Lord Hall ‘deeply sorry’ to William over Panorama interview scandal

Nina Nannar reports on Lord Hall's appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Former BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall has said he is “deeply sorry” to the Duke of Cambridge for the “hurt” caused by the Panorama interview scandal involving Diana, Princess of Wales. Both William and his brother the Duke of Sussex issued strongly worded statements following the publication of Lord Dyson’s blistering report in May, which criticised the methods used by the BBC journalist to obtain his exclusive 1995 interview with the princess. Appearing before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Lord Hall said he had not since spoken directly to William to express his remorse. He said: “We did what we thought was right at the time, investigating Martin Bashir not once but twice. “I have a huge amount of respect for the prince, I’ve worked with him on various things in the past and I’m deeply sorry for the hurt that this has caused to him and I do want to make that clear.”

Watch Prince William's statement in full:

Asked if he has spoken to the prince, Lord Hall added: “No I haven’t, I wanted to have that session with you all before I think about what I do next.” Lord Hall, who was director-general of the BBC from April 2013 to August 2020, also led a 1996 internal inquiry into how Bashir secured his bombshell interview with Diana. He admitted it had been the “wrong judgment” to believe the journalist was remorseful for his actions and allow that to influence the final decision.

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Asked why he had subsequently reported to the board of governors that Bashir was an “honest and honourable man”, Lord Hall said: “In the end we came to a judgment about his lack of experience, that he was out of his depth, that he was contrite, and we gave him a second chance. “We trusted him and it turns out we couldn’t. “In that light I understand I am using words which when you look at them now just seem wrong. “But it was me trying to work out, ‘Could I trust this man or not?’”

Former BBC News religion editor Martin Bashir Credit: Ian West/PA

Lord Hall said Bashir was quizzed during the internal investigation for an hour and a half and he was “in tears”. A review into the decision to appoint Bashir as religious affairs correspondent at the BBC in 2016 following the interview found “no evidence” the journalist was given the job to “contain and/or cover” up the events surrounding the programme and that Lord Hall did not play a part in the decision to rehire Bashir. Committee chairman Julian Knight said it was “utterly extraordinary” that the BBC would rehire Bashir and asked how it came to be that a “known liar” was brought back to the corporation.

Lord Hall said he was not going to second guess the people who were filling the role, and added: “If we knew then what we know now, of course he wouldn’t have been re-hired.” Mr Knight said: “A cynic would suggest the process was entirely concocted so that the resolution at the end of the day was that Mr Bashir would get this job.”

Former BBC director-general Lord Birt was also quizzed and said his “heart goes out” to the sons of Princess Diana, but that senior figures at the broadcaster were fed a “completely flawed understanding” of the measures Martin Bashir used to secure his Panorama interview with the princess. He told MPs that Mr Bashir had been a “serial liar on an industrial scale” and that Lord Tony Hall, who led the inquiry, had reported his “best understanding” of Mr Bashir’s actions. Referencing the inquiry, he said: “Tony Hall reported up his best understanding – we now know a completely flawed understanding of what exactly had happened, and we all believed that was an honest account and that was one that was shared by the board of management and board of governors.” The session also saw Lord Birt asked by Conservative MP Steve Brine whether he believed the interview helped worsen Diana’s mental state and contributed to her death in Paris in 1997. He said: “It is a tragic occurrence. It is an absolute horror story and it should never have happened – and it is a complete embarrassment that it did happen. None of us can speculate. “My heart goes out to the sons of Princess Diana but none of us can truly speculate and understand what the consequences were. “What we can understand is that this was a plane crash. “And you probably want to discuss how it might have been avoided and what the BBC might do to ensure that it never happens again.”

Lord Birt Credit: PA

Lord Birt refused to apologised to Matt Wiessler, the graphic designer who mocked up the bank statements that helped Mr Bashir secure his interview with Diana, and later tried to alert the BBC. The BBC has since apologised to the whistle-blower who tried to expose Bashir’s methods. Graphic designer Matt Wiessler was sidelined by the corporation after raising concerns that fake bank statements he mocked up for Bashir had been used by the journalist to persuade Diana to do the interview. “I regret the language that we used about Mr Wiessler and I think we could have managed it better,” Lord Hall said.