25 Years Later, the BBC Apologizes for Diana Interview

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LONDON — Twenty-five years before Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, unloaded to Oprah Winfrey about their struggles as members of the British royal family, Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, set the standard for the sensational royal tell-all, in her 1995 interview with a BBC journalist, Martin Bashir.

On Thursday, an inquiry concluded that Mr. Bashir deceived Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, to obtain the interview. And it faulted the British Broadcasting Corporation’s management for covering up Mr. Bashir’s conduct, which included creating fake bank statements to undermine a rival news organization.

“Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” Lord John Dyson, a former justice of the British Supreme Court, said in a 127-page report on the inquiry, which he conducted at the request of the broadcaster’s current management.

The conclusions, though not unexpected, are a black eye for the BBC at a time when it has been under pressure from the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson for its news coverage. The government has threatened to overhaul the compulsory license fee that finances most of the BBC’s operations, and it faces competition from a fledgling news channel, GB News.

Yet, while the report is damning, it relates to actions that occurred more than a quarter-century ago, in what was one of the stranger tales of legerdemain in British broadcasting history. Mr. Bashir, then a young, not particularly prominent BBC journalist, was hustling for an interview that could make his career.

According to the report, he asked a freelance graphics designer who worked for the BBC, Matthias Wiessler, to create phony bank statements documenting payments from News International, a newspaper publisher, and a company called Penfolds into the account of a former employee of Mr. Spencer’s, presumably to encourage the ex-employee to spy on his boss.

Mr. Bashir then showed the statements to Mr. Spencer to gain his trust and persuade him to make an introduction to Diana. In August 1995, the report said, she was keen to give an interview about her unraveling marriage to Prince Charles and was in the market for “any experienced and reputable reporter.”

Mr. Bashir landed the interview for the BBC program “Panorama,” and it was as big a bombshell as Ms. Winfrey’s recent interview on CBS, which was headlined by Meghan’s claims that she had considered suicide and that a member of the royal family worried about the skin color of her unborn child.

“There were three of us in this marriage,” Diana said to Mr. Bashir of her husband and Camilla Parker Bowles, with whom he had a relationship before and during his marriage, and whom he later married. Buckingham Palace saw her as a “threat of some kind,” Diana said, prefiguring the language that her daughter-in-law used with Ms. Winfrey in March.

Nearly 23 million people watched the Diana interview, which became a pop-cultural landmark and turned Mr. Bashir into a star. He went on to a career in the United States, working for ABC News and as a political commentator for MSNBC. In 2013, he resigned after making disparaging comments about Sarah Palin, but later returned to the BBC as a religious affairs correspondent.

Credit…Karwai Tang/WireImage

Now 58, Mr. Bashir has been under a cloud for years because of questions about how he obtained the interview. But he stepped down from the BBC only last week, citing poor health, as publication of the report loomed. He has suffered severe heart problems and had a serious bout with Covid-19 last year.

In a statement, Mr. Bashir said: “I apologized then, and I do so again now, over the fact that I asked for bank statements to be mocked up. It was a stupid thing to do and was an action I deeply regret.”

But he insisted that “the bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview” — an assertion that the report generally supports, noting that she was eager to do an interview and happy with the outcome.

To some extent, the inquiry is most damaging to the BBC’s former managers, whom it depicts as gullible, “woefully ineffective” and willing to accept Mr. Bashir’s account of events, even after he lied to his bosses about the incident.

A previous internal BBC investigation — led by Tony Hall, who later rose to become the broadcaster’s director general — did not even consult Mr. Spencer before pronouncing Mr. Bashir an “honest and honorable man.”

The allegations resurfaced last year following a lengthy campaign by Mr. Spencer and the broadcast of a documentary on ITV, in which Mr. Wiessler said he had been made a scapegoat by the broadcaster.

The BBC, which commissioned the independent inquiry in November, issued a contrite response, accepting the findings and admitting “the process for securing the interview fell far short of what audiences have a right to expect.”

“The BBC should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew,” the current director-general, Tim Davie, said. “While the BBC cannot turn back the clock after a quarter of a century, we can make a full and unconditional apology.”

The BBC won plaudits in the last year for its exhaustive coverage of the pandemic, but it remains a frequent target of the Johnson government. The broadcaster has found itself in the middle of culture-war disputes over its purported hostility to Brexit, not showing proper respect to the Union Jack and refusing to play the lyrics to patriotic songs like “Rule Britannia.”

“It comes at a very bad moment for the BBC,” said Meera Selva, director of the Reuters Journalism Fellowship Program at Oxford University. “There is very little doubt this will be weaponized against the institution at a time it really needs to make a public case for its journalistic excellence.”

On Thursday, Mr. Spencer, who had long accused Mr. Bashir of acting deceitfully, posted a black-and-white photo on Twitter of him and Diana as young children. “Some bonds go back a very long way,” he wrote.

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