The separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the 1990s would forever change the public view of the royal family. As details of their infidelities bled out over a number of years, in the form of interviews and books and transcripts in which the heir to the British throne told his married lover that he wanted to be her tampon, this once world-straddling institution transformed into a kind of permanent high-end soap opera, packed with characters who were flawed and loaded and completely ill-equipped to operate in normal society.
The marriage’s knockout punch finally came in November 1995, when Martin Bashir interviewed Diana for the BBC’s current-affairs series Panorama. Over the course of their blockbuster encounter—dubbed “the programme of the decade” by the BBC itself—Diana described everything from the couple’s affairs to her battles with depression, self-harm, and bulimia, while also making dark noises about phone-tapping and her husband’s suitability as king.
People watched the interview in such vast numbers that, when it ended, at 10:41 p.m., the British National Grid recorded a thousand-megawatt power surge as millions of viewers staggered into their kitchens to make themselves a cup of tea. The episode was so definitive that, one month later, Queen Elizabeth finally wrote to the couple and asked them to divorce.
But now, after almost exactly 25 years, the manner by which the interview was acquired has come under enormous scrutiny, with the BBC accused of deceit and whitewashed investigations.
Diana described everything from the couple’s affairs to her battles with depression, self-harm, and bulimia.
The accuser is Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, who claims he was duped into setting Bashir up with his sister after he was presented with a pair of bank statements—allegedly falsified at Bashir’s request—which implied that two senior courtiers had been selling secrets about the Spencer family, according to the Daily Mail.
Spencer further alleges that Bashir won Diana over with a series of wild stories that played directly to her sense of paranoia, including claims that her car was being tracked and her mail was being opened, according to the Daily Mail. Spencer also says that Bashir alluded to false rumors that the couple’s nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke had an abortion after falling pregnant with Prince Charles’s baby. Additionally, according to Spencer, Bashir claimed that Prince William’s watch could secretly record conversations for M.I.5, that Prince Edward was being treated for AIDS, and—oddly—that the Queen was a comfort eater saddled with heart issues. And Spencer apparently has the receipts, too, in the form of reams and reams of contemporaneous notes taken after meeting with Bashir.
And if there was ever a man you should know not to cross, it’s Earl Spencer, a figure remarkably fond of clinging to old grudges. He is still best known for the furious eulogy he delivered at Princess Diana’s funeral, lashing out at the media and the royal family in equal measure. But he had also been known to aim his scorn at Diana herself, reducing her to tears in 1996 with a letter rejecting her request to move to a particular house on her ancestral estate—which he was then occupying—while accusing her of manipulation, deceit, and mental illness. If Earl Spencer has a problem with you, there’s a very good chance that you will hear about it. He has waited for 25 years to go after the BBC again, and is demanding an inquiry, an apology to viewers, a posthumous apology to Diana, a charity donation from the money made by selling the interview rights, and for Bashir and Panorama to be stripped of any media awards they have received.
Make no mistake, the BBC is in a tight spot here. After apologizing for the bank statements, the corporation was further prodded when Matt Wiessler—the graphic designer who claims he was asked by Bashir to falsify the bank statements—came forward to discuss his part in the scandal. Bashir had approached him to create the documents without ever telling him of their purpose, he says. When rumors of the falsified statements were first brought to light, in 1996, the BBC held an internal investigation that documents show cleared Bashir but prevented Wiessler from ever working for the corporation again. In an interview with ITV, Wiessler said that the first investigation was really about “senior management and senior producers and presenters protecting themselves at all costs.… I quite clearly felt that I was the one who was going to be the fall guy.” He is also seeking an apology.
If Earl Spencer has a problem with you, there’s a very good chance that you will hear about it.
Belatedly, a full independent inquiry has now been promised by the BBC. The news was welcomed by the British government, already at loggerheads with the network on a number of issues, and M.P.’s will meet next week to discuss the possibility of launching a parliamentary inquiry of their own into the matter. A key piece of evidence could be the document that swung the initial investigation: a handwritten letter purported to be from Princess Diana claiming Bashir hadn’t deceived her. However, the letter has since been misplaced, and one of Diana’s friends told The Sun she thinks it, too, may have been a forgery.
Depending on the outcome, those responsible may face criminal charges under the 1981 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act, according to The Times of London. Furthermore, some of the people allegedly smeared by Bashir are thought to be considering group legal action against the BBC, according to the Daily Mail.
The interview would, not surprisingly, make a star of Martin Bashir, vaulting a comparatively unknown journalist into the upper reaches of the industry. His rise, however, was not without incident. His next blockbuster—a 2003 documentary about Michael Jackson—was also undermined when Jackson’s staff produced tapes of Bashir sucking up to the star, telling him that his relationship with children was “so natural, so loving, so caring.”
He then moved to America, where he went to work for ABC but was subsequently suspended after using a speech at the Asian American Journalists Association to announce, “I’m happy to be in the midst of so many Asian babes. In fact, I’m happy that the podium covers me from the waist down.” He moved to MSNBC, then resigned three years later after making vulgar comments about Sarah Palin. Although his most recent high-profile job was as a contestant on The X Factor: Celebrity—where he at one stage performed a warbling, off-kilter rendition of Sinatra’s “That’s Life”—he is now back at the BBC, where he is religion editor.
At first Bashir had been unable to help in the BBC’s newest investigation, on the basis that he was “seriously unwell” with complications stemming from the coronavirus. However, even the veracity of this claim was called into question this week after he was photographed picking up a take-out meal near his London home. He has not commented on the matter.
The wild card in all this is Diana herself. The question that should really be asked is whether Martin Bashir managed to charm away her reluctance to talk or she was simply waiting to be asked. Her enthusiastic participation in Andrew Morton’s 1992 book—and her apparent suggestion that the interview should be broadcast on Prince Charles’s birthday—might suggest the latter. Earl Spencer, you imagine, would argue otherwise.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL