Martin Bashir of the BBC has once again found himself at the center of controversy, this time due to an interview with the late Lady Diana Spencer, then-Princess of Wales, in 1995. The interview was featured in Panorama, a BBC documentary series, in an episode entitled “An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales.” Bashir, a British national, spoke extensively with Diana about her personal life, especially her marriage, and the interview caused much embarrassment for the British royal family. Allegations that Bashir used forged documents to pressure Diana into giving the interview have been discredited in the past. However, the allegations have now resurfaced, prompting a response from Diana’s family and the BBC, and at least one person has threatened legal action.
Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales
In 1995, Diana was the 34-year-old mother of Prince William and Prince Harry, who continue to make headlines today. Her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, made her a member of the British royal family; Charles is the son of Queen Elizabeth II and is the heir apparent to the British crown. Affectionately known as “Lady Di” by the public, her well-publicized lifestyle and advocacy for charitable causes had earned her unprecedented levels of admiration from the British population. In 2002, following her death, Diana would be ranked third in a poll run by the BBC on the 100 Greatest Britons. She was preceded only by Winston Churchill and Isambard Brunel. Most recently, she’s been portrayed by Emma Corrin in Season 4 of the highly acclaimed series The Crown.
At the time of the interview, Martin Bashir was a 32-year-old journalist for the BBC. When he interviewed Diana, she revealed that her marriage with Prince Charles was less-than-stellar behind closed doors. She confirmed that she had been having an affair with James Hewitt, an officer in the Household Cavalry, the official bodyguards of the Queen. At the same time, she revealed that Charles had been having an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he would later marry in 2005.
Diana also revealed her struggles with mental health and talked about how she had been self-harming. She mentioned the media’s constant scrutiny and the negative effect it had. Her death in a car crash two years later would prove that her aggravation toward the media was not unfounded; the accident was attributed by a British inquest jury to a combination of her driver’s inebriation and his reckless driving as he attempted to avoid the paparazzi.
23 million people watched the Panorama episode when it first aired on November 20, 1995. Needless to say, the interview made waves. The revelations were shocking to the public, which was learning for the first time exactly what was going on in the royal family away from the public eye.
Soon after the episode aired, Martin Bashir’s journalistic integrity was called into question. In 1996, the BBC investigated reports that Bashir had deceived Diana into giving the interview and her brother into setting it up. Diana’s brother, Earl Charles Spencer, claimed that Bashir had told them various lies in order to pressure Diana into giving the interview. In particular, he complained that Martin Bashir had deceitfully gotten the Earl’s attention so that he would get Bashir an audience with his sister.
Earl Spencer alleged that Bashir had told them that Diana’s phone had been wiretapped and her car tracked, and that Bashir had enlisted the help of graphic designer Matt Wiessler to forge bank statements, giving the appearance that courtiers were being paid for dirt on Diana. He claimed that Bashir wrote to Earl Spencer to inform him that Prince Charles had been having an affair with William and Harry’s nanny in order to persuade Diana to give the interview. According to Earl Spencer, Bashir had also alleged that his head of security, Alan Waller, was being paid by the media and by intelligence services to spy on Diana.
The investigation was led by Tony Hall, who would later become director-general of the BBC. Despite being key figures in the allegations, Hall failed to question both Matt Wiessler and Charles Spencer. Nonetheless, the BBC was able to conclude that false documents had not played a role in securing the interview, and found no wrongdoing on Bashir’s part.
Back in the Spotlight
A Channel 4 documentary called Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview aired on October 21, 2020. After being put to rest two decades ago, the documentary brought the scandal back into the public’s attention.
In November, BBC’s current director-general, Tim Davie, apologized to Earl Spencer for the corporation’s use of false bank statements. But Spencer rejected the apology and demanded a deeper inquiry. On November 9, Davie appeared to be in compliance with the request, announcing that he was forming an independent commission to conduct an inquiry. On October 19, the commission was formed, headed by John Dyson, a former justice in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Likely to be investigated by the commission is a letter, allegedly written by Diana on Kensington Palace’s official stationary, claiming that Bashir did nothing wrong and that she never saw any documents prior to the interview. But the letter does not account for whether or not Earl Spencer saw the documents, and whether they had led him to persuade Diana into giving the interview. The letter had gone missing from the BBC until November, 2020, when it was supposedly returned by an employee who had taken it home. Adding to the mystery surrounding the note, its contents have not been shown to the public, although the Daily Telegraph has been given access to it.
According to Jennie Bond, who was the BBC’s royal correspondent at the time, Diana told her in late 1996 that she did not regret the interview. Bond says that Diana agreed to be interviewed by Bashir in anticipation of a divorce settlement that would include a gag order, meaning her side of the story would go untold if she didn’t speak about it beforehand.
Alan Waller, Earl Spencer’s former bodyguard, is considering filing suit against BBC over the allegations made against him in the original documents. He is also reported to be considering making a formal complaint with the Metropolitan Police. According to Waller, “Bashir has effectively stolen my identity, stolen my banking information, and used it to frame me as the fall guy.”
Despite being one of Britain’s most highly esteemed journalists, controversy is nothing new to Martin Bashir. Having befriended Michael Jackson and followed him for eight months, Bashir released a documentary called Living with Michael Jackson that aired in February 2003. Upon release of the documentary, Jackson and his supporters stated that they felt it portrayed the singer unfairly. They claimed that Bashir had inferred too much from Jackson’s references to sleeping in the same room as children, and that Bashir had distorted Jackson’s relationship with his own kids.
In 2013, Sarah Palin compared the Federal debt to slavery, saying “When that note comes due – and this isn’t racist so try it anyway, this isn’t racist – but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due, right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master.”
Then a political commentator for MSNBC, Bashir took the opportunity to explore what Palin’s comments really entailed. He read several excerpts from the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation owner in Jamaica in the 18th century, in which Thistlewood went into detail about the methods by which he systematically tortured enslaved people. Bashir concluded by saying “When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms, if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate.”
The comparison did not go over well with many of MSNBC’s viewers, and by the end of the year Bashir had been made to resign from his position with the company.
Bashir, now 57, is currently the BBC’s religious editor. He has been dealing with multiple health problems over the past few months. A BBC spokeswoman has reported that “Martin Bashir is signed off work by his doctors – he is currently recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery and has significant complications from having contracted Covid-19 earlier in the year.”
According to the BBC, these health issues have precluded him from speaking publicly about the interview controversy.