Jonathan Munro, Tony Hall & James Harding

Nobody expects the BBC Inquisition

The man who would do anything for a scoop

Artillery Row

Last week, the BBC took a second humiliating pummelling over their shamed religious affairs correspondent, Martin Bashir.

For almost four hours, three past and present director generals were grilled by a well-briefed committee of MPs.

How Bashir appears to have conned Britain’s brightest and best in public service broadcasting was a wretched spectacle — most especially for Tony Hall. His anguished reference to “over 35 years” of “public service” to broadcasting and the arts ended with a handwringing admission that he’d succumbed to Bashir’s manipulative ways.

Despite knowing that Bashir had repeatedly lied about the bank statements he’d forged to get access to Princess Diana for his 1995 Panorama scoop interview, Hall had given Bashir a second chance. He explained how he was convinced that when Bashir broke down in tears over his “stupidity” for having so spectacularly broken BBC guidelines on trust and straight dealing, he was truly “contrite”. “We decided we would give him a second chance because he was so contrite,” said Hall plaintively. “We trusted him, and it turns out we couldn’t.”

Notable by their absence from the parliamentary stocks were the two BBC executives who gave Bashir yet a third chance by rehiring him as religious affairs correspondent in 2016: the then head of news and current affairs James Harding and the head of newsgathering Jonathan Munro.

Ken MacQuarrie, the senior BBC executive tasked by the current director general Tim Davie to investigate why Munro and Harding rehired Bashir says he has “no doubt” this wouldn’t have happened had they known in 2016 about how Bashir deceived Princes Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, into introducing him to her by showing him the bank forgeries and feeding her false information “to play on her fears in order to arouse her interest in him”.

Several of Bashir’s scoops bristled with well-publicised warning signs

That doesn’t quite cut it. By 2016 there were plenty of clues in the public domain to suggest that, far from being “contrite” about his career’s near-death experience in 1995, Bashir been emboldened by having got away with it. And I’m not including the two incidents mentioned by MacQuarrie, which alone demonstrate Bashir’s inexcusable lack of judgment, but which Munro and Harding oddly didn’t consider relevant. The first of which was his suspension in 2008 from the US network ABC for a speech at an awards banquet when he dubbed a female colleague an “Asian babe”, describing her dress as being like a good speech — “long enough to cover the important parts and short enough to keep you interested” — followed by an even crasser joke: “I’m mightily relieved the podium covers me from the waist downwards because I’ve been having trouble all evening”. Then, in 2013, his resignation from the US cable channel MSNBC for saying on air that the former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin deserved the same treatment that slaves sometimes got from their masters: defecating into their open mouths.

No, I’m referring to Bashir’s five-year career at ITV after leaving Panorama in 1999, on the Tonight programme. Announcing Bashir’s reappointment to the BBC in 2016, Munro emphasised his “track record in enterprising journalism” and being “well known and respected in the industry”. Enterprising? That’s one way of putting it. It seems that it was Bashir’s story-getting ability as well as his knowledge of theology that persuaded the BBC interview panel he was “the best match to the requirements for the role at that time”.

But respected? Several of Bashir’s scoops bristled with well-publicised warning signs that this was a reporter still prepared to do whatever to takes to get a scoop. Those signs were also there in the unprecedented access Bashir persuaded Michael Jackson to grant him for his stunning 2003 documentary, Living with Michael Jackson. Even though the documentary was by far and away 2003’s most high-profile documentary, it wasn’t even shortlisted by BAFTA in its “best current affairs” category because the BAFTA judges were so concerned about how Bashir had pulled it off.

MacQuarrie makes no mention of Bashir’s Jackson scoop, but refers merely to “other controversies regarding Matin Bashir’s work in the public domain” and says that these were “not considered” by Munro and Harding. Why not? MacQuarrie explains only that Harding told him: “He would not conduct a media sweep for any candidate he was meeting as part of an interview process” — and left it at that.

This is extraordinary. Harding had just been told by Munro that Bashir had faked bank statements over his BBC Diana scoop in 1995. He didn’t need to conduct a “media sweep” to see if there was evidence of subsequent dishonest behaviour, of which there was plenty (more later). Many of the clues were already available from the BBC’s own News Online.

