One dishonest reporter shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish the reputation of one of the UK’s most respected institutions
On November 25, 1995, the BBC broadcast an episode of its long-running documentary series, Panorama. It featured a 54-minute interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, by the journalist Martin Bashir.
It was one of those television moments, like the Kennedy assassination for an older generation, where people can say exactly where they were when they watched it and with whom. And, like JFK’s death, it was certainly dramatic.
In the program, the newly-divorced Diana spoke frankly about her failed marriage to Prince Charles and his affair with his mistress, now his wife, Camila Parker-Bowles. The interview was littered with carefully scripted soundbites designed perfectly to grab the headlines around the world the next day: “There were three of us in this marriage,” “I want to be queen of people’s hearts,” etc.
The picture that emerged at the end of it was of a sad and reflective Diana who was the victim of palace intrigue, relentless media intrusion, and of a world out to get her.
Now, a newly-published report, following an eight-year inquiry led by the former Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, has shown that many of Diana’s fears had in fact been stoked by Bashir himself. In the weeks and months leading up to the interview, the journalist had drip-fed the princess a string of lies: Her children’s nanny was sleeping with Prince Charles; Prince Edward had Aids; the Queen was suffering from an eating disorder.
He even produced a forged bank statement that “proved” beyond any doubt that her private secretary was taking payments from a tabloid newspaper in return for leaking stories about her.
The reaction to the report here has been both fierce and predictable. Her brother, Earl Spencer, drew a direct link between the interview and his sister’s death in Paris two years later. The newspapers likewise have been full of righteous anger at Bashir’s duplicity and at the BBC for both sanctioning the interview in the first place and for apparently covering up the tactics by which it was obtained.
And, in an extraordinary intervention, Diana’s son, Prince William, said that the interview fuelled his mother’s paranoia and called on the BBC never to show it again.
In parliament, the usual band of Tory MPs who have always loathed the very idea of public service broadcasting have demanded that the BBC be broken up. The home secretary, Priti Patel, said that the corporation should not continue with “business as usual” and went as far as to question its relevance in today’s world of streaming networks like Netflix and Prime.
All of this comes at a difficult time for the BBC with its Royal Charter -- in effect its constitution -- shortly up for review by the government.
And yet, amid all of this sound and fury, some salient facts seem to have been overlooked. Diana was a complex woman. Her brother called her a “young girl” at the time of her interview. In truth, she was 34 and had a decade-and-a-half of experience of living in the public eye and in dealing with -- and often manipulating -- the media to suit her own agenda.
A few years earlier, she had directed her friends to speak openly to the author Andrew Morton for his biography of her, Diana: Her True Story. She regularly lunched with journalists and tabloid editors and made sure that they were fully briefed on her side of the story in the never-ending propaganda battle between her and her former husband.
Far from being a victim, Diana knew exactly what she was doing in that interview, namely to throw a metaphorical hand-grenade under the royal household.
As for her brother constantly blaming the media for her death, it is difficult to square that with the knowledge that when Diana asked him for the loan of a small cottage on his vast Althorp estate in Northamptonshire precisely so that she could escape the press, he refused on the grounds that it would be too disruptive.
The modern-day news editors now wringing their hands and crying false tears over the wicked BBC and the deceitful Bashir, should remember that bending the truth in order to get an interview is their stock in trade, and many scandals have been uncovered through just such under-handed methods.
Many of our once-great institutions are now under threat. The mystery and majesty of the monarchy once unassailable now looks threadbare and at war with itself; a war begun by Diana and now carried on by her youngest son Harry with his constant bleating that he too is a victim of the palace and the press.
Yes, Bashir and the BBC are right to be criticized for their less-than-honest and open methods in setting up the interview and for how the corporation dealt with it afterwards. But those methods were no different to how many journalists and news organizations operated at the time, and still operate today.
So, let us have no more BBC-bashing and talk of breaking it up and commercializing it. The BBC is one of the few remaining institutions of the UK that is still loved and respected here and around the world.
One dishonest reporter should not be allowed to tarnish it permanently.
Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.