8 Nov 2020

Princess Diana's Panorama interview faces new allegations of journalistic malpractice

9:03 pm on 8 November 2020
Princess Diana

Princess Diana Photo: AFP

This month 25 years ago, the world watched on as Diana, Princess of Wales, went on the BBC and did something no other royal dared to do.

Some 23 million viewers tuned in live to watch Diana speak openly about her isolation in the royal household, her troubled marriage, and her struggles with bulimia and post-natal depression.

It was a boon for the BBC and the journalist Martin Bashir, who secured the first solo interview with the Princess. At the time, she was one of the most photographed people on the planet.

But circumstances surrounding the interview have been thrust into the spotlight again following the airing of a new documentary about its creation on Britain's other public-service broadcaster, Channel 4.

New allegations of journalistic malpractice have been levelled against the BBC over the interview, as Princess Diana's brother, Charles Spencer - also the ninth Earl Spencer - claimed she had been deceived to take part in the programme.

While a 1996 BBC internal inquiry acknowledged Bashir commissioned forged documents in the lead up to the interview, the BBC maintained the forgery played no part in the Princess's decision to participate.

So who's to believe? And what will come of this?

Just how big of a deal was the Panorama interview?

The interview aired in an era where the internet was still in its infancy, when television was the world's dominant media platform.

The Panorama interview was one of the most-watched television events in history at the time, with 23 million viewers in the UK alone.

It was a record that was only surpassed by the live broadcast of Princess Diana's 1997 state funeral, which garnered an estimated worldwide audience of 2.5 billion.

By 1995, animosity between the couple was well-known, but the interview exposed the full extent of Diana's isolation in the marriage.

Prince Charles and Harry and William wait in front of the Westminster Abbey in London after the funeral ceremony of Princess of Wales

Prince Charles and Harry and William wait in front of the Westminster Abbey in London after the funeral ceremony of Princess of Wales Photo: AFP

Her husband Charles, Prince of Wales, had his own documentary aired a year prior, where he discussed his longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is now his wife.

"Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," the Princess told Bashir.

But the interview traversed more territory than the disappointment of an unhappy marriage, and came at a time when frank discussions of mental health struggles from high-profile figures were incredibly rare.

"I had bulimia for a number of years. And that's like a secret disease," she said.

"You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don't think you're worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day - some do it more - and it gives you a feeling of comfort.

"It was a symptom of what was going on in my marriage."

What are the new allegations?

This week, the Earl alleged Bashir showed him false bank statements that suggested British security services were paying two royal courtiers for information on the Princess, which included her private secretary.

The Earl said these documents convinced him to introduce Bashir to his sister.

It is unclear why the Earl has waited 25 years to make these new allegations, or how his correspondence with the BBC was leaked to the Daily Mail - a British tabloid newspaper that routinely attacks the broadcaster.

Separately, the BBC confirmed in 1996 that Bashir had an in-house graphic artist mock-up two fake bank statements that falsely claimed the Earl's head of security was paid by the British tabloids for information on his sister.

The BBC has apologised to the Earl over those statements.

But the broadcaster has claimed that a handwritten note from the Princess proved she "had not seen" the statements, and they "played no part in her decision to take part in the interview".

The BBC has said the note has since been lost, but it was referred to multiple times during the 1996 inquiry.

However, it remains unclear if the Princess was shown the additional falsified bank statements involving her staff.

The ABC has sought comment from the BBC about these new allegations.

Why does it matter?

There is no shortage of profound breaches of press ethics when it comes to Princess Diana - her therapist published a book about their private sessions, covert portraits of her at the gym were sold to the tabloids, and the paparazzi pursued and photographed her as she was dying in the wreckage from her fatal 1997 car crash.

But few would anticipate that the BBC - which has a considerable reputation for impartiality and ethics - could be accused of tactics usually associated with tabloid media.

In a letter to the current BBC director general Tim Davie, the Earl accused the corporation of "whitewashing" Bashir, who he said was guilty of "yellow journalism" - an American term that describes inaccurate and sensational journalism.

"That a publicly-funded media corporation with a reputation for the highest form of journalism stooped so deep into the gutter is beyond belief. And yet it is so," the Earl wrote.

Denis Muller, a media ethics specialist at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism, said the Earl's allegations were "extremely serious" as "journalistic integrity is absolutely vital" to press overall.

"Clearly there was a strong public interest in the issues surrounding the collapse of Charles and Diana's marriage, but that does not justify forgery," Muller said.

If the new allegations prove to be true, Muller said it would "tarnish the reputation of the BBC and probably destroy Bashir's career".

Julian Disney, Australian Press Council chair, told the ABC that whether the Princess viewed the forged documents or not was a moot point.

"If the statements were deliberately false and were shown to Earl Spencer as alleged, that is in itself deeply improper conduct even if they were not shown to Princess Diana and/or did not directly influence her decision to grant the interview," Disney said.

Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer Photo: GETTY via AFP

Disney told the ABC that Bashir's behaviour was "very high on the list of improper journalistic conduct".

"That conduct would be very high on the list of improper journalistic conduct and very damaging to the ongoing reputation of the BBC, unless it was fully and frankly exposed by the organisation and those responsible were dismissed or suspended for a very lengthy period (and not commissioned to do any work for the BBC)."

What has been the response from Bashir?

Nothing, yet.

Bashir, who is now the BBC's Religion editor, hasn't been able to speak publicly in response to these new allegations from the Earl, as he is "seriously unwell" with Covid-19-related complications.

The broadcaster cleared Bashir of wrongdoing after the then head of news, Tony Hall, launched the 1996 investigation into the alleged forgery.

The Earl maintains he was never consulted by the BBC during the investigation.

In BBC internal documents released this year under a freedom of information request from Channel 4, Lord Hall said Bashir "wasn't thinking" when he commissioned the fake bank statements, and insisted Bashir was an "honest and honourable man".

Lord Hall also called the programme the "interview of the decade - if not of our generation" which "changed the way we report on the monarchy" in a letter to Bashir afterward.

What happens from here?

The BBC has offered to launch a new internal inquiry into the program once Bashir recovers, but the Earl maintains that an independent external inquiry should be conducted.

If his allegations prove to be true, the Earl wants financial damages from the BBC to go to the charities "forever linked" to Princess Diana.

Mueller said the current facts about the BBC's 1996 inquiry show it was "manifestly inadequate".

"The fact that Earl Spencer was not interviewed attests to that," he said.