The Sunday Telegraph
Was John Birt the architect of the BBC’s disgrace?
The corporation’s director general at the time of the notorious ‘Panorama’ will be remembered for overseeing events that left its reputation in tatters, says Andy Webb
WTo very many people who worked there, Birt seemed arrogant, charmless and smug
He emerged from Dyson’s assessment a little tarnished but completely unbowed
hen John Birt, former director general of the BBC, was still only 33, he pulled off an astonishing journalistic coup. As producer to David Frost, in 1977, he steered Richard Nixon into his profoundly moving television apology over Watergate. It was a cathartic moment for Nixon, for all America. It was also the most sensational television interview there had ever been.
Until the evening of November 20 1995.
We now know that Diana, Princess of Wales had been hoaxed into appearing on Panorama, fed a string of lies, threats and conspiracy theories by presenter Martin Bashir, a man whom Lord Birt last week called a “liar on an industrial scale”.
But, unlike Nixon, Lord Birt doesn’t do the apology thing. In an extraordinary appearance before MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee this week, he blustered and bulldozed a path through his antagonists like a great snarling bear beset by yapping hounds.
At the age of 76, two years younger than the current US president, he told MPs that he could remember virtually nothing of what happened 25 years ago, when members of his team first duped Diana, and then covered up what they had done.
Yet he had made what he called “a forensic study” of Lord Dyson’s report into the underhand methods used to land the Panorama interview, and learned, he said, for the first time, how Bashir had lied and lied again about his use of forged documents. Despite his role as BBC editor-in-chief at the time, he insisted no one had passed on this critical information to him.
No one had shown him the four-page report by a senior executive in March 1996, a few months after the Panorama programme went out, or mentioned the letter of reprimand written by a BBC apparatchik and sent to Bashir, he said.
While his trusted lieutenant, news chief Tony Hall, knew all of this, Lord Birt insisted to MPs he knew absolutely nothing about Bashir’s mendacity – even though the two executives spoke at length at the time and exchanged memos constantly about the burgeoning scandal.
Lord Birt’s lack of knowledge about what happened on his watch has proven to be a constant stumbling block. He refused an invitation by committee chair Julian Knight MP to do as Lord Hall had done and apologise to Matt Wiessler, Panorama’s graphic designer who tried to raise the alarm about Bashir’s methods but was subsequently blacklisted by the BBC. Lord Birt claimed he lacked sufficient “evidence of events” to do so.
However, having received an apology from the BBC’s current director general, Tim Davie, Wiessler told me: “The real apology should come from the man that was in charge of the BBC at the time – John Birt. When you’re the captain of the ship, you’re the captain of the ship. If something happens, you have to know about it, and I cannot believe that the cover-up would not have passed across John Birt’s desk.”
Whether Lord Birt was across the detail of the Panorama deception, or whether he was indeed truly ignorant of it all, his tenure as BBC director general will now be chiefly remembered for one of the journalistic crimes of the century. As a result, the corporation’s global reputation for honesty and truth-telling is in tatters, and likely to remain so for years. As the man in charge, he is chiefly responsible for the BBC’s disgrace.
I have watched the scandal unfold from a position at the centre of events. It was in 2007 that the BBC answered my first Freedom of Information request for the internal Bashir papers by saying, quite simply – and falsely – that there were none.
In 2020, as I made the first of three documentary films on the subject for Channel 4, the BBC did release to me certain documents. One of them, a report by Tony Hall, contained the bizarre – and, again, completely false – assertion that Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, had actually conspired with Bashir to produce the forged bank statements.
It was when I shared that document privately with Earl Spencer himself that he demanded from the BBC an explanation – and an independent investigation. Lord Dyson’s damning report was the result of that.
Events under Birt’s stewardship have proven catastrophic for the BBC’s reputation, but some good may result if the current regime act firmly to sweep away at the e corporation the last vestiges of what used sed to be called “Birtism”. It is hard d in 2021 to convey just how commandeering ommandeering and hated a figure e Birt was during his tenure at the helm of the BBC. To very ry many people who worked ed there, he seemed arrogant, charmless and smug.
