BBC boss Tim Davie has apologised to Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer after the broadcaster ‘used fake bank statements to win her trust’ ahead of the famous Panorama interview 25 years ago.
The new director-general of the BBC reportedly wrote to Earl Spencer last week to make the apology but declined to open an investigation into interviewer Martin Bashir’s conduct.
According to the Sunday Times, Spencer told Davie that he has detailed records of all his interactions with Bashir which suggest the journalist used fantastical stories and fake bank statements to secure the interview with Diana.
Nearly 23 million tuned in to witness the Princess of Wales tell Bashir, ‘There were three people in the marriage,’ a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles (pictured: the 1995 Panorama interview)
Nearly 23 million tuned in to witness the Princess of Wales tell Bashir, ‘There were three people in the marriage,’ a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles.
Bashir, then 32, is further accused of preying on the princess’s fears that she was being spied on by MI5 to secure the meeting.
Sources told the Sunday Times that Spencer’s records include ‘the most unbelievable stuff’, such as faxes from Bashir in which he makes ‘wild allegations’ about Prince Charles and proof that Bashir claimed MI6 tapped the princess’s telephone.
In 1996, the BBC carried out an internal review of Bashir’s behaviour which judged that the fake bank statements – forged by a BBC graphics designer – had not helped to gain the interview.
But the fake dossiers showed that a former employee of Spencer’s had been selling information about the family.
Bashir claimed that they had been given to him by a source in the intelligence community, The Sunday Times reported.
Earl Spencer attends an event at the National Portrait Gallery in February 2016
Bashir first contacted the earl, who was protective of his sister, three months before the interview, a source close to the Spencer family told the paper.
The source said Bashir told Spencer that he was looking into media ethics.
Spencer went on to arrange a meeting between himself, his sister and Bashir at a friend’s apartment in London in September 1995.
Spencer, who kept notes of the discussion, warned his sister against dealings with Bashir over the sensational allegations he was making, the source told The Sunday Times.
The family friend described Bashir as ‘awful’ and said that Spencer apologised to Diana afterwards.
The source added that the bank statements were crucial to Bashir’s meeting Diana.
The BBC’s own investigation which concluded on April 13, 1996, said: ‘The BBC has been able, independently, to verify that these documents were put to no use which had any bearing, direct or indirect, on the Panorama interview with the Princess of Wales.’
The review was overseen in part by Tony Hall, then head of news and current affairs, who retired as director-general in August.
Bashir first contacted Spencer’s secretary in August 1995. He then visited the earl’s estate at Althorp, Northamptonshire, at the end of that month where he allegedly made wild accusations about journalists, courtiers and MI5 operatives.
Diana, Princess of Wales, during her interview with Martin Bashir, aired in November 1995
Princess Diana and Prince Charles during a Royal tour of West Germany in November 1987
Friends of Diana’s have described how she was convinced the intelligence services were spying on her.
Bashir’s fake bank documents appear to have been designed to exploit those fears because they showed payments of £10,500 to Alan Waller, Spencer’s former chief of security, from two companies: News International, then parent company of The Sunday Times, and an offshore company, Penfold Consultants.
These payments were never made.
The Mail on Sunday published copies of these fake documents in 1996 after it emerged that Bashir had a BBC graphics designer work around the clock to deliver them to deadline.
It has been claimed that Bashir showed them to Diana, but this has been denied by him and the BBC.
Davie’s apology to Spencer is said to only cover the conduct surrounding the bank statements and does not extend to any other allegations.
Diana believed she should give the interview after Prince Charles’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby the year before, in which he admitted adultery.
Just weeks after Diana’s interview with Bashir, the royal couple started divorce proceedings.
It catapulted Bashir to stardom and he won awards for the spellbinding Panorama special.
But the top brass at the BBC were concerned about how he had gained such access and opened an internal investigation.
In Richard Lindley’s book on the history of Panorama, Hall and Anne Sloman, a senior BBC staffer, summoned Bashir to Broadcasting House.
Sloman is quoted as saying: ‘It was a silly thing to do. It didn’t get him the interview; why he did it, God only knows.’
Journalist Martin Bashir attends the ‘Railway Man’ premiere on April 7, 2014 in New York City
The Prince and Princess of Wales return to Buckingham Palace by carriage after their wedding, 29th July 1981
The BBC said in a statement: ‘Suggesting that mocked-up documents were genuine was wrong then and it’s wrong now; the BBC of today is happy to apologise for this … This would not happen today.
‘The BBC’s records from the time … show the focus of the BBC’s investigations into these events was whether or not the Princess of Wales had been misled.’
A previous statement from the corporation said that accounts from the investigation at the time confirmed the Princess of Wales had not seen the documents and that they played no part in securing the interview.
It added: ‘Martin Bashir is seriously unwell so we are unable to put these questions to him. We would urge you to consider carefully the implications of running a story where the central figure concerned is unable to provide a right of reply.
‘BBC records from the period indicate that Martin had explained to the BBC that the documents had been shown to Earl Spencer, and that they were not shown to the Princess of Wales. They indicate that Martin had met the Princess of Wales before the mocked-up documentation existed.
‘These BBC accounts also say that the Princess of Wales confirmed in writing that these documents played no part in her decision to give what was, and still is, one of the most iconic interviews of the last half of the twentieth century.’