It was the most explosive television interview in the history of the British monarchy and the BBC. In 1995 Princess Diana revealed to millions of viewers around the world that there were "three people" in her marriage to Prince Charles — the third party being the heir to the throne's mistress, and now wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana's divorce, departure from the Royal Family and untimely death followed.
But how did the inexperienced BBC reporter Martin Bashir get his scoop of a lifetime? A devastating report published this week by John Dyson, a former judge, found that the journalist secured his interview on the "Panorama" news program by way of forgery. He faked the documents that persuaded Diana's brother Charles Spencer to introduce him to his sister, and he allegedly lied to Diana to fuel her paranoia about the Royal Family and the British establishment, and so get her to dish the dirt.
There was a huge media scrum in the 1990s to get the Princess's story. Diana, as I knew from meeting her, liked to brief journalists but was wary of having her fingerprints on stories. Bashir's deception got her to break cover.
Now, in an emotional video, Diana's son Prince William has condemned the program as "a major contribution to making my parents' relationship worse and has since hurt countless others." He concludes correctly that the BBC "not only let my mother down, and my family down; they let the public down too." The usual platitudes trotted out on these occasions from handwringing executives about "lessons being learned" won't do. A real revolution must follow at the UK 's state broadcaster.
If this were only a story about one rogue reporter, the BBC would still be hanging its collective head in shame. But this is a genuine crisis for the corporation, which is paid for by a compulsory license fee on British viewers and given its charter by royal assent.
Both the BBC's many friends and its numerous enemies have concluded that the cover-up of Bashir's actions was worse than the crime. Newspapers and rival broadcasters smelled a rat from the beginning, but a slew of BBC news executives — all of whom rose to greater eminence and one of whom, Tony Hall, later became the BBC's director general — perfunctorily investigated the reporter's work and exonerated him quickly. According to Dyson's inquiry, Bashir faked bank statements and showed them to Spencer. The documents suggested members of the royal household were paid to keep his sister under surveillance.
A graphic designer who tried to blow the whistle on Bashir's forgeries was barred from working for the BBC. The shutters at Broadcasting House, the corporation's headquarters, came down as newspapers continued to investigate the story behind the story. The BBC provided what Dyson described as "evasive answers" to legitimate press inquiries.
When the BBC mounted its own investigation of Bashir in 1996, it already knew that he'd told lies yet decided to accept his testimony. A letter of reprimand to Bashir had been drafted. It was probably never sent because there was no record of it in his employment records. Hall concluded that Bashir was "honest and honorable."
Neither Hall nor Anne Sloman, who conducted that investigation, interviewed Spencer. Dyson finds their explanation for this "wholly unconvincing." Perhaps it was simply too embarrassing to dig beneath "the scoop of the century." The BBC signaled its intentions from the start in that draft reprimand: "We believe there is no purpose served by making this a matter of public record." Maybe too many careers would have been blighted.
A quarter of a century later it took the release of the forged documents by Spencer to force the BBC into holding the independent Dyson inquiry. Tim Davie, the new director general, also commissioned a senior reporter from "Panorama" to produce a documentary investigation into the affair. The Conservative government already suspects the corporation of metropolitan bias against Brexit and the Tory party, and it's itching to intervene.
A former colleague at my old newspaper, the Sunday Times, once joked that all it took to be a good reporter was "a plausible manner and rat-like cunning." But this goes much further. Alas, media scandals are not infrequent. The lust for an exclusive drives many to underhand tactics. In the U.S. journalists have been fired for making up stories and faking film footage. Britain's tabloid newspapers intercepted mobile telephone messages and brought down upon the industry the wrath of the government.
Another former director general, John Birt, wrote in his autobiography: "There are no long-lasting secrets at the BBC." This affair proves he was wrong. As with the newspaper hacking scandal, the public's chief protection is the UK 's competitive media ecology. Rival newspapers exposed tabloid phone-tapping and envious media outlets helped bring the BBC to book this time.
In the meantime Bashir was rehired in 2016 as Religion Correspondent by the BBC after Hall returned to the corporation as director general. We still don't know what prompted this decision. Dyson's judicial remit didn't extend to this period.
But the BBC prides itself on its high standards, impartiality and transparency. If you don't like a newspaper, you can always buy another one. If a private television company transgresses, advertisers will boycott it. But the BBC? It has a self-regulating board of worthies but few have worked at the sharp end of journalism. This must change.
As editor of the Sunday Times I mounted some tough investigations that landed me and the newspaper in court. I worked with versatile, hard-bitten journalists, including the Insight investigations team. But in every instance I sat alongside a media lawyer who insisted on a paper trail. Every step had to be tested to see whether the methods employed were justified in the public interest. Complicated inquiries in which we invested time and effort were sometimes aborted. We made mistakes but we had to perform the checks, had to be thorough and had to know the pitfalls.
The BBC now needs to call on the expertise of outside news and current affairs veterans from broadcasting and print media to help police its internal investigations. It should set up a board that's fit for purpose and not wait for the government to act. It would be better for Davie and the BBC to impose self-regulation with real teeth than have regulation thrust upon it by hostile external forces.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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