It has now been established that the huge 1995 TV scoop that was the BBC interview with Princess Diana was actually obtained under false pretences. In that interview, which was watched all around the world, Diana shocked the world with her damning statements about her estranged husband and the royal family as well as her own admission of adultery.
What has now emerged, following an independent inquiry report by former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson, is that BBC Panorama’s reporter, Martin Bashir, secured the interview through lies and manipulation. Bashir got a BBC graphic designer to create false bank documents which appeared to show that certain people on both Princess Diana’s and her brother’s staff were being paid to spy on her. Bashir shared these (fake) documents with Diana’s brother Lord Spencer. Spencer told the Dyson Inquiry that in retrospect he realised that Bashir had in fact been ‘grooming’ him, getting him to believe these lies so that he would share them with his sister – which he did. But it was not just Bashir’s deceitful and unethical behaviour that has been criticised in this report: perhaps even more damning is the way the BBC dealt with allegations about the fake documents and basically did nothing, except penalise the whistleblower, i.e. the graphic designer who had approached senior managers with misgivings about what he had been commissioned to do.
These revelations have considerably damaged the credibility and the reputation of the BBC; its detractors have been busy BBC bashing ever since the report’s findings were made public. The events in question – the interview and the BBC internal inquiry – took place a quarter of a century ago, yet they are now being discussed as if they were major catalysts of change and the triggers that unleashed the events that resulted in the tragic death of the Princess in a car crash in 1997.
This narrative is reinforced by the statements released by both of Princess Diana’s sons, who were aged just 15 and 13 at the time of their mother’s death. Prince Harry’s statement was not surprising since now that he has left the fold of the family firm and lives in the US, he shares his views and opinions freely via social media and TV but Prince William’s statement certainly was. Prince William made his statement on camera and expressed his “sadness” at knowing that BBC failings over the Panorama interview “contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her”. He also said that “the interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse”.
These claims are somewhat exaggerated. Charles and Diana separated in 1992 , the book ‘Diana: Her True Story’ in which she had told her story (in great secrecy) to Andrew Morton was published in 1992 and in 1994, the year before Princess Diana did the Panorama interview, Prince Charles had already done a similar ‘my side of the story’ TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in which he admitted to adultery adding that he had only strayed when his marriage “had irrevocably broken down”. Given this chronology, it is hardly as if it was the Panorama interview that destroyed their marriage. What it did do, however, is result in a downgrade of the Princess’s status and hence her security – once the interview aired, the Queen instructed the couple that if things were so bad, they needed to get a divorce. (The Queen didn’t issue a statement but presumably she thought that this endless washing of dirty linen in public needed to stop).
The Wales’s marriage was already on a course set for irreconcilable differences, so their son’s indictment of the interview in this regard seems unfounded. No matter how reprehensible and unethical Bashir’s tactics were in securing this scoop, he cannot be held solely responsible for Diana’s paranoia and isolation – he cannot be a whipping boy for the misery or insecurity of the Princess.
But as disturbing as the forgery and lying of the reporter is, even more disturbing is the behaviour of those BBC professionals who should have taken action. Even though Princess Diana put it in writing that she had consented to give the interview “without any undue pressure” and that Bashir “did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of”, BBC editors and managers knew that all was not okay as they had been alerted to the matter and their resulting inquiry was completely inadequate. In fact, it was like nearly all BBC inquiries are: the matter is ‘dealt with’ so that at the end of the day culprits are not penalised; in fact they are usually rewarded. That inquiry was from 1990s but here is an example from 2015: a young BBC journalist, Ahmen Khwaja, tweeted that the Queen had died. Word spread like wildfire internationally, the tweet was picked up by news outlets all over the world (after all it was coming from a BBC staffer). It turns out that Khwaja had seen the news on screens prepped for a routine royal obituary rehearsal and tweeted it without bothering to check or confirm it. Although the BBC Trust decided that the death tweet was a “serious breach of guidelines”, the staffer responsible was moved to a better position working in TV news. Serious breach? The mind boggles.
Today, the BBC is in the dock and its journalism is being discredited – the Beeb’s detractors are having a field day. But even though there were failings in this particular case and the management of the BBC has a lot to answer for in the way it has betrayed its hardworking journalists over the decades, it must be said that the BBC was not responsible either for the death of Princess Diana or for the woes of the royal family. And for those worried about the state of journalism in general: please reflect on the implications of Prince William saying that he thought that “this Panorama programme should never be aired again”.
Sounds a lot like censorship to me. Rather disturbing.