Bashir, the report found, used fake documents and false pretences to score an interview with Diana, and the BBC’s internal investigation that followed a year later was “woefully ineffective.” If you’re not across the Royals and their history, some of this may be confusing. Here’s everything you need to know.
What was the interview and why did it matter?
The interview of Princess Diana aired on BBC’s Panorama on Nov. 20, 1995. A year prior, during a June 1994 TV interview, Prince Charles publicly admitted for the first time that he had been unfaithful during his marriage with Diana. His affair with Camilla Parker Bowles had been revealed in a 1992 book, but was hitherto unacknowledged by the prince.
Diana’s interview on Panorama was a rare tell-all that, like Harry and Markle’s interview with Oprah, divulged the stressors of Royal life and attempted to reshape the tabloid narrative that had surrounded her for years. Diana revealed she suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of William, which she said earned her the label of “unstable,” and she admitted to self harm and bulimia. “I didn’t like myself, I was ashamed because I couldn’t cope with the pressures,” she said.
The most famous excerpts of the interview were Diana’s comments on her marriage with Charles. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she said of herself, Charles and Camilla in a now famous line, “so it was a bit crowded.”
The interview was a huge deal at the time, with a television audience of 23 million in the UK — just under 40% of the Kingdom’s population.
What’s the controversy?
Though Diana’s comments were explosive, this new round of controversy surrounds the interviewer, Martin Bashir. How did Bashir, a then up-and-coming reporter, get the most coveted interview imaginable? That’s been the subject of a six-month-long inquiry by John Dyson, a former British Supreme Court judge, the results of which dropped on Thursday.
The inquiry found that Bashir used fake documents and false pretences to organize the interview with Diana. Bashir had Matt Weissler, a BBC graphic designer, unwittingly doctor several bank statements, which Bashir presented to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer.
One purported to show Rupert Murdoch’s News International paying a former security guard of Spencer’s for information on the royals, and another purported to show payments from other, unnamed sources into the accounts of both Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s respective private secretaries.
Bashir told Spencer he was working on a story about shady media practices, and asked the earl to introduce him to Diana.
“By showing Earl Spencer the fake statements and informing him of their contents,” the report wrote, “Mr Bashir deceived and induced him to arrange a meeting with Princess Diana. By gaining access to Princess Diana in this way, Mr Bashir was able to persuade her to agree to give the interview.”
Bashir released a statement apologizing for “the fact that I asked for bank statements to be mocked up,” but he says the forged documents did not induce Princess Diana to participate in the interview.
“It was a stupid thing to do and was an action I deeply regret,” he said. “I also reiterate that the bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview.”
Bashir left the BBC in 1999 but returned, after over a decade working on US networks like MSNBC and NBC, in 2016 as religious affairs correspondent. He resigned last Friday, citing health issues.
What did the BBC know?
The second issue at hand is the BBC’s investigation of malpractice. Graphic designer Matt Weissler, upon seeing the interview between Bashir and Diana, alerted BBC higher-ups about Bashir’s request to doctor bank statements. This caused the BBC to internally investigate Bashir’s practices in 1996 — but the investigation cleared Bashir of any wrongdoing.
Bashir admitted to asking for doctored documents, Dyson’s report says, but denied showing the documents to anyone. As part of the 1996 investigation, Bashir was also able to get a letter from Princess Diana backing up his story. it read: “Martin Bashir did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of. I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure and have no regrets.”
What the investigation didn’t consider, Dyson’s report states, was that Bashir had shown the documents to Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer. As part of Dyson’s investigation, Spencer said that Bashir showed these documents “to groom me, so that he could then get to Diana for the interview he was always secretly after.”
Dyson went on to criticize the BBC for not reporting on accusations that Bashir had fraudulently obtained the interview, as other publications had done, and that it suppressed information it had obtained through the investigation against public interest.
The report handed down Thursday by Dyson called the 1996 investigation “woefully ineffective,” and says that “Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity.”
BBC chairman Richard Sharp said in a Thursday statement that the BBC made “unacceptable failures.”
“We take no comfort from the fact that these are historic.”
What’s the official reaction been?
Prince William recorded a video statement harshly condemning the BBC’s practices.
“BBC employees lied and used fake documents to obtain the interview with my mother,” he said, “made lurid and false claims about the Royal Family which played on her fears and fuelled paranoia, displayed woeful incompetence when investigating complaints and concerns about the program, and were evasive in their reporting to the media and covered up what they knew from their internal investigation.”
William added that the interview contributed to the worsening of his parents’ relationship, as well as her feelings of paranoia and isolation.
Prince Harry released a statement Thursday thanking “those who have taken some form of accountability,” which he says is the first step towards justice.
“Yet what deeply concerns me is that practices like these — and even worse — are still widespread today. Then, and now, it’s bigger than one outlet, one network or one publication.”