By Trevor Barnes
The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, has urged the disgraced former BBC journalist, Martin Bashir to give a full explanation of his role in securing the Panorama interview with Princess Diana and to be open and honest in admitting what motivated him to act in the way he did.
Speaking to Roger Bolton in a Religion Media Centre briefing, the bishop said such an admission would be “extraordinarily painful for him and probably for others” but that “it would be in Martin Bashir’s interests to come completely clean and give a full account of what he did and why he did it”. Otherwise, he added, “questions are going to persist and if you don’t provide a coherent account, you create a vacuum into which other people will insert their interpretations.”
In an apparent sideswipe at other more senior figures in the BBC’s then chain of command, the bishop said the Dyson report into the affair had left him wondering whether “too much is being put onto the head of Martin Bashir”.
Fallout from the scandal has already claimed two high-level scalps: the former BBC director-general Lord Hall, who stepped down as chairman of the National Gallery, and Tim Suter, who played a key role in what Lord Dyson said had been a “flawed and woefully ineffective” internal investigation into Bashir’s deceit and who has now resigned his position on the board of the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.
Bashir resigned from his post as the BBC’s religion editor just before the Dyson report was published citing ill health following a Covid diagnosis and major heart surgery. Although he has admitted deception and apologised to princes William and Harry, he continues to deny that the interview had led to Diana’s death.
Bishop Baines appeared to express some sympathy with the reporter’s denial, stating that a question mark still hangs over the precise role the interview played “in the destruction that followed”. While he praised Prince William’s “measured” but “devastating” public response and entirely understood “the emotion and the psychological impetus” behind it, he went on to stress that any suggestion of a direct link between Bashir’s interview and the princess’s death (a link that her brother, Earl Spencer, believes exists) is far from proven.
Bishop Baines, who is a regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and other strands of the corporation’s religious output, also expressed his fears that the report’s conclusions could embolden the national broadcaster’s detractors. Among his first thoughts, he admitted, was: “Is this going to be an opportunity for the BBC-haters to give it a thrashing?”
He admitted having read the Dyson report “very quickly” but said he was at a loss to conclude whether BBC management at the time had deliberately set out to protect the corporation at all costs or whether the blunders and the apparent cover-up had been the product of simple incompetence.
Of greater surprise to the bishop, however, was that Bashir, who left the BBC shortly after the Diana interview to join ITV before pursuing a broadcasting career in the United States, should have been rehired as religious affairs correspondent in 2016.
Asked whether he thought Bashir a “good and appropriate person” to carry out that role, the bishop merely admitted to astonishment that “what happened in America” hadn’t effectively debarred him from such a high-profile position in the corporation.
While in the United States, Bashir had been forced to make two public apologies after ill-judged comments had caused widespread offence. The first had involved crude and sexist remarks made while hosting an event organised by the Asian American Journalists Association; the second involved a personal on-air attack on Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. Bashir was suspended by the cable broadcaster MSNBC before resigning shortly afterwards.
Such lapses of judgment, Bishop Baines seemed to imply, had been sufficient reason for some initial surprise to have been registered at the appointment of Bashir to such an important post. The bishop did stress, however, that in his own dealings with Bashir (both as correspondent and as religion editor) he had had no reason to complain.
With the position of religious affairs correspondent now vacant, the bishop agreed that it was important to appoint a suitable successor to Bashir as soon as possible. Religion and ethics, he believes, have a vital role to play in social and political life and reporting these areas responsibly should be a priority for a public service broadcaster. “If you don’t understand religion,” he said, “you can’t understand how the world works or why it works the way it does.”
Asked whether the BBC was sufficiently authoritative in its religious programming and understanding the bishop said: “The short answer is the obvious answer. No. But in some areas it’s better than it used to be.”
While agreeing with Bolton that the coverage of religion and ethics should be a big component of the BBC’s output, Bishop Baines added: “But I want to say we have the least religiously literate government I think I can remember.”
He stressed that as part of its public service remit, the BBC has to treat religion seriously and give it the prominence it deserves. “If the BBC doesn’t do it, it ain’t going to get done,” he concluded, “And I think we’d be impoverished as a culture.”
Watch the YouTube interview here: