A devastating insight into how the BBC mishandled its sensational Princess Diana interview can be revealed today.
An extraordinary cache of internal documents exposes how the back-slapping of top brass over their world exclusive gave way to panic – and an arrogant dismissal of the complaints over the 1995 broadcast.
The never-seen-before dossier shows Panorama reporter Martin Bashir was showered with praise for his ‘interview of the decade’ by his boss, news chief Tony Hall, who went on to become BBC director-general Lord Hall.
In a gushing handwritten note the day after the stunning TV coup, Hall hailed the novice reporter for dodging ‘many pitfalls’ in securing Diana’s confessions, adding: ‘You have carried yourself during this whole episode in absolutely the appropriate fashion.’
A devastating insight into how the BBC mishandled its sensational Princess Diana interview (pictured) can be revealed today
A parade of BBC luminaries piled further praise on Bashir’s scoop, but the newly-released bombshell file reveals how – behind the scenes – there was top-level concern at how he had landed it.
Before broadcast, the BBC spent the week stoking excitement, while executives at its commercial arm were rubbing their hands at the money to be made from selling it around the world. And when it was finally broadcast on November 20, 1995, and a record 23million viewers watched the princess saying: ‘There were three of us in this marriage’, BBC chiefs could barely contain their glee.
As the newly-released internal documents show, memos of hearty congratulations were being tossed around like confetti for the ‘scoop of the century’.
But the cache of new documents shows before the interview even aired, questions were being asked within the BBC as to whether something fishy had gone on. Hall later quizzed Bashir for forging bank statements that may have helped him wangle the exclusive. Not only were the statements faked, his statement to the governors reveals, but they were based on false information.
But the documents reveal how the BBC swept the scandal under the carpet in a whitewash report, suggesting the unknown interviewer simply ‘asked’ for an interview from the world’s most famous woman – to which ‘she consented’.
A never-seen-before dossier shows Panorama reporter Martin Bashir (pictured) was showered with praise for his ‘interview of the decade’ by his boss, news chief Tony Hall, who went on to become BBC director-general Lord Hall
The cache of 67 documents – revealed by the BBC in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request – also questions whether Bashir’s dodgy tactics on the Diana scoop were his first offence.
They reveal he allegedly used similar faked documents in a bid to expose the then England football manager Terry Venables. Bashir, ordering a BBC graphics designer to ‘mock up’ false bank statements. He used the same mysterious offshore company, Penfolds, to try to snare Diana as he did with Venables.
Even BBC insiders questioned whether it could be true that one company could be part of a conspiracy involving both the Princess of Wales and Terry Venables.
The dossier, obtained by the Mail, also reveals how Hall vowed to governors that Matthias Wiessler, the graphic designer who forged the bank statements on Bashir’s command, ‘will not work for the BBC again’. After Bashir’s deceit was first exposed by the Mail on Sunday five months after broadcast, the former news supremo also pledged to crack down on anyone in the corporation guilty of leaking information to the press.
In a gushing handwritten note the day after the stunning TV coup, Hall hailed the novice reporter for dodging ‘many pitfalls’ in securing Diana’s confessions, adding: ‘You have carried yourself during this whole episode in absolutely the appropriate fashion’
His report was accepted at the BBC board of governors meeting on April 29, 1996, which concluded Bashir was ‘an honest man’ who had been ‘foolish’.
But as Earl Spencer has revealed to the Mail this week, that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the alleged ‘lies’ Bashir told him.
In an excoriating email to new director-general Tim Davie last week, Diana’s brother warned ‘the sheer dishonesty’ of what went on at the BBC would now come out.
The dossier shows murky questions about how Bashir landed his extraordinary interview were being asked right from the beginning.
To this day, the corporation is still denying anything untoward took place beyond Bashir ‘mocking up’ fake bank statements – which he allegedly used to persuade Diana’s brother to introduce him to his sister. But as the internal documents now suggest, it seems some executives suspected something was up, even at the time.
Six days before the interview even aired, BBC press officers found themselves being asked if Bashir had told Diana that ‘Special Branch and MI5 had been following her movements’, the press office log from November 14 records.
Such conspiracy theories played on Diana’s insecurities and paranoia that she was being spied on, and helped Bashir gain her trust.
Earl Spencer revealed this week that the reporter had even claimed Prince William was given a watch containing a secret recording device, to enable the security services to eavesdrop on his mother.
At the time, the inquiry seemed to puzzle the BBC higher-ups. The log records that curious journalists were told the claims about Bashir were ‘pure speculation’. Within days, BBC press officers were having to claim ‘misunderstandings’ to explain suggestions Bashir had wound up the princess about security services bugging her.
Diana’s brother, Earl Charles Spencer, wrote a letter of complaint demanding an apology from the BBC
Meanwhile, the BBC was embroiled in a row over cashing in from selling the rights to its exclusive overseas, the logs show. ABC in the US had licensed the film for $1million, according to one report the corporation declined to comment on.
But when another report suggested ABC would get the interview for free, the BBC’s head of newsgathering Chris Cramer issued a statement boasting: ‘It’s nonsense… they paid a fair market rate.’ He added this was ‘only one of a package of deals’ being negotiated ‘to reap the maximum benefit’ for licence fee payers.
The BBC continued to tie itself in knots when asked if it would donate any of the proceeds to charity, replying that, as a public service broadcaster, it was ‘its duty’ to pocket the cash and ‘reinvest’ it to make new programmes.
