Former BBC director-general Lord Birt has said his “heart goes out” to the sons of Diana, Princess of Wales, 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.
Lord Birt held the senior position at the corporation in 1996 when an internal inquiry was launched into the events surrounding the explosive interview, in which Diana said: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
He told MPs during a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee session 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.”
He added: “It is simply not the case that anyone set out to deceive other than Martin Bashir, as you say quite a guy.
“Unless you understand that this was a serial liar on an industrial scale you simply can’t understand the story.”
Lord Dyson’s report in May found Mr Bashir used “deceitful conduct” to obtain the 1995 interview with the princess, which was then covered up by a “woefully ineffective” internal investigation.
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 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 former BBC boss said he does not “have enough evidence” to explain why Mr Wiessler had been fired after reporting Mr Bashir’s behaviour.
Lord Birt said there were “absolutely no alarm bells at all” until after he stepped down as director-general and Mr Bashir had secured his 2003 interviews with Michael Jackson.
“To be honest, also – nobody else has mentioned this – I felt very uneasy about what he did with Michael Jackson. That was the first time my doubts started to kick in.
“You can’t be definitive about what he did with Michael Jackson but I never liked the smell of that and the failure to reach proper conclusions in that.
“So I did subsequently think: ‘I’m not sure about this person’.”