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The investigation, launched last year following pressure from the family of the late princess, found that Bashir used fake documents to gain Diana’s trust and convince her to speak to him.
The interview, for the BBC’s Panorama program, in which Diana spoke frankly about the problems in her marriage to Charles, the Prince of Wales, was a global media sensation. Tens of millions of viewers tuned in to watch Diana make her infamous declaration that there were “three of us in this marriage,” in reference to Prince Charles’ longtime mistress, now wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
The interview made Bashir’s career. He went on to conduct a fly-on-the-wall documentary, “Living with Michael Jackson,” for commercial network ITV in 2003 that was also broadcast by ABC the United States, featuring Jackson and a young boy who would later accuse him of molestation (Jackson was acquitted in a subsequent criminal trial). Bashir was also correspondent for MSNBC and a co-anchor for ABC’s Nightline, replacing Ted Koppel. Bashir resigned from MSNBC in 2013 over “ill-judged” comments about the former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Criticizing Palin for her statements comparing American debt to slavery, Bashir said she deserved the same kind of humiliating and degrading treatment that some slaves faced. In 2016, Bashir returned to the BBC as religious affairs correspondent. He resigned from the BBC last week on health grounds after a quadruple heart bypass operation and COVID-related complications.
Interest in how Bashir secured the Diana interview was prompted by 25th-anniversary coverage of the broadcast last year, including ITV and Channel 4 documentaries that highlighted the fake documents used to help secure Diana’s participation. Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, commissioned an independent investigation into how the journalist persuaded the royal to be interviewed.
Matt Wiessler, a graphic designer who worked on BBC programs at the time, has said Bashir called him in 1995 and asked him to mock up some fake bank statements that claimed to show the media were paying associates of Diana’s family for information. Bashir allegedly used these fake documents to win the trust of Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, and secure the TV interview.
The forged statements allegedly showed that two senior courtiers were being paid by security services for information on Diana. The BBC has said it holds a handwritten note from Diana stating that the documents played “no part in her decision to take part in the interview.”
The BBC launched an internal investigation in 1996. Wiessler was banned from working for the BBC, but then-BBC News chief Tony Hall concluded that while Bashir “wasn’t thinking” when he commissioned the documents, the journalist was ultimately an “honest and honorable man.”
The independent inquiry found otherwise. Retired Supreme Court Judge Lord Dyson, who conducted the report, said Bashir’s use of fake documents to secure the Diana interview “was in serious breach of the 1993 edition of the BBC’s Producer Guidelines on straight dealing.” Dyson was also critical of Hall’s role and that of BBC executives Tim Suter (managing director of weekly programs in BBC News and Current Affairs) and Richard Peel (head of communications and information) in the affair.
Their exoneration of Bashir, he writes, “was not justified, even on an interim basis. It was based in large part on the uncorroborated assertions of Mr. Bashir.”
Dyson said the initial investigation conducted by Hall and Anne Sloman was “woefully ineffective” because they failed to interview Earl Spencer and did not scrutinize Bashir’s false account.
“In the light of his serious and unexplained lies, Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded, as he did, that Mr. Bashir was an honest and honourable man,” Dyson writes. “Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark by covering up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr. Bashir secured the interview and failing to mention Mr. Bashir’s activities or the BBC investigations of them on any news programme.”
Dyson exonerated Wiessler, calling him “an entirely reputable graphic designer who did freelance work for the BBC. Nobody has criticized him for accepting the commission [to produce the faked documents].”
Dyson also corroborated Princess Diana’s handwritten note, saying he was “satisfied that the Diana note is a genuine document.”
In response to the report’s findings, the BBC publicly apologized.
“Although the report states that Diana, Princess of Wales, was keen on the idea of an interview with the BBC, it is clear that the process for securing the interview fell far short of what audiences have a right to expect. We are very sorry for this,” said Davie.
The BBC also said that it will return a BAFTA award it won in 1996 for the explosive Panorama interview.
In a statement on Thursday, Prince William stated that the “deceitful way the interview was obtained substantially influenced what my mother said.” He continued, “The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others,” he said. “It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.”
Prince Harry, known to take a hard stance on tabloid journalism, stated Thursday that “the ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life.”
“Our mother was an incredible woman who dedicated her life to service. She was resilient, brave, and unquestionably honest,” the statement continues. “To those who have taken some form of accountability, thank you for owning it. That is the first step towards justice and truth. Yet what deeply concerns me is that practices like these — and even worse — are still widespread today. Then, and now, it’s bigger than one outlet, one network, or one publication. Our mother lost her life because of this, and nothing has changed. By protecting her legacy, we protect everyone, and uphold the dignity with which she lived her life. Let’s remember who she was and what she stood for.”
The six-month independent inquiry was commissioned by the BBC at a cost of $2 million (1.4 million pounds).
“While today’s BBC has significantly better processes and procedures, those that existed at the time should have prevented the interview being secured in this way. 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,” Davie added.
In a statement, the BBC said the British public broadcaster today “is a very different organization” than it was in 1995, highlighting tougher editorial standards including “mandatory rules around the handling of sensitive information, comprehensive training programs for all editorial staff and a ‘red flag’ process to engage senior editorial leaders in potentially controversial programs.”
The BBC says it has also since introduced a whistleblowing scheme and overhauled its complaints processes and helped introduce a new governance system with “clearer responsibilities around editorial accountability as well as external regulation from the industry regulator, Ofcom.”
You can read Dyson’s report in full here.
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