Graphic designer behind fake statements saved Martin Bashir's FATHER
Graphic designer-turned-whistleblower behind fake Martin Bashir bank statements saved the life of Panorama interviewer’s FATHER by jumping into the Thames years later
- Matt Wiessler saved the life of an elderly man who had ‘walked’ into the Thames
- The man in trouble turned out to be Ahmed Bashir, BBC journalist Martin’s father
- Wiessler was graphic designer at the centre of Princess Diana’s 1995 interview
Of all the twists and turns in the Bashir story, one has remained untold, not least for the reason it is a tale so extraordinary, it will send shivers down your spine. It is one Matt Wiessler has never revealed — until now.
Three or four years after the Panorama interview, Matt saved the life of an elderly man who, to his astonishment, turned out to be Bashir’s father, Ahmed.
He talks about that astonishing day, seeking neither approbation nor applause for his selflessness, but simply because it is a ‘mad coincidence’.
‘I was rowing on the Thames opposite Hampton Court Palace with my partner Lucy, my mother-in-law and toddler son one afternoon (about three years after the Panorama interview) when we saw on the other side of the bank, an elderly Asian man in a suit walking into the water, almost meditative and calm.
Matt Wiessler, the graphic designer tricked by Martin Bashir into mocking up fake bank statements used to convince Diana to do the Panorama interview, saved Bashir’s father
‘He just disappeared under the water. My mother-in-law shouted, “Matt, row over there!” By the time we’d got there the man’s head was bobbing, just under the water never surfacing.
‘I leaped out of the boat and clumsily paddled him to shore, did the Heimlich manoeuvre and he coughed up water and food all over me.
‘He started crying. He was a lovely old man but clearly troubled.
‘His hand was shaking and he wanted to show me something.
‘He pulled out a dog-eared media pass from his wallet and he showed it to me. He was so well-dressed, but soaked. He said: “This is my son. He’s a big star.” And there was Martin Bashir’s face and name. I was staggered. I replied: “You won’t believe this, but I used to work with your son.”
Matt Wiessler and his family saw Martin Bashir (pictured) ‘s father walk into the Thames
‘It was an absolutely mad coincidence and I’m not telling you this because I want to make any kind of point. And of course I’d have rescued him whoever he was. In fact I asked the police, who arrived quickly, if I could have his address so I could send him a get-well card, which I did.’
Records show that Ahmed Bashir died aged 72 in June 2001.
I tried to tell the truth but the BBC made ME the enemy: Graphic designer-turned-whistleblower who reproduced mock bank statements that tricked Diana into Panorama interview with Martin Bashir reveals the terrible price he paid for his honesty
By Frances Hardy
For years Matt Wiessler’s quiet fury has simmered, but now it has reached boiling point. The graphic designer at the centre of the furore over Princess Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview is appalled by the BBC’s mealy-mouthed and belated ‘apology’ to him.
‘I’ve had a letter from the director-general Tim Davie’s office and it is so bland as to be almost meaningless,’ he says. ‘It’s the bare minimum. It isn’t an apology. It merely says I acted “appropriately and responsibly” and that no criticism should be levelled against me for accepting the commission to produce the documents for Martin Bashir.
‘It’s really weak, calculating and quite honestly nasty, what they’re doing to me, to this day.
‘I realise now that Tony Hall, (then director-general of the BBC) had decreed I’d never work for them again after the Diana interview. I find that outrageous. They came to that conclusion without speaking a single word to me.
Nobody at the Corporation returned his calls, he fell out with his business partner and — struggling with a vastly reduced income — he fled London to build a new life
‘I was an award-winning graphic designer and people called me a forger. My children had to hear that.
‘What I want now is for real people to come forward and make a public apology. There is a level of arrogance from the top. After 25 years you expect a cogent apology.’
Matt is a man who does the right thing; who values probity and honesty. Indeed, he was the only person to emerge from the Dyson inquiry into the Panorama interview with his reputation intact. He says he was ‘betrayed’ by Martin Bashir into unwittingly colluding in the gross deception that secured his TV coup.