Playwright Dennis nnis Potter famously called him a “croak-voiced
Eye magazine carried a “Birtspeak” column, devoted to the vacuous management jargon which suited so well Birt’s pseudointellectual stance on both journalism’s aims and methods.
Birt had arrived at the BBC with big plans, the biggest of all to radicalise existing journalism via what he called “the mission to explain”. Essentially, this involved creating an officer class of specialist on-screen correspondents and editors for all manner of subjects – social affairs, business, the environment, economics – people well-briefed in their subject area, yet often quite hopeless at finding stories and turning them into compelling TV.
People who were particularly good at that, the simply titled “TV reporters”, suffered an implicit demotion. Under Birt, the better-paid and better-regarded new officers of TV news came to regard front-line reporters as a bunch of mere squaddies.
Fulfilling the mission also required the hiring or promotion of a special type of manager to run the news operation. These were mainly men, a few women, always alw exquisitely educated and, for fo the most part, utterly clueless cluele about reporting, because their the climb thus far had never involved invo doing any. Far more important impo was to subscribe, at least publicly, to the mission, and an to discuss it in long meetings using u fluent Birtspeak.
It was w here that the comic DNA of the recent mockumentary, mo W1A, was set: where roundtable breakout
sessions s are populated by people gilded by educations at Oxbridge, Durham or Exeter who are brilliant at being wholly useless.
In the genesis of the Bashir scandal, this came to matter hugely. Had the department heads to whom the Panorama team answered been experienced journalists asking tough questions before the interview took place, then Bashir’s machinations would have been detected and halted in their tracks.
But his announcement in November 1995 that he had secured an exclusive with the most sought-after person in the world – the person who had turned down interview requests from Oprah Winfrey, David Frost and Barbara Walters – seems to have generated a reaction rather like: “Gosh, how marvellous! I wonder what else Father Christmas will bring?”
Were they knaves or just fools? Perhaps a little of both – but what mattered for their career prospects then and later was that they were thoroughly Birtist knaves and fools.
One BBC manager, the hapless Tim Suter, then managing editor of current affairs – and, by a bizarre coincidence, a former English teacher who taught Diana’s brother at Eton – provides a priceless moment of comedy in Dyson’s report. When asked to admonish Bashir
for having lied about the forgeries, Suter wrote a note that might have come straight out of the long-running comedy Yes Minister: “I have consulted Tony Hall and others within the senior management of News and Current Affairs, and it is clear to us, from the account you have given and from the corroboration we have received, that your dealings with the Princess in securing the interview were” – pause for comic effect – “absolutely straight and fair.”
But that astonishing lack of perception and common sense was no hindrance to rising high in Birt’s BBC. A small band of brothers, which included Suter and Hall, knew all theunsavoury details of the Bashir affair according to the report, but why did their consciences not trouble them enough to expose the scandal or oppose the cover-up?
It is barely credible that after Suter left the BBC in 1999, he helped create Ofcom, the body that polices standards of honesty and fair play in television. He remained a board member until rather hastily resigning last month, following publication of Lord Dyson’s report.
Tony Hall, ennobled in 2010 as Baron Hall of Birkenhead, served seven years as BBC director general, before switching to become chairman of the National Gallery in September 2020. He quit that post two days after Dyson’s scathing assessment of his role in the scandal.
Lord Birt, meanwhile, served as BBC director general until 2000, when he was ennobled as Baron Birt of Liverpool. He wielded considerable power as a strategy adviser inside Tony Blair’s No10, and has since held a string of lucrative business posts. He emerged from Dyson’s assessment somewhat tarnished, but, certainly on the evidence of last week’s display before MPs, completely unbowed.
David Frost, with John Birt just behind the camera, famously prodded Nixon into his moving apology with the words: “Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”
Lord Birt, it seems, is made of much sterner stuff than tricky Dickie.