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Judge questions the honesty of Corporation over 3,200 hidden Bashir papers


THE BBC has been ordered to hand over a cache of thousands of emails that will reignite the scandal surrounding Martin Bashir’s controversial interview with Princess Diana.

A leading judge has slammed the broadcaster over its attempts to keep secret the potentially explosive documents, which could expose an ongoing cover-up of what executives knew about the shamed journalist’s disgraceful conduct in securing his scoop.

In a damning ruling obtained by The Mail on Sunday, the judge questioned the Corporation’s honesty after it fought a two-year campaign to keep the emails under wraps.

This newspaper can exclusively reveal how, in an extraordinary intervention, Judge Brian Kennedy KC has ordered BBC bosses to immediately disclose large numbers of the messages and voiced his ‘serious concern’ at their attempts to keep them

secret. As of last night, the Corporation had yet to comply with his demand.

The MoS understands the BBC has already spent around £100,000 of licence payers’ money in legal fees on the secrecy battle.

The documents could reveal how three years ago senior BBC figures covered up incriminating information about the Corporation’s ‘woefully ineffective’ investigation into rogue reporter Bashir.

Viewed by 23million people, Bashir’s 1995 Panorama interview with Diana was hailed as the scoop of a generation. The Princess declared ‘there were three of us in this marriage’ – referring to Charles’s then-mistress Camilla – and spoke of her post-natal depression and bulimia.

Bashir, however, had shown Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, forged bank statements to gain access to the Princess and then tricked her by peddling a string of smears and lies, including claiming that Prince William’s watch had been bugged to record her conversations.

Suspicions about Bashir’s methods were first raised five months after the interview when the MoS revealed he had ordered a graphic designer to fake bank documents.

But the full extent of Bashir’s deceit only came to light in 2020 when the BBC was forced to release a 67-page dossier of memos and minutes from 1995 and 1996, after a Freedom of Information request by investigative journalist Andy Webb.

Mr Webb, however, believed the BBC had still not released all of its incriminating evidence and that its failures to investigate Bashir had been far more extensive than the documents showed.

Indeed, it later emerged that some key documents were omitted from the dossier, including a bombshell 1996 memo by former BBC executive Anne Sloman that indicated a cynical attempt to cover up what the Corporation knew of Bashir’s activities.

‘The Diana story is probably now dead, unless Spencer talks,’ she concluded in the memo that only came to light a year later.

While the BBC withheld this damning document from Mr Webb, it did make public another memo that made a false – and highly defamatory – claim about the Earl.

In the document, a confidential 1996 briefing to BBC governors, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, then head of news and later directorgeneral, wrongly claimed Earl Spencer colluded with Bashir by showing him the bank statements of his former head of security.

The allegation has been emphatically denied by the Earl.

Increasingly suspicious that the Corporation was still trying to cover up the scandal, Mr Webb requested further internal documents sent by BBC managers between September 2020 and November 2020.

But his request – once again using Freedom of Information laws – triggered an extraordinary legal battle, in which the BBC hired an expensive legal team led by barrister Jason Pobjoy, who also represented Boris Johnson during the Partygate allegations.

After claiming its archive contained no further documents, the BBC later revealed it had discovered 3,288 emails linked to the Bashir scandal.

But of these, the BBC agreed to send Mr Webb only 71 redacted messages, equivalent to just two per cent of the documents.

It insisted that around 3,000 of the remaining emails were ‘irrelevant’ and that others contained ‘legally privileged’ information.

Mr Webb estimated the BBC could be sitting on up to 10,000 pages of undisclosed material.

Frustrated by the stonewalling, and in a dogged attempt to force the BBC to release the emails, Mr Webb took his case to the information rights tribunal, which heard his case over two days earlier this year.

His bid was supported by Earl Spencer who, appearing as a witness, told how he had contacted the BBC 17 years ago raising his concerns about Bashir’s interview ‘but nothing happened’.

Now, in a stunning victory for press freedom, the MoS can reveal that Judge Kennedy has ruled the BBC should publish all the emails it insisted were ‘irrelevant’.

He also ordered that the Corporation carry out a search for new documents and look again at emails that it considered were ‘legally privileged’.

The judge lambasted the BBC’s ‘inconsistent, erroneous and unreliable’ handling of Mr Webb’s request, branding it ‘an unsatisfactory state of affairs’.

‘The BBC’s piecemeal and disapproach to its searches for information responsive to the request, and its handling of the request more generally, is a cause of serious concern,’ he added.

The judge found that the BBC ‘never conducted an initial search’ for the emails after it received Mr Webb’s Freedom of Information request in June 2021. It then carried out ‘insufficient searches’ when Mr Webb challenged the limited disclosure.

He ruled that Mr Webb was asking to see information that is of ‘considerable public interest’ but that the BBC had conducted ‘inefficient, ineffective and inade

quate searches’ for it. Judge Kennedy also dismissed the BBC’s justification for refusing to reveal huge numbers of emails which it had deemed ‘irrelevant’, saying this was not an ‘appropriate test’ when deciding whether to withhold information.

‘It is not clear why the BBC has gone to such lengths to withhold information that it classes as “irrelevant”, despite that information falling within the scope of the search parameters that it devised and used,’ he said.

And in a humiliating blow to the BBC, Judge Kennedy said he understood why Mr Webb questioned the Corporation’s honesty, or ‘good faith’.

He said: ‘Although the BBC has accepted and apologised for their mistakes, its errors have ‘significantly contributed to [Mr Webb’s] scepticism of the BBC’s good faith which, in our view, is not without cause’.

While he issued directions for the BBC, the case has not yet been concluded. This weekend, Mr Webb was contacted by Phil Harrold, chief of staff to BBC director-general Tim Davie, who said the Corporation was ‘treating this matter seriously’ but, despite the judge’s direction, he did not commit to releasing the emails.

Mr Webb last night told the MoS: ‘I’m delighted at the tribunal’s judgment after all this time but hugely disappointed that the BBC have decided not to comply.’

Doubts about the methods used by Bashir to secure his interview

‘Broadcaster covered up what it knew of deceit’

with Diana began to surface in early 1996.

In April of that year, this newspaper ran a front-page story revealing that Bashir had used fake bank statements ‘just weeks before his astonishing broadcast’ that claimed to show that people close to Diana had been paid to spy on her, fuelling her paranoia.

The BBC issued a statement to the MoS claiming the documents were never connected to the Panorama interview. It is now known, however, that BBC bosses knew Bashir had admitted showing the statements to Earl Spencer.

In 2021, former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson found the BBC carried out a ‘woefully ineffective’ probe into the scandal and ‘covered up’ what it knew of Bashir’s ‘deceit’.

The BBC last night accepted that ‘mistakes have been made in this case’, adding: ‘We have worked to improve our processes since and we have apologised to Mr Webb and the tribunal.

‘We are currently considering the tribunal’s decision carefully and it would not be appropriate to comment while the legal proceedings are ongoing.’

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