Martin Bashir: A journalist who hit headlines for the wrong reasons

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on May 21, 2021

The Asian media personality famously interviewed Princess Diana in 1995.

The wheel has turned full circle for journalist Martin Bashir, who once evoked awe, envy, and respect among peers for bagging the sensational November 1995 interview with Princess Diana, but 25 years down the line, his fall from grace could not have been more precipitous.

The Diana interview watched by a global audience made Bashir, barely 31 and unknown at the time, a celebrity when there were very few Asian or non-white journalists in the mainstream British news media.

He went on to win numerous awards and glided through a glittering career across continents when he made as much news as he reported it.

Born in 1963 to Pakistani-origin parents in the London borough of Wandsworth, Bashir, who converted to Christianity, is one of five children.

He graduated from Winchester, gained a postgraduate degree from King’s College London, and freelanced as a sports journalist before joining BBC in 1986.

He worked for BBC from 1986 to 1999, and after producing several widely watched programmes and interviews – including a controversial one on singer-dancer Michael Jackson and interviews with writer Jeffrey Archer and football icon George Best – returned to BBC in 2016 as its religious affairs editor.

Bashir’s journalistic work made headlines, but also raised questions about ethics soon after some of them were in the public domain. The questions about how he secured Diana’s interview rumbled on for years, prompting inquiries that initially cleared him, though reservations persisted.

The latest inquiry by John Dyson said that Bashir used deception to secure the interview. He showed Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, forged bank statements appearing to show payments by a newspaper group to a former member of his staff to gain Spencer's confidence so he would introduce Bashir to Diana.

Bashir has admitted having the bank statements mocked up by a graphic artist working for the BBC, but when questioned by BBC managers, he repeatedly denied showing the documents to Spencer.

The Dyson report said Bashir "lied and maintained the lie until he realised that it was no longer sustainable. This was most reprehensible behaviour which casts considerable doubt on his credibility generally".

Bashir, who resigned from the BBC earlier in May, and is reported to be facing health issues, apologised, saying the faking of bank statements was a "stupid thing to do" and "an action I deeply regret", but insisted that he felt it had "no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview".

The now-revealed story behind the famous interview has sparked another round of interest in the last troubled years of Diana’s life, with strong statements from her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, but also revived concerns about ethics of newsgathering in the British news media.

The Dyson report demonstrated that unethical ways are not confined to sections of the tabloid press or Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, which was closed in the wake of the phone-hacking row and led to the Leveson Inquiry into the functioning of the British news media in 2011.

To the dismay of many, the report’s conclusions add the BBC – widely respected across the globe – to the grim list of news organisations that used unethical ways, prompting calls to set up another Leveson Inquiry.

Mike Jempson, the director of the leading media ethics charity, MediaWise, said: “The repercussions of the Bashir debacle, especially the mental anguish, will be recognised by all those duped by unethical journalism and the refusal of media organisations like the BBC to admit culpability. That is why MediaWise came into existence, and why we need Leveson 2. It is tragic that a globally respected media outlet has compromised its integrity too often by being too defensive of the institution rather than of the truth”.

He added: “MediaWise is mainly concerned with the impact of unethical journalism on members of the public, whose lives can be wrecked by media outlets more concerned with sensational headlines than the pursuit of truth. Too often more significant stories are missed or messed up by the clamour for prurient stories and cheap thrills”.

Reputed widely for its standards of reporting, the Dyson report led to a rare apology from the BBC, and Bashir being dubbed as a ‘rogue reporter’.

BBC’s director-general Tim Davie tendered the apology: “Although the (Dyson) report states that Diana, Princess of Wales, was keen on the idea of an interview with the BBC, it is clear that the process for securing the interview fell far short of what audiences have a right to expect. We are very sorry for this. Lord Dyson has identified clear failings”.

He added: “While today’s BBC has significantly better processes and procedures, those that existed at the time should have prevented the interview from being secured in this way. The BBC should have made a greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew. While the BBC cannot turn back the clock after a quarter of a century, we can make a full and unconditional apology.”

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