The ITV crew who worked with Bashir seemed to have noticed nothing outwardly manipulative during filming

The final sequence of the Jackson documentary showed Bashir confronting him about his habit of sleeping in the same room, and sometimes in the same bed, as young boys. Ten days after transmission, BBC News Online reported that Jackson had released footage shot by Jackson’s personal cameraman showing Bashir telling Jackson he was awestruck by his loving ways with children. Bashir simpers: “Your relationship with your children is spectacular.” Jackson purrs back: “I love them.” Bashir continues: “It almost makes me weep when I see you with them. Because your interaction with them is just so natural, so loving, so caring. Everyone that comes into contact with you knows that.”

A decade earlier Jackson had been accused of molesting 13-year-old Jordan Chandler at one of these “sleepovers”. The police had raided Jackson’s Neverland ranch and he’d only avoided a public trial by paying Chandler and his family a reported $23 million settlement to drop the charges. Jackson had also paid out $2.4 million to Jason Francia, whose mother worked as a housekeeper for Jackson, after he testified under oath that he’d been molested by Jackson when he was ten years old.

So, Bashir’s open-mouthed adulation at the way Jackson so lovingly embraced young children, especially boys, must have reassured the pop star that he was solely motivated by Peter Pan innocence. “Thank you”, Jackson replied softly to Bashir’s gushing endorsement, confident that Bashir planned to avoid the stream of tabloid innuendos heaped on Jackson ever since his Chandler pay-out. “The problem is,” Bashir continued to schmooze, “nobody actually comes here… but I was here yesterday and it’s nothing short of a spiritual kind of thing.” To portray Neverland otherwise was “disgusting. Well, we ain’t doing that here.”

Presumably Bashir had every intention of confronting Jackson about his unorthodox relationship with young boys — just not yet, at least not until he’d secured as much priceless access footage of Jackson as possible by convincing him that he considered his intimacy with children to be innocent and wholly misunderstood.

The ITV crew who worked with Bashir seemed to have noticed nothing outwardly manipulative during filming. Then again, Bashir was known to his Tonight colleagues as something of a loner. As one told me: “The only person who really knows what promises may have been made to Jackson, or how he sold the programme to him, was Martin. We had none of those details. It was made clear: ‘Just leave it all to Martin — and don’t ask any questions.’”

Bashir had pulled out a crumpled letter signed by Diana thanking him for his interview

As with Diana, many of the big talk show hosts like Larry King had been trying to get to Jackson. And as with Diana, it was Martin Bashir who got there first. He did it by playing the Diana card — and persistence. His first approach was to use the British PR agent Mark Borkowski, who was tasked by Jackson’s people to think of ways of rehabilitating him in the wake of the Jordan Chandler scandal. When Bashir pulled out a crumpled letter signed by Diana thanking him for his interview, it cut no ice with Borkowski. “He said, ‘Look what I did with Diana, it became a great event and she’s very pleased.’” Borkowski then got “call after call after call” from Bashir. Borkowski says:

It was perfectly clear what Bashir was about: reheating the suspicion over the Chandler case. Persistence doesn’t begin to describe it. He must have thought I was born yesterday. So he ends up saying he’ll offer Jackson £900,000 worth of world rights if he agreed to a documentary. Are you kidding? I had to explain that £900,000 to Michael Jackson would be small beer!

Bashir then turned to Jackson’s close friend, the celebrity psychic Uri Geller. At his house on the Thames, Bashir told Geller that he “loved Michael Jackson”. It was “all positive, positive… ‘I want to do a positive, positive, positive documentary,’” says Geller. “Martin was a sleek operator.” Out came the dog-eared Diana letter again, and this time it did the trick. “Michael loved Diana,” Geller explained. “Adored her.”

Jackson was in London, so Geller fixed up a meeting between him and Bashir at the Renaissance hotel. “Which was a mistake, but it was the Diana letter that convinced me. If I’d had any suspicion, I would never have allowed this.” When Borkowski heard about the meeting, the PR man remarked: “This will be a disaster. This will not end well.’ The idea that Bashir wants to help rehabilitate Michael Jackson is nonsense.’” But by then it was too late. The bonding had begun.

