RICHARD KAY recalls the scoop that triggered BBC inquiry
As we sat in the library at Althorp, I couldn’t believe what I was shown: RICHARD KAY recalls the scoop that triggered BBC inquiry
Earl Spencer’s invitation for me to meet him last November came almost 25 years to the day after his sister had opened the doors at Kensington Palace to admit BBC reporter Martin Bashir and the Panorama camera crew.
There, in Princess Diana’s first floor sitting room, they had set up their equipment to record what the corporation would later boast was ‘the interview of the decade… or of the generation’.
So the timing of my visit to Althorp, the Spencer family home, that warm autumn day was highly significant.
And when, some five hours later, I left the magnificent house in the Northamptonshire countryside where Spencer and Diana grew up, I had the most extraordinary first-hand account of the falsehoods, trickery and outright lies Bashir had employed to entrap the princess into giving that interview.
In its way it was every bit as devastating as her appearance on Panorama all those years ago.
Earl Spencer’s (pictured) invitation for me to meet him last November came almost 25 years to the day after his sister had opened the doors at Kensington Palace to admit BBC reporter Martin Bashir and the Panorama camera crew
Some five hours later, I left the magnificent house in the Northamptonshire countryside, I had the most extraordinary first-hand account of the falsehoods, trickery and outright lies Bashir had employed to entrap the princess into giving that interview
In the still of the ground floor saloon, hung with the rich tapestries and portraits of his ancestors, Charles Spencer sat on a silken sofa alongside his wife Karen. In front of them rested a bulging file.
Inside were 37 pages of notes, letters, and memorandums that Spencer, a meticulous reporter and historian himself, had carefully assembled.
Dusty and fading they may have been, but the words were as clear that day as they had been when they were written more than a quarter of a century earlier.
These then were the Althorp Papers, the documents that would seal Martin Bashir’s fate and cast a long shadow over the journalistic reputation of the BBC.
November 3, 2020: As the 25th anniversary of Princess Diana’s watershed Panorama interview approaches, Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, accuses Martin Bashir of ‘yellow journalism’. He reveals the presenter used faked bank statements to help secure the interview
Their publication in the Daily Mail three days later was to be the trigger that forced the BBC to examine not only Bashir but its own conduct. Until then the corporation had resisted all calls to re-examine the Panorama saga.
The dossier we presented has meant the BBC facing up to the biggest scandal in its 99-year history.
The details collated by Spencer from his encounters with Bashir were incredible: from outlandish gossip about members of the Royal Family to outrageous claims that bordered on allegations of criminality by courtiers.
And through it all was one common thread that fed Diana’s suspicions that she could trust no one – staff, servants, even friends, all were all betraying her.
Everywhere she went, Bashir told her, she was being followed; her telephones were bugged, so too was her car and her conversations were being eavesdropped on.
It was as mendacious a trap as it was sophisticated – and Diana fell into it completely.
When the Mail reported Spencer’s explosive claims on November 7 last year – backed by a forensic investigation – the BBC’s trenchant and long-standing defence of Bashir and the tactics he employed to secure his royal interview began to unravel.
November 4, 2020: The story gathers pace as the BBC is forced into confirming it will hold a fresh inquiry into Earl Spencer’s claims about the forged bank statements. There was an internal investigation in 1996 but it failed to ask the earl for his input
Unable to any longer fend off claims that Bashir had not used underhand tactics, just 11 days later the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie called in the distinguished judge, Lord Dyson, a former Master of the Rolls, to investigate.
Senior BBC figures last night conceded that it was this newspaper’s expose that had been the trigger.
As a close friend of Diana’s I’d had a privileged ringside seat from the moment of her separation in 1992 until her death in Paris almost five years later. We had become friends thanks to the many years I have spent as this paper’s royal writer.
Even so, the interview for Panorama that she secretly recorded with Bashir in which she told him ‘there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’, a reference to her estranged husband’s affair with Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, was jaw-dropping.
Other phrases she uttered that night watched by 23million viewers are equally unforgettable.
Her wish to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’, the admission of adultery with Cavalry officer James Hewitt – ‘Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him’ – and her veiled third-person warning about her own future: ‘She won’t go quietly.’
November 7, 2020: The Mail’s Richard Kay reveals the 32 jaw-dropping smears peddled by Bashir to clinch his sensational Diana scoop. His preposterous lies included lurid claims about the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince Edward, and senior royal courtiers
No public figure in living memory has enthralled the nation as much as Princess Diana.
