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Explosive interview with Diana leaves one big question: how was it secured? | Media


It was just six days before transmission that Buckingham Palace learned that the BBC’s Panorama programme was to broadcast Martin Bashir’s compelling, explosive – and now highly controversial – interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.

In the palace press office, there was dismay and resignation. “Then everybody looked at each other and said: ‘Martin who?’” recalled Dickie Arbiter, then an assistant palace press secretary.

“We didn’t know anything about it, how it was obtained, anything like that. There was an element of surprise, yes. But we had ceased to be shocked any more. Three years earlier, it had been [Andrew] Morton’s Diana: Her True Story.

Twenty-five years on, exactly how Bashir, 57, then a young, relatively unknown journalist, had secured the “interview of the decade – if not of our generation” as described by then BBC news chief Tony Hall, later director general Lord Hall, is of searing public interest.

Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, in a series of blazing tweets in the 25th anniversary month of “that interview”, has accused Bashir of using false bank statements to trick him into an introduction to his sister. He is asking for a posthumous apology to Diana, and a fully independent investigation into the BBC’s handling of what he calls “a whitewash” and “a web of deceit”.

In a further twist, unsubstantiated claims have emerged that shortly after the interview broadcast, computer disks containing the forged bank statements were stolen from the London flat of the graphic designer Bashir had commissioned to mock them up.

But, back in 1995, it was the height of the “War of the Waleses”. Allegations and counter-allegations in the PR battle between Charles and Diana provided headlines almost daily. The previous year, Charles had admitted adultery during a TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. Bashir was not of interest.

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Martin Bashir



Martin Bashir conducts the ‘interview of the decade’. Photograph: ITV

“Yes, there was surprise Bashir had landed it,” said Charles Rae, then royal correspondent for the Sun, “but not a surprise that Panorama had landed it because it was the go-to programme, the flagship, and had broken great stories on various topics.

“But on the night she was giving her interview, Bashir was completely secondary. None of us were concentrated on Bashir.”

The interview was conducted on 5 November 1995 at Diana’s apartment in Kensington Palace. She insisted that she should be the one to inform the palace in advance of broadcast, which she did on 14 November – her estranged husband’s 47th birthday.

Senior royals and aides, including Diana’s brother-in-law, Sir Robert Fellowes, then the Queen’s private secretary, knew nothing of its contents. Panorama restricted knowledge to eight people. Even Marmaduke Hussey, then BBC chairman, was not aware of the interview until one hour before it was announced, but then his wife, Susan Hussey, was lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

“Alarm bells would have rung,” said Arbiter, “because Panorama don’t do lovely stories on charities, only if someone has their fingers in the till.”

It was broadcast at 8pm on 20 November. With no leaks about its content, Rae had to watch it on TV in the office, frantically typing out the story paragraph by dramatic paragraph while listening.

“It was one of the greatest nights journalistically, because it was all quite fantastic. But the real moment was when she came out with: ‘There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.’ You think, Oh! She’s certainly lit the blue touch paper there. Crikey. I’d loved to have been a fly on the wall at Buckingham Palace as they all sat down with the TV to watch this.”

Over 60 minutes, Diana, her eyes heavily accentuated with black eyeliner, pledged herself as “Queen of people’s hearts”, warned that she “won’t go quietly”, admitted to her affair with an army officer, James Hewitt – “Yes I adored him. Yes I was in love with him” – and questioned Charles’s suitability to be king.

In the palace press office, “there wasn’t much you could do about it”, said Arbiter. Diana was there “in glorious Technicolor”. There was just a sense of “disappointment and resignation”. Afterwards, Diana’s press secretary, Geoff Crawford, immediately resigned. A few weeks later, so did her private secretary, Patrick Jephson. Three months later, it was announced that Charles and Diana would divorce.





Tony Hall, former director general of the BBC



Tony Hall, then BBC news chief, thanked Bashir after the interview for his ‘skill, sensitivity and excellent judgment’ in securing and executing it. Photograph: Justin Tallis/PA

Rae said: “It really was one of the very, very best interviews you could have possibly got, and we were all wishing we had got it, and how Bashir was a lucky sod. But, as it’s looking now, maybe he was not so lucky.”

In a euphoric herogram to Bashir after the broadcast, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Hall thanked him for his “skill, sensitivity and excellent judgment” in securing and executing the interview.

Spencer, however, claims that Bashir showed him forged bank statements that wrongly suggested two senior courtiers were being paid by the security services, feeding into Diana’s fears that she was being spied on. Bashir, now the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, is seriously ill with Covid-19 and unable to answer the allegations.

Spencer claims that the documents led him to introduce Bashir to Diana. But, during that meeting, Spencer claims he became suspicious of Bashir’s increasingly fantastical stories. They are said to have included that the Queen was terminally ill, Prince Edward had an incurable disease and 13-year-old Prince William’s new Swatch watch was being used to spy on his mother. He warned Diana off the interview, but she was hooked.

Stewart Purvis, a former editor-in-chief of ITN and chief executive, who worked on documentaries with the Prince and Princess of Wales, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Diana had told him, a decade previously: “What I’d really like to do, I’d like to appear on Panorama.” He added: “So, when I heard a decade later that she’d finally appeared on Panorama, I suppose in a sense it was a mission accomplished.”

Five months after the broadcast, the Mail on Sunday approached the BBC over allegations that forged documents had been commissioned by Bashir from a BBC graphic artist before the interview.

Hall conducted an internal investigation, clearing Bashir of any wrongdoing, and telling the management board that the false documents, although a mistake, were never used to secure the interview. He decreed that the graphics designer would never work for the BBC again.

Spencer has dismissed that original inquiry as a “whitewash”, and said he was never consulted or interviewed over it. He has also rejected what he called a “piecemeal apology” from the new director general, Tim Davie, over the use of another mocked-up document. The BBC, he asserts, has failed to accept “the full gravity of the situation”.

The BBC has said it had a “handwritten” note from Diana – since lost – confirming that she had not been shown any forged documents. Arbiter is highly sceptical, saying the princess “never put pen to paper”. With Bashir ill, he believes that Hall has “got a lot of questions to answer”.

After the Mail on Sunday allegations, the story went off radar, until now. “It wasn’t followed up all that much, there was barely a murmur, said Rae, who believes that had it been the Sun or the Mail accused of falsifying documents, rather than the BBC, “all hell would have been let loose”.

The BBC has expressed difficulty investigating further at this time. “This whole thing is now going to lie in limbo until, hopefully, he [Bashir] recovers enough to answer these questions,” said Rae.



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