It is said of Bashir that he knows exactly which psychological buttons to push in manipulating participants to do (and say) things they otherwise wouldn’t. And besides Jackson’s obsession with Diana (he cancelled a concert the day she died), he and Bashir also shared an interest in religion. Bashir self describes as a “committed Christian” while Jackson, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, was exploring other faiths.

The access Bashir ended up securing was remarkable: private footage of Jackson giving a lesson in how to do his famous “moonwalk”; his tours at home and abroad; his lavish shopping trips; his time with his own children and others at Neverland. The 90-minute documentary attracted 15 million viewers for ITV and earned millions for the channel in international sales, including £3.5 million alone from the ABC network in America.

The confrontation over Jackson’s alleged paedophilia was inevitably saved for the final filming session in Florida. In stark contrast to his earlier effusive schmoozing, Bashir sets the scene with a commentary that intones solemnly: “I felt very uneasy about this conversation. I knew I had to confront Jackson about what I thought was an obsession with children.” No longer was Neverland a “spiritual place”, but a “dangerous place for children”. The confrontation “just couldn’t be avoided”, says Bashir who then puts the question: “Is it really appropriate for a 44-year-old man to share a bedroom with a child who is not related to him at all?”

Jackson replies, “That’s a beautiful thing… I have slept in the bed with many children. I sleep in the bed with all of ‘em… I would never harm any child. It’s not sexual; we’re going to sleep. I tuck them in… It’s very charming, it’s very sweet. Kids want to be loved, they want to be touched, they want to be held.”

Jackson’s admission led to a second police raid on Neverland and another criminal investigation culminating in 14 counts of child molestation, false imprisonment and conspiracy involving child abduction. Following a four-month trial in 2005 in Santa Barbara, he was acquitted on all charges.

Journalistic subterfuge can certainly be justified when it operates in the public interest

The evidence that Jackson skilfully groomed young boys, masturbated them, and deflected suspicion from their families by showering them with expensive gifts, is compelling, although never quite clinching. For example, according to Geller, after putting Jackson under hypnosis, he asked him why had he paid off the Chandler family? Jackson is said to have replied “…because I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d had enough.” Even so, Jackson’s troubling admissions to Bashir on the back of having twice bought off charges of molestation of young boys, certainly justified a degree of subterfuge — and perhaps a significant degree. I say “perhaps” because in journalism the extent to which the means justify the ends can pose the most acute ethical dilemma.

Journalists (obviously) have no statutory right to use subterfuge in the way the police can; on the other hand, journalistic subterfuge can certainly be justified when it operates in the public interest. With Bashir, however, one gets the impression he is not remotely interested in weighing the balance. It’s all about whatever it takes to get the story.

Yet Harding and Munro seem entirely incurious about this and MacQuarrie shows no curiosity either about why they appear to have been incurious. This is puzzling. Page after page of Lord Dyson’s 2021 report laid out evidence of Tony Hall’s own incuriosity about why Bashir had gone to the trouble of knocking up a BBC graphic artist at 9 o’clock at night, paying him £400 (in today’s money) to fake up bank statements purporting to show that the intelligence services were paying an employee of Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer to spy on them, and, when questioned by BBC management, repeatedly lying about it.

Bashir was all about whatever it takes to get the story

Hall simply settled for Bashir spluttering that he didn’t really know why he’d done it, when it was plain to some of his Panorama colleagues that he’d almost certainly done it to ingratiate himself with Spencer to get access to Diana. Despite this, MacQuarrie shows no curiosity in Harding and Munro’s lack of interest in Bashir’s methods to secure access to Michael Jackson. He merely comments: “There was and is no requirement in BBC recruitment policy nor any consensus around the appropriateness of conducting adverse media screening,” adding, “accordingly, I make no finding in respect of any failure to do so.” But why not?

Available online was a transcript of Bashir’s evidence for the prosecution at Jackson’s criminal trial in 2005. Had Munro and Harding clicked on Google, they would have discovered that Bashir had once again being accused of forgery. Under cross examination by Jackson’s lawyer, Bashir was said to have forged the singer’s signature on an agreement dated 21 November 2002 to place no conditions upon ITV’s editing or use of the documentary, save that it was a “faithful representation of the truth as I experience it in my life.”

