Without Bashir, Diana might still be alive – Harry and Meghan in Britain

Martin Bashir speaking to Princess Diana in Kensington Palace during the infamous Panorama interview which was aired on BBC in 1995. Getty Images
Martin Bashir speaking to Princess Diana in Kensington Palace during the infamous Panorama interview which was aired on BBC in 1995. Getty Images

It's a strangely unnerving experience, seeing your name in an official account going back 26 years.

The BBC has released, in a response to a Freedom of Information request, its log of events after the Martin Bashir interview for Panorama in 1995 with Princess Diana.

There I am, the first journalist to call, to ask if it was true that Bashir had secured his world scoop by convincing the princess that she and her brother, Earl Spencer, were being tracked by the security service MI5.

Except I’m described as Chris Pankhurst. I was an investigative reporter on The Independent.

I’d received a tip-off that Bashir was researching a programme about MI5 and the British royal family, and that he had produced material that seemed to show the security service was targeting Spencer and Diana.

My source could not provide any corroborative evidence and without that or a second source the story could not be written. It required further research.

This was in November 1995, immediately after the programme, in which the princess famously claimed there were “three of us in this marriage”, a reference to her then husband Prince Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.

The second occasion I called, the account spells my name right. That was in April 1996, when a story broke that Bashir had forged a bank statement to suggest that MI5 was paying Spencer’s former head of security for information.

The fake bank statement indicated a payment from Penfolds, a small, obscure, Channel Islands-registered company, to Spencer’s former security chief.

Colleagues of Bashir had been alerted by the use of the name “Penfolds”, which had featured in a previous Panorama, also researched and presented by him, into the business dealings of Terry Venables, the former England football manager. It was too coincidental, they thought.

The BBC confirmed they had looked into the document “two or three months ago” but said it played no part in securing the interview and a “thorough investigation” had been held.

The BBC press officer admitted the statement was false but had been made in connection with another programme.

The BBC will shortly publish a report from a former judge, Lord Dyson, appointed to investigate what happened. Panorama is also due to air its own “special” investigation into what went on.

Martin Bashir cited health concerns as he stepped down from his position as the BBC's Religion Editor. AFP.
Martin Bashir cited health concerns as he stepped down from his position as the BBC's Religion Editor. AFP.

I’ve given evidence to Dyson and I’ve been filmed for Panorama. The latter was scheduled to be aired on Monday this week but was postponed because of concerns that the corporation owed a “duty of care” to Bashir, who last month resigned on health grounds as the BBC’s religion editor.

In some ways, this appears highly commendable: the BBC appointing a former senior judge to hold an inquiry and commissioning its flagship programme to investigate.

But it also carries echoes of previous BBC controversies in which the organisation ended up becoming entwined in trying to explain and justify its own poor behaviour and subsequent cover-up – Jimmy Savile springs to mind.

The fact is that Bashir, a young, little-known, relatively inexperienced journalist, had beaten some of the world’s most celebrated interviewers, among them David Frost and Barbara Walters, to the princess.

No one in authority at the BBC seemingly thought to ask how.

Quite the reverse: the internal log is full of congratulations from senior figures in the corporation, including from Tony Hall, now Lord Hall, then its head of news and current affairs, and later, BBC director general.

When reporters started questioning, the BBC claimed Hall had looked into it, found nothing unduly untoward, and the shutters came down.

What’s telling about the log is that Hall reported as much to the BBC board of governors, saying to them that he was going to launch a leak inquiry to find who had been informing journalists.

It took a flurry of 25th anniversary documentaries and a complaint from Spencer, and an indication from Kensington Palace that Prince William was also keen to know what had transpired, for the BBC, finally, to act.

It’s bad enough that the BBC was forging someone’s bank statement. It’s clear too that Diana, who was vulnerable, was influenced and impressionable.

But she is dead, as is Bashir’s boss at the time, the Panorama editor, Steve Hewlett. Without them, Bashir may be able to mount some sort of defence, or at least, vital questions must remain unanswered.

Imagine, though, if what Dyson and Panorama now disclose was known back then. Imagine, too, if it was not the BBC that had behaved in this manner but a tabloid newspaper. Consider the row that would have ensued.

That chain of events was prompted by the Panorama interview. It’s some statement to make, I know, but it is true.

For decades, UK newspapers, especially the tabloids, were put under scrutiny for their conduct – and in some cases, rightly so.

Much of the finger-pointing came from the BBC, which regarded itself as above such activity.

Yet here we have an interview with a tormented senior member of the royal family being obtained by deception.

Let us, too, remind ourselves of what took place after the Panorama interview. In early 1996, Queen Elizabeth ordered Diana and Charles to speed up their divorce, which they did.

Diana left the royal family and the security blanket it afforded her.

She rejected the offer of maintaining extensive personal protection, partly because she could not trust the royal family or the security service – a feeling presumably exacerbated by Bashir.

The following year she died in the Paris car crash.

That chain of events was prompted by the Panorama interview. It’s some statement to make, I know, but it is true.

Roll forward to this year and the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey. Harry referred more than once to wishing to protect Meghan, to ensure that history was not repeated.

Bashir is claiming ill-heath, hence the BBC owes him a duty of care. That in itself is odd, since the BBC ordered this latest Panorama knowing full well the likely outcome.

His health was also said to be poor then, so a duty of care now does not make sense. Unless, of course, this is another attempt to hide and to obfuscate.

It’s to be hoped not. The BBC has an awful lot of explaining to do, even if it is 26 years late.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London

UPDATE: BBC report finds journalist Martin Bashir used deceit to land Princess Diana interview

Updated: May 21, 2021 01:36 AM

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