Two days after broadcast, the minutes of an internal ‘review board’ meeting show that it was ‘unfortunate’ that BBC Worldwide ‘appeared to get overexcited about its commercial potential’.
The document says Panorama had received £100,000 from BBC Worldwide – but does not say how much the commercial arm reaped in total. Amid the furore, the FOI files show, the BBC was battling claims the Queen was so unamused by Panorama that she was taking her traditional Christmas message to a rival broadcaster (which she eventually did).
A never-seen-before dossier shows Panorama reporter Martin Bashir was showered with praise for his ‘interview of the decade’ by his boss, news chief Tony Hall, who went on to become BBC director-general Lord Hall
BBC luminaries at that review board meeting on November 22 could scarcely have been more effusive in their praise for Bashir. Creative director Alan Yentob said his performance was ‘exemplary’ and he had used ‘skill’ to gain the princess’s confidence.
Mark Damazar, a former Controller of Radio 4, said Bashir ‘would not have been an obvious frontrunner for the job, but had won it through his journalistic integrity’, adding it had been ‘well done and good for the BBC that he had done it’. Panorama editor Steve Hewlett said Bashir had ‘taken time to build up a rapport’ with Diana. A day later, a memo from BBC Television managing director Will Wyatt praised the ‘extraordinary coup’ which had been ‘conducted just as one would have hoped’.
A parade of BBC luminaries piled further praise on Bashir’s scoop, but the newly-released bombshell file reveals how – behind the scenes – there was top-level concern at how he had landed it
There is no suggestion these luminaries knew about Bashir’s actions at the time, but such plaudits look crassly naive when contrasted with what is being alleged by Earl Spencer about Bashir’s dishonest tactics. And in a series of handwritten notes the day after broadcast, Tony Hall lavished praise on Bashir and Panorama executives including editor Steve Hewlett.
He told Bashir: ‘Dear Martin, you should be very proud of your scoop. It was the interview of the decade – if not of our generation. But equally importantly, you handled it with skill, sensitivity and excellent judgment. There were many pitfalls awaiting us – you avoided them all. I also think you have carried yourself during the whole episode in absolutely the appropriate fashion. You changed the way we report the monarchy. Thanks, Tony.’
He wrote to Mr Hewlett, a BBC veteran who died of cancer in 2017: ‘Congratulations on a brilliant scoop. But my thanks too for the way you handled it. There were many mantraps awaiting us, and you were vital in helping us avoid them.’ A third note, to ‘Mike’ – believed to be producer Mike Robinson – from Hall described the interview as a ‘hell of an achievement’.
PANIC SETS IN
Yet for all the laudatory celebrations, behind the scenes it appears to have been dawning on top brass there could be problems with Bashir’s tactics.
As questions were being asked publicly, an air of panic descended as BBC executives commissioned a ‘confidential memorandum’ on how his scoop came about. This memo is part of 67 pages of documents revealed under Freedom of Information by the BBC to a Channel 4 documentary. Either by design or incompetence, the memo throws almost no light on the matter, containing such anodyne revelations that the previously unknown reporter began his royal family research by reading ‘press reports’ about the princess.
Bashir was showered with praise for his ‘interview of the decade’ by his boss, news chief Tony Hall, who went on to become BBC director-general Lord Hall (pictured)
Entirely glossing over how he might have secured his ‘interview of the decade’, the memo proffers the unlikely explanation that he ‘made contact’ with the princess.
Enter Tony Hall. He ‘conducted a personal investigation’, the dossier says, reporting to the BBC management board in April 1996 that he had reprimanded Bashir about his ‘incautious and unwise’ conduct. Hall’s report – included but heavily redacted in the FOI disclosure – begs more questions than it answers, but it claims the reporter was ‘contrite’ for making a BBC graphics artist forge bank statements. These bank statements completely falsely suggested that Earl Spencer’s head of security Alan Waller had received payments from The Sun’s publisher News International and a mysterious offshore company.
Earl Spencer says Bashir showed him the fake statements to convince him he knew information of great interest to him and Diana – when in truth, he made it up to gain access to her. The BBC maintains that the false documents did not influence the princess’s decision to agree to the interview.
Tony Hall’s 1996 ‘investigation’ maintains that Bashir believed the information was correct but says he was ‘foolish’ to forge the bank statements, saying: ‘I have talked to Martin at length about his reasons… he has none, he wasn’t thinking’, adding: ‘I believe he is, even with his lapse, honest and an honourable man. He is contrite.’
He explained Bashir’s scoop saying: ‘Spencer introduced Martin to the Princess of Wales. She told him she thought she was being bugged and followed. Numerous conversations followed, leading to the interview. During the period of these conversations, Martin took information he had got from the highest level and made them into a graphic using the bank statement [he claimed] Spencer had given him. He did it believing the information to be correct.’
Hall added: ‘To produce such a graphic was unwise. He shouldn’t have done it.’ In his letter to Mr Davie last week, Earl Spencer said Hall’s inquiry had ‘bent over backwards to whitewash Bashir’.
Last night, a source who worked for the BBC at the time said: ‘I don’t think there were any doubts about the way the interview was conducted. I knew there was later a review over the fake bank statements Bashir produced, but I wasn’t aware of a lot of what Earl Spencer is saying now. It all appeared to be above board. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.’