The BBC is in hot water (again) over forged bank statements that were used to coerce Princess Diana to sit down for the now infamous Panorama interview.
You may have seen clips of a 1995 BBC Panorama interview pop up on your feed lately, and no it’s not just because the hotly anticipated new season of The Crown is about to drop on November 15.
The interview was considered the scoop of the decade, a turning point in Diana’s life and marriage, as well as a watershed moment for the British monarchy. It was only one of two televised interviews she ever gave, the first upon her engagement to Prince Charles 15 year’s prior.
You’re probably already familiar with a few of the soundbites from the extensive interview with journalist Martin Bashir. That “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”, referring to Charles long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; discussing her own issues with her mental health and experience of self-harm and bullima; her deteriorating relationship with Buckingham Palace, and her uncertainty of Charles’ capabilities as king. You can read the full transcript here.
However, these revelations played out on the pages of newspapers and TV screens exactly 25 years ago. The reason the interview is back in the news now is not for its content but how it was obtained. A recent Channel 4 documentary, Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview, journalist Andy Webb unearthed fresh evidence that bank statements, produced by Bashir to prove that the BBC could be trusted with the interview, were actually forged. The statements appeared to show that Diana's staff were selling stories about her to the press.
Understanding the moment
Before we dive into the accusations, it’s important to understand the context around Diana at the time. She had separated from Charles three years earlier and he had recently publicly conceded that he had been in a long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles through much of his marriage to Diana.
Diana had been left very isolated by their separation, the revelation that many of their friends had known about and facilitated Charles and Camilla’s affair meant she cut nearly all of them from her life. Hounded by the press and concerned about losing her two sons, her inner circle was made up mostly of family members and staff.
She had also become increasingly paranoid, and understandably so. Her every move was captured by thousands of paparazzi cameras, her phone was tapped and transcripts leaked, news stories about her private life were continually showing up in the newspapers.
Following Charles' public mea culpa, an interview with Diana was in high demand. Nearly every journalist in the country was looking to hear from her following Charles side of the story. Then relatively unknown journalist Martin Bashir was introduced to Diana by her brother, Earl Spencer, and he convinced her to sit down with him in November 1995 for BBC’s Panorama.
The production team were so worried that details of the interview would leak or potentially be quashed by the palace, that they told almost no one about the interview and only eight people were privy to its contents before it aired. The chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, was not informed of the interview until a few hours before it was announced, as it was feared his wife, a lady in waiting to the Queen, might alert the palace. Diana herself informed the royal household of the interview, just a few days before it was broadcast on November 20.
The interview sparked an international frenzy. It was watched by more than 23 million people and the BBC sold the international rights to it for approximately €1.4 million.
However, shortly after the broadcast, rumours swirled the bank statements used to convince Diana to do the interview had been falsified.
Many thought that this was just another case of the royals drumming up some fanciful drama, but a secret internal BBC investigation into the incident, only made public this month, found that the documents had indeed been forged. The 1996 investigation found that they were not key to convincing Diana to do the interview and Bashir was let off the hook. The freelance designer, Matt Wiessler, who had made the bank statements, was treated less kindly. Tony Hall, the then-BBC new chief, assured the board that Wiessler would never work for the BBC again.
Wiessler had worked for the BBC and was still freelancing for them when Bashir approached him. “Martin asked me to make up a couple of bank statements about people being paid to do surveillance that he needed the following day. And he did say that they were just going to be used as copies,” Wiessler told an earlier ITV documentary about the incident.
Shortly after the Panorama interview aired, his apartment was burgled while he attended the Panorama Christmas party. Only two discs were taken, those containing the copies of the documents he had made for Bashir. At this point, he became anxious about what he had done and approached the press, sparking the first investigation.
1/2 Many people are, quite understandably, asking why I’ve waited till now to come forward with the truth about how the @BBCPanorama with my sister came about. While I knew that Martin Bashir used fake bank statements and other dishonesty to get my sister to do the interview,...
— Charles Spencer (@cspencer1508) November 8, 2020
2/2 ... what I only found out 2 weeks ago, thanks to journalist Andy Webb’s persistent use of the Freedom of Information Act, is that the BBC also knew. Not only knew about it, but that they covered it up.
— Charles Spencer (@cspencer1508) November 8, 2020
Why now though?
Wiessler’s claims, coupled with the revelation that the BBC did investigate and find that bank statements were falsified has led to public outcry and demands from both Weissler and Earl Spencer for an investigation and an apology.
Since 1995, Martin Bashir has had a successful career in journalism. He is currently the BBC’s religion editor, though he is at the moment seriously ill with COVID-19 and unable to defend his actions. Wiessler, meanwhile, was iced out of the BBC, eventually leaving the business altogether. He now works for a bicycle design company in Devon. He has said he felt like a scapegoat and was only made aware of his BBC ban by this new documentary.
The BBC has announced it would reinvestigate and apologised to Diana’s family. If you want to find out more about Princess Diana before sitting down to the Netflix version, You're Wrong About has an excellent five-part podcast series that looks at her life.
Featured imagery via Youtube
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