That’s what compelled him to turn whistleblower when he realised, with horror, that he — and the Princess — had been duped.
He was asked by Bashir to reproduce mock bank statements purportedly showing payments into the bank accounts of her security manager, her former private secretary and a former employee of her brother Earl Spencer.
These falsified documents Bashir showed to Earl Spencer who, in turn, alerted Princess Diana, ratcheting up the paranoia that fuelled her decision to grant her exclusive TV interview to Bashir.
But this week, as the Dyson Report completely exonerated Matt, ‘an entirely reputable graphic designer’ of any wrongdoing, he remains furious.
‘Even now Martin Bashir is arrogant enough to be saying he is “really proud” of the interview. And Princess Diana is dead: there is a correlation. He became her best friend, engaged with her and deceived her.’
However he reserves the full weight of his outrage for the BBC who not only refused to acknowledge his concerns about Bashir’s duplicity, but who used him as a ‘scapegoat’.
‘I’m incensed they never seem to learn, change their ways or show any kind of humanity,’ he says.
The ricocheting effects of Bashir’s calumny had a devastating impact on Matt’s life. His work with the BBC haemorrhaged away; nobody at the Corporation returned his calls, he fell out with his business partner and — struggling with a vastly reduced income — he fled London with his partner Lucy to build a new life in rural Devon.
He recalls the phone call that came ‘out of the blue’ from Bashir, just three months after Matt had left the BBC to start up as a freelance graphic designer running his own business with partner Patrick Bedeau.
‘Martin Bashir wasn’t a friend and it was unusual to get a phone call from him,’ he recalls. ‘He said: “It’s a real emergency job that has to be done overnight.”
‘I was Mr Can Do — that was one of the traits that marked me out — and I said: “Come over and I’ll see what I can do.”
‘He promptly turned up at 9pm talking about an “exciting development” and telling me he needed to recreate some documents, replicas of statements from NatWest Bank.
‘He mentioned that they’d been paid as “surveillance money” and because he was from Panorama, one of the BBC’s most respected programmes, I gave him leeway. I accepted that the details were shrouded in secrecy.
He was asked by Bashir to reproduce mock bank statements purportedly showing payments into the bank accounts of her security manager, her former private secretary and a former employee of her brother Earl Spencer
‘But I asked for a brief in writing as I’d always do with such a commission because errors can be made when they’re done verbally.
‘He said: “No, no, it has to be verbal.” I wouldn’t say I was suspicious but I did think it was out of the ordinary. He said he needed the documents by 7am at Heathrow as he was flying off somewhere. He was buzzing with excitement.’
The replica statements were duly delivered to the airport: Matt was paid just £250 for the job.
If his suspicions were not aroused instantly, soon after the explosive interview was broadcast he started to have qualms about the documents. He sought a meeting with Mark Killick, one of Panorama’s producers, who in turn asked him to fax copies of the statements he had produced for Bashir.
‘Then I got a phone call saying: “This is something to worry about. We will check it out with the relevant people.” This was when everything snowballed,’ he says.
He sought a meeting with Steve Hewlett, Panorama’s newly arrived editor, who was dismissive. ‘He seemed hungry for the big story and he didn’t want to fraternise with me. He gave me pretty short shrift,’ he says.
By December 1995 he began to suspect he would be made the fall guy for the scandal. His suspicions gathered force when, on returning from a BBC Christmas party, he discovered computer files — floppy disks containing the documents he’d produced for Bashir — had been stolen from the three-bedroom flat in London’s Parliament Hill he shared with Lucy. ‘I was completely panicked by the break-in,’ he recalls. ‘The front door was still locked and everything was neat and tidy, but it was as if the thief had tried to unnerve and intimidate me because they had used to loo and not flushed it. I started to become really paranoid.’
He spoke to Tim Gardam, head of weekly programmes, straightaway. He promised a response but this was also dismissive. ‘He wrote to me saying: “It’s all under control. We’re handling it.” He also said: “Please don’t speak to the media”.’
