If the BBC were the England football team, it would surely be known for own goals rather than missed penalties. Its review of the rehiring of Martin Bashir is another opportunity for fans to wonder why they keep offering up such gifts to the enemy.
Just three weeks after the devastating Dyson report into Bashir’s use of fake documents to secure an interview with Princess Diana in 1995, the BBC’s internal investigation cleared the corporation and its existing executives of any wrongdoing when it rehired him to report on religion some 20 years later.
Yet in doing the right thing – launching an inquiry into Bashir’s questionable reappointment in 2016 when Lord Dyson failed to – the BBC has managed to raise yet more questions. In true BBC fashion, it has done so in a 16-page report written by a 46-year company veteran, giving yet more grist to criticism by its commercial rivals, most of whom will recognise some of the recruitment practices outlined in the report.
Plenty of cash-strapped news organisations reject internal applications in favour of well-known outsiders and appoint them on the basis of a cup of coffee rather than any actual experience. In this case, Bashir is said to have wowed the BBC’s then head of news, James Harding, with his knowledge of Pauline doctrine rather than his actual reporting experience.
Yet so odd was the hiring and Bashir’s subsequent elevation that it has led to speculation that he was rehired to cover up the Panorama scandal. Ken MacQuarrie, the report’s author, was moved to write: “That theory is entirely unfounded.”
On the BBC’s behaviour when it comes to the bigger question – why rumours of the faked document scandal and actual reports of Bashir’s departure from two US broadcasters in the subsequent years were not taken into account when he was rehired – MacQuarrie manages to both exonerate those involved and criticise them for not really trying hard enough.
“I have no doubt that if any of the individuals involved in the appointment of Martin Bashir in 2016 had been aware of what is now publicly known as a result of the Dyson report, Martin Bashir would have never been reappointed to the BBC.” Or, in other words, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Yet the report makes clear that at least one of the three-person recruitment panel, Jonathan Munro, recently promoted to deputy director of news, had known about the fake documents controversy before he joined the BBC and still had enough doubts to raise them with Harding.
Harding, now departed from the BBC to set up Tortoise Media, is criticised by MacQuarrie for not talking to his ultimate boss, Tony Hall, about Hall’s own discredited 1996 report, nor paying enough attention to the circumstances of Bashir’s departure from both ABC and MSNBC.
In one of the more eyebrow-raising parts of the report, Munro tells MacQuarrie that Bashir’s first departure involved dodgy comments at a dinner that was both not for broadcast and possibly a “misjudged joke” while his on-air comments about Sarah Palin – which led to his subsequent exit – “could be disregarded” because Bashir “was not being engaged to cover US politics or global diplomacy”. Free to opine about faith though.
In responding to the report, the BBC director general, Tim Davie, said the organisation needed to “reflect on the findings” when it came to recruitment. Perhaps the BBC will stop shortlisting people before jobs are advertised, but most insiders aren’t holding their breath.
Of perhaps more concern was his plan to check on candidates’ social media use when recruiting “senior and public-facing roles at the BBC in the future”.
The real wonder is how an organisation that employs so many great journalists failed to answer some really obvious questions, a failure which this report has repeated.