The BBC has been forced to make a humiliating apology after an investigation found that Martin Bashir used deceitful tactics that were later covered up by senior executives to secure his sensational 1995 interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.
The inquiry, conducted by the former supreme court judge John Dyson, was withering of both Bashir and the corporation’s former director general, Tony Hall, who was accused of overseeing a flawed and “woefully ineffective” internal probe into the issue.
Bashir had engaged in “deceitful behaviour” by commissioning fake bank statements to land the interview – a “serious breach” of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, Dyson concluded.
But in his 127-page report, the judge also criticised the conduct of Lord Hall, then head of BBC News, who was aware Bashir had told “serious and unexplained lies” about what he had done to persuade the princess to speak to him.
And when other media began asking questions about how the BBC had secured the world exclusive, Dyson said the corporation “covered up in its press logs” what it knew.
“Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” the report said.
Lord Grade, who was the BBC chairman between 2004 and 2006 – said the BBC’s “cover-up”, had been worse than Bashir’s behaviour. “It’s taken 25 years to get the truth.”
The devastating findings provoked widespread condemnation and prompted a series of apologies from current and former BBC executives – including one from the corporation to the royal family.
The corporation also handed back every award it received for the interview, including a Bafta.
Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, said he “draws a line” between the Panorama interview and her death two years later.
The BBC’s current director general, Tim Davie, said the corporation accepted “in full” the report by Dyson, the former master of the rolls who was appointed to look into the circumstances surrounding the interview.
“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,” said Davie.
“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. While the BBC cannot turn back the clock after a quarter of a century, we can make a full and unconditional apology.”
The 1995 interview made Bashir a star after an audience of almost 23 million tuned in to hear Diana reveal details of her life and make the famous comment that there were “three of us in this marriage”, in reference to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
However, Bashir used fake bank documents to persuade Earl Spencer that the media were paying associates of the family for information – in an attempt to secure a more sensational and revealing interview.
“I apologised then, and I do so again now, over the fact I asked for bank statements to be mocked up,” said Bashir, in a statement. “It was a stupid thing to do and was an action I deeply regret.”
However, Bashir, who quit the BBC last week, insisted Diana would have committed to an interview regardless of the deception – Dyson concluded the princess was “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”.
“I re-iterate that the bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview,” said Bashir.
Hall’s investigation in 1996 concluded Bashir “wasn’t thinking” when he commissioned the graphic but was ultimately an “honest and honourable man”.
However, Dyson said the investigation “covered up” facts about how Bashir had secured the interview and he heavily criticised its conclusion that his dealings with Diana were “absolutely straight and fair”.
“This conclusion was not justified, even on an interim basis,” said Dyson. “The investigation by Lord Hall and Anne Sloman [a former senior executive at BBC News] was flawed and woefully ineffective. In light of [Bashir’s] serious and unexplained lies, Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded, as he did, that Mr Bashir was an honest and honourable man.”
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”.
Lord Birt, director general of the BBC at the time of the interview, branded Bashir a “rogue reporter” and said the findings of the report reveal a “shocking blot” on the BBC’s editorial integrity and reputation.
“We now know that the BBC harboured a rogue reporter on Panorama who fabricated an elaborate, detailed but wholly false account of his dealings with Earl Spencer and Princess Diana,” said Birt, who apologised to those affected by the deception. “This is a shocking blot on the BBC’s enduring commitment to honest journalism.”
Lord Grade said the reported raised legitimate questions about “how many more cover-ups are there in the files of BBC journalism that we haven’t been told about”.
Hall was director general at the BBC when the broadcaster took Bashir on again as religion editor in 2016.
Bashir quit the BBC on health grounds last week the same day Dyson delivered his report to the corporation, after being on sick leave for several months. The 58-year old has had quadruple heart bypass surgery and been seriously unwell with Covid-related complications.
Panorama was preparing to air a 35-minute investigation into the 1995 interview, titled Princess Diana, Martin Bashir and the BBC, on BBC One at 7pm on Thursday. It had been scheduled to air on Monday night.
Mark Stephens, media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, said that the publication of the report could open the door to legal action by those adversely impacted by the deceit.
Ahead of the publication, Earl Spencer, shared a black and white family photograph of himself and Diana as children. He tweeted the image alongside the words: “Some bonds go back a very long way.”
The picture shows the siblings sitting side by side in the summer sun, with a young Charles wearing trunks and Diana appearing to be in a swimsuit.