This wording was in stark contrast to the uncompromising agreement which one of Jackson’s lawyers, John Branca, had drawn up, apparently for Bashir’s signature the previous summer. That agreement stipulated that Jackson owned all the footage, that he wouldn’t be able to use any of it without Jackson’s permission, and that Jackson would have complete control over the editing of the documentary. Now, apparently, Jackson was happy to devolve discretion for how the material was used to Bashir. How credible could this volte-face be?

When Branca heard Jackson had granted Bashir unprecedented filming access and been doing in-depth interviews, he fired off a letter to Bashir reminding him of the agreement Bashir had allegedly already signed. According to Randy Taraborrelli’s authoritative biography of Jackson, Bashir responded by telephoning Branca:

What are you talking about? Michael and I sat down and discussed it and Michael took out the agreement and tore it to bits! He then threw it into the trash bin and said: ‘Listen, you don’t deal with my lawyers. You don’t deal with my managers. You deal with me. And I am telling you that we have no agreement that restricts you. You can do whatever you want with the film, I trust you.’

Branca, who is co-executor of the Jackson estate has recently confirmed this account: “Bashir went to Michael directly and said, ‘You don’t need that. You can trust me. I’m your friend’.” Jackson then “ripped up the document”.

When Bashir was asked in court if he had forged Jackson’s signature, his lawyer objected to the question on the grounds that it went “beyond the scope” of the criminal allegations against Jackson. The judge agreed, so Bashir did not respond. It would not, of course, have been “beyond the scope” of Bashir’s BBC interview panel in 2016. Quite the reverse.

Harding assured MacQuarrie that Munro had made concerted efforts to conduct due diligence on Bashir

Given Munro’s admission to MacQuarrie that he knew Bashir had forged documents in 1995, the question as to whether he’d done something similar again in 2002 would have been very much in scope. One thing, however, seems clear: if Bashir didn’t forge Jackson’s signature, he seems to have inspired so much trust in Jackson that the singer was prepared to put his reputational life entirely in Bashir’s hands, ignoring the advice of his lawyers. If so, how Jackson must have kicked himself. “Nothing personal, Michael” was how Bashir is reported to have brushed off his calculated deceit in the Californian courtroom two years later, having just appeared for the prosecution. Bashir has insisted, “I don’t believe that I’ve betrayed Michael Jackson at all. I agreed that we would make an honest film about his life.”

Another question that Bashir didn’t answer in that courtroom was an allegation that, as part of lulling Jackson into a false sense of security, he’d promised Jackson that he would “arrange a meeting with Kofi Annan, the (then) Secretary General of the United Nations, and would plan a trip to Africa with Mr. Jackson and Kofi Annan to help African children with AIDS”. This time the judge overruled Bashir’s lawyer’s objection to him answering the question. “Do you wish to answer?” asked the Judge. “I do not, your honour,” replied Bashir.

Despite his apparent lack of interest in how Bashir secured his Jackson scoop, Harding assured MacQuarrie that Munro had made “concerted efforts” to conduct due diligence on Bashir. But not so concerted that they included a review of how Bashir appeared to have got one over on Jackson’s hardball lawyers. Had Munro and Harding been more diligent, it might have prompted them to talk to their ITV counterparts — in whose files was further evidence of Bashir’s tenuous relationship with the truth.

After the Jackson documentary was transmitted, the US network ABC asked ITV for evidence of Bashir having secured written parental permission for interviewing 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, who Bashir had filmed holding hands with Jackson and resting his head on the singer’s shoulder. American networks were much hotter on such protocols than Britain at that time. “At no time did either I or Gavin’s father sign a consent form for Gavin to be interviewed by Granada Television”, said Arvizo’s mother. Bashir assured ITV he’d got permission, but when pressed by ITV’s director of legal compliance, was unable to produce the evidence. “ITV felt misled and betrayed over the Jackson thing,” said a former ITV colleague of Bashir’s. “It was such a dumb lie.”