But her decision to conceal her collaboration with Bashir – news of the programme was released nine days after it had been recorded – was met with almost universal criticism. She was accused of being underhand.
Yet what Charles Spencer set out for me that day at Althorp shows that for all the accusations of deception levelled at Diana, she was just as much a victim of Bashir’s deceit.
His decision to go public after a quarter of century was part frustration at the BBC’s refusal to engage with the evidence he had amassed about Bashir’s ‘journalism’ and part fury at the mealy-mouthed apology he’d received in October 2020 from Tim Davie over Bashir’s use of fake bank statements in obtaining the interview.
This was something the BBC had denied for close on a quarter of century – until a Freedom of Information request proved otherwise.
Despite this, it seemed clear to Spencer that the BBC management was doggedly sticking to its old script; Bashir was, in the view of Davie’s predecessor Lord Hall, ‘an honest and honourable man’.
November 9, 2020: Royal aides and others smeared by Bashir to get his Diana scoop may sue for ‘serious damages’, it emerges. Legal experts say the BBC could even face a Scotland Yard inquiry over the forgeries and lies used by the Panorama reporter
It was Tony Hall – then head of news and current affairs – who oversaw the 1996 internal investigation after allegations of the reporter’s methods first emerged.
His report concluded ‘there had been no question of Bashir trying to mislead or do anything improper with the document’ – a reference to the faked statements drawn up by a graphic designer on Bashir’s instructions.
Spencer calls Hall’s report ‘a whitewash’ and says he never asked to hear his side of the story, even though the Earl’s role was pivotal in the whole saga.
Without Spencer facilitating the introduction to his sister, Martin Bashir would have been just another of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of journalists longing to interview the most famous woman on the planet.
We sat in the library, the same room where Bashir had first come to Spencer in August 1995 claiming that he was looking into ‘press behaviour’ and wanted to ‘share’ some information with him.
November 19, 2020: William dramatically intervenes, hailing Lord Dyson’s appointment to lead a BBC inquiry into the affair as ‘a step in the right direction’. He says: ‘It should help establish the truth behind the actions that led to the Panorama interview’
A former journalist and a meticulous note-taker, Spencer has kept a bulky manila file of every contact he had with Bashir, from notes taken by his secretary of telephone calls from the reporter to faxes, letters and even a thank you card he had sent.
But most important were the eight pages torn from a spiral-bound notebook on which Spencer had written ‘Martin: 19/9/95. At Samantha’s flat.’
This was the date on which the earl had arranged to introduce Bashir to his sister. The three met at the flat of a friend of Spencer’s in Knightsbridge.
By then Bashir had already seen Spencer on two previous occasions and it was at the last of these that he had shown him what appeared to be a bank statement.
This statement was crucial in persuading Spencer that Bashir and Diana should meet.
It purported to show that two senior royal aides, Patrick Jephson, the princess’s private secretary, and Commander Richard Aylard, who held the same position in Prince Charles’s office, had a Channel Islands bank account in to which they had received money, apparently from the security services.
March 29, 2021: The Mail reveals Diana was allegedly tricked into the interview after Bashir showed her a fake abortion ‘receipt’ for nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke. Diana was said to be obsessed with a bizarre idea that Charles wanted her killed so he could marry Tiggy
He recalled how Bashir held this document tightly and waved it around. He told me that it struck him as odd that Bashir never gave him a clear look at it. ‘The awkwardness of how he was holding it stuck in my mind,’ Spencer said.
That and other claims Spencer said Bashir made were astonishing and he showed me the contemporaneous note in which the most explosive of allegations were bandied about; from the fantastically bizarre (that the then 15-year-old Prince William had been given a watch with a listening device so his mother could be secretly recorded) to the tasteless (about Prince Edward being treated for Aids).
All of these were a tissue of lies. Lord Dyson’s report concludes that Bashir used ‘deceitful behaviour’ to secure his Panorama interview and that he had ‘deceived and induced’ Lord Spencer to make contact with his sister.
For the BBC, the findings are damning over its failure to properly question Bashir when doubts first emerged – and for Charles Spencer, a vindication of what he has described as the ‘sheer dishonesty’ of the BBC for failing to ‘seek the truth from me’.
In finally uncovering that truth, I am proud to have played my part.
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