Tony Hall and John Birt’s failures to give up peerages after Martin Bashir scandal makes case for shake-up of undemocratic House of Lords: Tom Richmond

JOHN Birt and Tony Hall’s tarnished reputations are beyond repair following their respective involvements in Martin Bashir and Panorama’s now infamous interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Tony Hall was head of news at the BBC at the time of the Panorama interview with princess Diana. As director-general, he then rehired the disgraced Martin Bashir.

Birt was director-general of the BBC when Bashir used the most unscrupulous methods, including the falsification of bank statements, to trick Diana in order to gain her confidence under false pretences. The Metropolitan Police have now been asked to re-investigate to establish if any ‘criminality’ was committed.

Meanwhile Hall was head of news at the time of the interview – and then more recently, as director-general, gave his blessing to the disgraced Bashir returning to the BBC to lead its religious affairs coverage.

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Hall has, at the very least, resigned as the chairman of the National Gallery amid the outcry. Neither, however, has had the courage, or decency, to give up their respective peerages.

This was Diana, Princess of wales, during her now infamous Panorama interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir.

Yet the fact that both men can still sit in the House of Lords, intervene in debates about the media if they so desire and vote on legislation shows a contempt for democracy that is no longer tolerable, acceptable – or defensible.

This became clear when Hall’s resignation from the National Gallery last weekend coincided with Penny Mordaunt, a serving minister, calling for the House of Lords to be abolished in its current form.

A former Defence Secretary, she has co-written a new book, called Greater: Britain After The Storm, that explores how the country can forge a new future after Brexit.

Written while she was languishing on the backbenches after Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as Prime Minister in July 2019, Mordaunt clearly believes that Brexit was also about Parliamentary sovereignty – and accountability.

John Birt was director-general of the BBc at the time of the Princess Diana interview in 1995.

Yet she goes further. She shuns the idea of the ‘great and good’ being elected for 15-year terms – she clearly believes this will lead to “greater politicisation”.

Instead Mordaunt, who now works in the Cabinet Office as Paymaster General, suggests this democratic deficit can only be overcome if peers are elected – and then have a chance to be re-elected based on their record.

“If the House of Lords was elected, it wouldn’t automatically bring democratic accountability. Only re-elections would do that,” she writes. “If the UK wants an elected Lords, let’s do it properly, too.”

She’s right – and I hope the possibility of peers being elected to serve regions, like Yorkshire, is considered if this debate progresses.

What must end is the rank hypocrisy that enables peers with badly tarnished reputations to retain their membership of the House of Lords without question.

Though Hall, ennobled in 2010, did not take part in Lords debates after becoming BBC director-general in 2013, he did speak on “The Future of News” as part of The Lord Speaker’s Lecture Series in 2019.

“Traditional journalistic values have never been more needed,” he said. “As our societies become flooded with disinformation, people need somewhere they know they can come for news they can trust and analysis they can rely on.” He went on to claim that “the BBC remains by far the most trusted source of news in the UK”.

Meanwhile Birt, who received a peerage in 2000 when he stepped down as director-general, has been more active. He asked a question about the TV licence fee in January and took part in a debate on public service broadcasting in March last year in which he described the BBC – with no hint of irony – as “peerless”.

Peerless? Not any more. And neither is the House of Lords when the likes of Tony Hall, John Birt and many others, both from the media and other spheres of life, can come and go as they please without facing any accountability from voters for their lack of integrity and maintaining a false pretence for 26 years over that interview.

NO doubt mention of Lords reform will prompt emails from Lib Dem peers about ‘integrity’ in politics, public life and the electoral system.

I’ll save them the time. Don’t bother until your party has offered a full explanation about the actions of its ministers when they were in charge of the Department of Business from 2010-15 as the scale of the Post Office IT scale – and prosecution of innocent subpostmasters – was coming to light.

Starting with Sir Ed Davey, the current party leader.

PS Alex Morrow, of the Cabinet Office’s Honours and Appointments Secretariat, has confirmed to a reader that their complaint about the CBE awarded to former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells will be “carefully considered”. I’ll keep you posted.

HERE’S a snapshot of Yorkshire life in May 2021 as the county eases out of lockdown. It was great to be one of 4,000 spectators on the Knavesmire last Saturday to watch the horse racing – with no delays leaving York’s racecourse.

And then the traffic ground to a halt on the Bishopthorpe Road. The reason? The volume of cars queuing at a busy junction to head to the Covid vaccine centre. I did not mind – in fact it left me even more in awe of the vaccine rollout and the logistical operation to jab the nation.

THERE’S a touching vignette from Leeds-born Jeremy Paxman, the Rottweiler of broadcasting, in the wake of his mishap on a dog walk that led to the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

He writes: “There is one definite beneficiary in all this. I had blamed the dog for pulling me over. Derek is pardoned. Until tomorrow’s walk anyway.” I’m glad Paxman has not lost his bark – or bite. Politicians beware.

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