On 23 April 2003 — two months after the BBC had reported Jackson’s accusation that Bashir had tricked him, BBC Online News also reported yet another example of Bashir’s manipulative behaviour on ITV’s Tonight programme. TheTV watchdog, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, had found Bashir had mislead the father of a teenage maths prodigy into giving an interview. Farooq Yusof’s daughter, Sufiah, had run away from Oxford University at 16, allegedly to escape his control. Bashir told her father he was going to investigate the conduct of social services in his daughter’s disappearance. As with Jackson, Yusof had been convinced by Bashir that his sympathies lay with him. And on that basis, just like Jackson, Yusof had agreed to do an interview, only to end up, again like Jackson, in a confrontation — this time in a studio face-to-face by his runaway daughter. The BSC said that “the programme-makers had lulled Mr Yusof” into believing that the programme was investigating social services. “They had not given him a clear indication as to the nature and purpose of the programme.”

None of Bashir’s chicanery should have come as a surprise to ITV who, unlike the BBC, have escaped almost unscathed from the Bashir imbroglio. He was never disciplined there either. Still, it is the BBC who rehired him despite there being enough in the Corporation’s own locker, never mind his deceit over Princess Diana or his swervy conduct at ITV, to have raised grave doubts about the ethics of a reporter Munro and Harding were about to rehire as religious affairs correspondent. Munro’s public announcement even lauded Bashir’s previous work on “BBC religion and ethics programmes”.

In 2004, the Guardian and the Daily Mirror reported that earlier in his BBC career, Bashir had researched the unsolved murders in 1986 of Brighton’s so-called “Babes in the Wood”. Two nine-year-olds, Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows, had been sexually assaulted and their bodies found in woods near their homes. A local criminal was acquitted of their murders in 1987. In 1991, Bashir promised Karen’s mother, Michelle, that the BBC would try to find the killer by paying for DNA tests on the clothes Karen had been wearing when she was strangled. The clothes had been returned to her by the Police. Could Michelle lend the clothes to him, Bashir asked? As Michelle handed them over to Bashir, bloodstains still visible through the police evidence bag, Bashir would have known just how precious they were to her. Yet Bashir is alleged to have never returned them because he lost them. “The loss of Karen’s clothes is devastating,” she told the Mirror. “I can’t tell you how upset I am.”

Soon after Bashir left Panorama for ITV in 1999, Peter Horrocks, then head of BBC current affairs made a formal complaint to ITV about his conduct. Bashir was now competing directly with former Panorama colleagues who complained that he was spreading malicious falsehoods about them in his attempts to persuade interviewees to speak exclusively to him, rather than to Panorama.

These falsehoods were way beyond sharp-elbowed competition. Both Bashir and Panorama were pursuing the story of the mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman. Some of the children of Shipman’s 250 victims are alleged to have been told that his Panorama rivals intended to transmit its programme before Shipman’s trial, thereby prejudicing the prosecution and risking his acquittal.

A few months later, both Tonight and Panorama were competing over the story about the nail bomber David Copeland whose bombs killed three people and left four survivors limbless. Panorama was astonished to get a furious call from Scotland Yard accusing them of withholding evidence of a neo-Nazi conspiracy extending beyond Copeland. The Yard warned the BBC they were prepared to go to court to force the BBC to disclose the evidence. The Yard also said they’dbeen told that Panorama intended to say the bombings could have been prevented. There was no truth in either allegation. When the BBC asked where these lies were coming from, the Yard told them: “Your former colleague, Martin Bashir.” Bashir has categorically denied both the Copeland and Shipman allegations. Horrocks, however, told ITV that the idea that his Panorama journalists were “less trustworthy than Martin Bashir would be laughable” if it were not so damaging.

Several other high profile Bashir interviewees have recently come forward with similar stories of deception and manipulation. Yet it is not hindsight to suggest that even by 2016 when Bashir was rehired, there were multiple clues in the public domain that should have prompted Munro and Harding to get their teeth into “adverse media screening” of his record. They didn’t because, according to MacQuarrie, there “was and is no requirement in BBC recruitment policy around” its “appropriateness”. In Bashir’s case, media screening would clearly have been appropriate because it would have shown their top candidate for religious affairs correspondent was in fact a thoroughly unscrupulous journalist prepared to do whatever it takes to get a scoop.

If the BBC wants to avoid another calamity, it should introduce a formal requirement to screen the media history of job candidates, including their social media. It is regrettable that Ken MacQuarrie has given the BBC a pass on this most serious of failings and it undermines the credit the BBC can otherwise claim for coming clean over the entire sorry Bashir business, albeit 25 years too late.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover