950s, but bureaucrats of the type who manage to reach the top of the BBC: sleek, plausible men who know how to please their masters. Men (and they are almost always men) who seem to attract large salaries but evade blame. Any large organisation has a few, and the Sketch, which knows upon which side the bread is buttered, would just like to put on record how much it admires each and every one of them.

There are two types of BBC Director General: those who resign in scandal, and whose who get out in time. Before the Bashir Affair, there was the Savile Scandal, the McAlpine Mess and the Hutton Report Wrangle.

The Bashir Affair is, Birt noted, “a very difficult story to understand.” He went on to prove this point by trying to explain it. The crucial point was that Bashir was a wrong ’un, “a serial liar on an industrial scale” and “a very skilled confidence trickster”.

MPs seemed incredulous at all this. They were struggling to believe that BBC executives didn’t spot Bashir’s wrongness. Julian Knight, the committee chair, couldn’t believe that the BBC under Hall had rehired Bashir when it was by then known internally that he was a liar. Knight, it should be noted, backed Boris Johnson to be prime minister.

Birt, director general at the time of the Diana interview, was smooth and self-confident. Tory Steve Brine wanted to know why he hadn’t been suspicious when Bashir secured the interview. But, as Birt told him, “you wouldn’t stare a gift horse in the mouth.” Given that Diana gave the interview with every evidence of enthusiasm and declared herself pleased with the result, it’s not exactly clear what rat there was to smell.

Could Birt really not remember more details, Brine asked, and was magnificently patronised in response: “You’re a young man. In 25 years time you’ll find you struggle to remember the detail of lots of things in your life.” If, in 25 years, Brine is as sharp as Birt was on Tuesday, he will be very happy.

Hall had a tougher time of it, explaining why Bashir wasn’t fired when first exposed and then, after he’d gone to work in the US, had been rehired. “We decided that we would give him a second chance,” he said, several times. Tories were scornful of this. It is probably coincidental that it’s exactly the line David Cameron used about his own decision to hire a scandal-mired journalist, Andy Coulson.

Knight’s team had calculated that, in his recent role covering religion for the BBC, he was paid at least £250,000 over three years and filed around six reports. “£40,000 a time,” he sneered. “Quite nice work if you can get it, Lord Hall.”

Hall looked a little sad. He’s in the House of Lords now. £40,000-an-appearance jobs are exactly the sort of thing he ought to be lining up, instead of answering questions from grumpy MPs.

“At core here,” Hall explained. “I trusted a journalist. That trust was misplaced.”

It’s not a mistake that members of parliament would ever make.

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