However Matt, 58, soon had no option: early one Sunday morning a posse of reporters arrived at his door. He learned that the BBC, far from supporting him, was briefing against him. He agreed to an interview with our sister paper, the Mail on Sunday.
He then engineered a meeting with Bashir, who lied that the bank statements were not used as leverage to secure his interview. ‘He told me: “Matt you have to believe me. I did not use these documents”.’
Already Matt’s life was unravelling. Jobs with the BBC that he thought he had secured suddenly dematerialised. He thought he and his business partner had clinched a commission to provide the graphics for TV’s News Review Of The Year.
‘But then I was gobsmacked to get a call from the team saying: “We’d love to use you but Steve Hewlett has said we shouldn’t”.’
The calumnies against him and his business partner Patrick were now growing apace. Both had won accolades and awards for their projects, but work from the BBC had now dried up. Both, it appeared, were personae non gratae.
Their nascent company, which rented smart offices in New Bond Street, was ailing. ‘Patrick and I had furious rows because he felt I never went out and hunted for work. But I did. It was just that a decree had gone out: “This man must never work for the BBC again.”
‘When someone comes along and questions one of the BBC’s scoops, I can see that loyalties are challenged. I got a tiny bit of work for ITV and Channel 4 but nothing from the BBC.
‘I admit I felt bitter and because I was blacklisted, Patrick was too, for fraternising with me. And we never had a clear answer as to why we weren’t getting work. There was a culture of fear. No one said: “Sorry it’s disgraceful you’ve been sidelined.” They didn’t want to be labelled for speaking to us.’
In 2001, beleaguered by the paucity of work and covert enmity from former colleagues, he and Lucy sold their home for £400,000 — by then they lived in a charming house boat moored on the Thames at Teddington — and decamped to a dilapidated 17th-century farmhouse in Devon.
‘I was tainted, a marked guy. My relationship with Patrick was strained. I didn’t think it was fair on him if I stayed in the business as we’d lost work because of me. I had to do the honourable thing and extract myself so he could flourish.’
Work in Devon, it seemed, was even harder to come by. Detached from the metropolis, he struggled to secure jobs. ‘We existed rather than lived and my marriage suffered because of the stress,’ he says.
‘I stumbled and drifted into different projects. I became cautious, risk-averse in business and hot-headed as a parent, obsessed by justice and what was right.
‘When the children reached the age when they started pushing the boundaries, telling little porkies, I was very intolerant. I can see now my family has been damaged by it.’
He and Lucy, whom he met in 1993 when she was a PA on Panorama, have three children: Oscar, 24, Freya, 21 and Isaac, 19.
To supplement the diminished family income Lucy retrained as a violin teacher, securing a post at the Cathedral School, Exeter.
‘Lucy found herself living with someone who had become introspective and unmotivated. I ended up thinking of reasons why not to do things.’
He realised he had reached his lowest ebb when one morning at 5.30am bailiffs arrived at the door, demanding £500 for an unpaid toll bridge fine which he’d ignored. ‘I’d become really stressed about surviving financially and just wasn’t coping.’
Finally it was his former partner Patrick who effected the turnaround in his fortunes. Having secured a job as a global branding director, he commissioned Matt to fly to South Africa to build a TV talk-show set in Johannesburg. This prestige job revived his fortunes and confidence.
But I wonder if he feels the BBC owes him compensation for the lost work, the slurs, by implication, on his professional reputation and the stress it has caused him?
Matt, raised in Cape Town by parents of German extraction — his mother was orphaned in World War II — says he had worked with ‘unstinting loyalty’ for the BBC after he left university and came to London. Before starting his own business, they were his sole employer.
Even so, he contends, he is not seeking financial redress. ‘I’m not even thinking about money,’ he says. ‘Legally I don’t even think, as a freelance, I have a right to claim.
‘But the BBC has treated me as an enemy. I still feel there’s a culture there that needs to be addressed. It has taken 25 years for me to get some form of acknowledgement that I did nothing wrong, but it is not a fitting response for all those years of people calling me a forger and leaker.’
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