How did Martin Bashir trick Princess Diana into giving an interview?
Lord Dyson is excoriating in his assessment of Bashir. While the duplicity Bashir used to get his sensational interview with Diana is severely criticised as a “serious breach” of BBC guidelines, his credibility as a witness to internal BBC inquiries and to Dyson himself is also repeatedly questioned as his lies are exposed.
Dyson found that Bashir commissioned phoney bank transactions by a graphic designer who worked for the BBC. They purported to show payments from News International into the account of Alan Waller, a former security guard for Earl Spencer, to induce Spencer to arrange a meeting with his sister, Diana.
Bashir played on Spencer’s fears that Waller was selling secrets to the press. In August he offered to help Spencer track down Waller and showed him fake bank statements to gain his trust.
According to Spencer’s account, accepted by Dyson, the bank statements were used “to groom me, so that [Bashir] could then get to Diana for the interview he was always secretly after”.
Spencer told Dyson: “It hooked me in. I was duped … He very cleverly came to me on my number one bugbear: the bad behaviour of the press, which is of course ironic.”
Bashir also bluffed Spencer, claiming that Diana could vouch for his story that Waller was being paid for stories. He claimed he had developed a “close relationship” with Diana in the summer of 1995 and that she had told him that Waller was one of Spencer’s “pet hates”. Bashir even said that Diana had given him detailed accounts of the payments involved. Dyson dismissed Bashir’s claim of a previous friendship with Diana “incredible” and “unreliable”.
He said: “I do not accept that Mr Bashir and Princess Diana had met and formed any kind of relationship before Mr Bashir showed the fake Waller statements to Earl Spencer.”
At a meeting with Spencer at his Althorp estate on 14 September, Bashir also showed him fake statements that he had forged himself, suggesting Prince Charles’s private secretary, Commander Aylard, was being paid by “dark forces” hostile to Diana.
Bashir denied this, but Dyson did not believe his account. He accepted Spencer’s version of events and that the phoney Aylard payments were “the absolute clincher” in Bashir being introduced to Diana.
Bashir met Diana for the first time on 19 September, with Spencer, Dyson concludes. “Mr Bashir had established no kind of relationship with Princess Diana before” this meeting, Dyson found. He added: “Mr Bashir invented the idea that he and Princess Diana had already established a relationship before he showed the fake Waller statements in order to prove that … he did not intend to use Earl Spencer to secure an interview.”
Earl Spencer’s records also noted that Bashir claimed at the meeting that Diana was being watched by MI6 and that there was a plot to kill her, as well as making a number of lurid allegations about members of the royal family. Dyson concluded that Bashir was trying to exploit Diana’s vulnerability and her “paranoid fears”. “He must have been intending to play on her fears in order to arouse her interest in him,” Dyson found.
However, Dyson also concluded that regardless of Bashir’s deceptive tactics, Diana was by that time “keen on the idea of a television interview” with “any experienced and reputable reporter”.
The BBC has a handwritten note from Diana stating that the documents played “no part in her decision to take part in the interview”.
In a statement, Bashir said: “I re-iterate that the bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview.”
Criticism of Tony Hall
Dyson’s report provides uncomfortable reading for Lord Hall, the former director general of the BBC who is now chair of the National Gallery.
Hall, who was head of news and current affairs at the time of the interview, initially praised Bashir for the interview. “You should be very proud of your scoop,” he told him in a note.
When doubts emerged about how the interview was secured, Hall presided over an internal review in 1996 that exonerated Bashir of wrongdoing. Its conclusion that Bashir’s dealings with Diana were “absolutely straight and fair” were “not justified”, Dyson found.
The review, by Hall and Ann Sloman, the head of weekly news shows, was “based in large part on the uncorroborated assertions of Mr Bashir. This error was compounded by their failure to approach Earl Spencer once they knew that Mr Bashir had shown the Waller statements to him.”
Dyson said that when Bashir admitting lying over the bank statements, this “should have set alarm bells ringing in their ears”.
Hall was also found to be guarded and misleading in answers to questions from the media about how the interview was secured. He also misled the BBC’s board by claiming that “the opportunity of interviewing the princess arose”. Dyson said this account “gave no hint” of the controversial way Bashir had secured the interview.
Responding to the report, Hall, who left the BBC last summer, said he accepted his inquiry “fell well short of what was required” and that he was “wrong to give Martin Bashir the benefit of the doubt”.
Was there a cover-up at the BBC?
While scathing of the deception deployed by Martin Bashir, the clear finding by Lord Dyson that the BBC then engaged in a cover-up is likely to be the source of even greater damage to the broadcaster’s reputation for integrity.
“I am satisfied that the BBC covered up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview,” he concludes in a particularly damning section entitled “Was there a cover-up?”.
Since other media outlets reported on it, there was “no good reason” why any of the BBC’s news programmes failed to mention the growing controversy surrounding how Bashir had secured the Diana interview, writes Dyson.
Looking back at the way in which the BBC handled queries from newspapers about the Bashir interview, the peer went on to say that he was not persuaded by the attempts made during his own investigation to justify what he described as “evasive responses” that were given to the press.
So who was responsible for the cover-up? On the basis of the evidence he had gathered, Dyson said he was unable to make a finding as to who was responsible for deciding that the story should not be covered, or for issuing an “official line” to editors.
“It must have been someone from senior management, but I can’t say who it was,” Dyson added.
Nevertheless, he went on to rule out Steve Hewlett, who edited Bashir’s Panorama interview and who died in 2017, because “his writ did not run beyond the programme”.
At the end of what he described as a “thorough and fair investigation”, Dyson comes to the conclusion that Martin Bashir mocked up fake bank statements and showed them to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, to gain access to the princess.
By doing so, the veteran journalist “acted inappropriately” and engaged in a “serious breach” of BBC rules as set down in the 1993 edition of its producers’ guidelines on straight dealing.
Other conclusions related to BBC investigations conducted by Tim Gardam, the former head of weekly programmes, and Tim Suter, the managing editor of current affairs, in December 1995; by Suter in March 1996; and by Hall and Sloman in April 1996.
While the Peer did not criticise Gardam and Suter for not seeking to obtain Earl Spencer’s version of events, he considered “that they too readily accepted that Mr Bashir was telling the truth about the fake documents”.
When Bashir was interviewed on 28 March 1996, he went on, the BBC had the additional knowledge that the journalist had shown the bank statements to Earl Spencer and that he had previously lied about this.
As for the investigation conducted by Lord Hall and Sloman, he concluded that it was “flawed and woefully ineffective”.
There were two flaws in particular. First, it was a serious error not to ask Earl Spencer for his version of events and find out what he had to say about the fake statements and what influence they had on him. Secondly, they did not scrutinise Bashir’s account with the necessary degree of scepticism.
Damningly, Dyson’s final conclusion dealt with the question of whether the BBC had covered up the investigations into how Bashir secured the interview and the propriety of the methods that he employed.
“By failing to mention on any news programme the fact that it had investigated what Mr Bashir had done and the outcome of the investigations, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” he found.
• This article was amended on 21 May 2021. An earlier version used the word coruscating when excoriating was intended.