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The Power and Paranoia of the BBC’s Princess Diana Interview

On the evening of November 20, 1995, the BBC broadcast a fifty-five-minute interview with Diana, the Princess of Wales, on “Panorama,” its flagship investigative-news program. The show had been made in great secrecy. Only a handful of people at the BBC knew of its existence. The chairman of the broadcaster, Marmaduke Hussey, had been kept in the dark because his wife was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC 1, the channel that ran the interview, says he was not told because he was a terrible gossip. The royal household, including Diana’s advisers, had been similarly excluded. The interview had been filmed on the evening of Sunday, November 5th, which was Guy Fawkes Night in England. Diana gave her staff the night off. When a minimal BBC film crew, led by Martin Bashir, a thirty-two-year-old “Panorama” reporter, arrived at Kensington Palace to record the interview, the Princess opened the door herself.

I was fifteen years old at the time, a pupil at a boarding school in Kent. I lived in a dormitory with sixty other boys and one television. Every evening, after homework, the TV was reliably tuned to sports, a violent film, or some comedy. The night of the broadcast, we watched Diana. The room was dark, quiet, and full. If you grew up in Britain in the eighties, Diana was a continual, shimmering presence: old enough to be our mother but occupying a completely separate realm. Everything about her was tinged with melodrama, necessarily, but Diana was also as familiar as the weather. Beyond a blushing sentence or two, though, we had barely heard her speak. She was as silent as she was everywhere. My main memory of the BBC interview remains Diana’s voice: deeper than I expected, more deliberate, more knowing.

Twenty-three million people in Britain watched the program. When it finished, there was a surge in demand on the National Grid, as the populace sighed and made a collective cup of tea. The interview made news any number of ways. Diana and Prince Charles had separated almost three years earlier, but she said that she did not want a divorce. Under Bashir’s sympathetic but direct questioning, she admitted having an affair with Captain James Hewitt, a cavalry officer. She wasn’t sure that Charles would ever be king. She had some extraordinary lines: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” referring to Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s now wife; “I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts”—which many people who saw the interview can recite, with ease, a quarter of a century later.

When I rewatched the interview, in fragments, on YouTube this week, I was struck by other things. (The BBC, which holds the copyright, has not rebroadcast the program, although a full transcript is available.) Diana speaks about her mental health with a visceral clarity. She describes her bulimia as “like having a pair of arms around you.” She regrets giving the impression that she was stupid. She understands the unrest caused by a charismatic woman who is more interesting than the future king. “I think it’s the strength that causes the confusion and the fear,” she observes. “ ‘Why is she strong? Where does she get it from? Where is she taking it?’ ” Diana describes the emotional constipation of the Royal Family in terms that prefigure Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this year. “Maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful,” she says. “And obviously that was daunting, because if you’ve never seen it before how do you support it?” She speaks constantly of love.

Diana was thirty-four years old. At the time, she was being—to use a term more in use now than then—gaslighted. “It gave everybody a wonderful new label: Diana’s unstable. Diana’s mentally unbalanced,” she says. The interview was filmed on two cameras, by a single cameraman. Most of the footage shows only her, in a black jacket and dark eye makeup, her face tilted slightly from left to right. Occasionally, the view cuts to a shot from behind her chair, which captures Bashir, legs crossed, seemingly calm, notes on his lap. A table next to them is filled with photographs of her sons. Bashir’s prompts were short and leading: “Explain what you mean when you say that”; “How did you cope with that?” For the most part, Diana nods carefully during Bashir’s questions or faintly purses her lips. She gives answers that are so contained as to be possibly rehearsed. She says enough but not more. “There’s no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it,” she says.

On May 20th, an investigation commissioned by the BBC reported that Bashir used “deceitful behavior” in order to meet Diana. The inquiry by Lord Dyson, a former British Supreme Court judge, found that Bashir asked a graphic artist to make fake bank statements, which he showed to Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother. The statements purported to show payments to a former employee of Spencer’s from News International, the British newspaper wing of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and from a mysterious company in the Channel Islands. According to Dyson, Bashir then showed Spencer a second set of false bank statements, portraying similar payments to Diana’s and Charles’s private secretaries. Spencer informed his sister. “She was absolutely intrigued, and wanted to learn more as quickly as possible,” he told Dyson. “She had felt spied on for a while and what I told her seemed to fit with her general fears.” At 4 P.M. on September 19, 1995, Spencer introduced Diana to Bashir at a friend’s apartment in Knightsbridge. They shot the interview six and a half weeks later.

The suspicion that Diana was duped or pressured into giving the interview has been around for a long time. Bashir was by no means a BBC star; he wasn’t even a staff reporter. On December 22, 1995, Diana wrote a note to the broadcaster attesting that she acted freely. “Martin Bashir did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not already aware of,” she wrote. “I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure + have no regrets.”

In the spring of 1996, however, Bashir admitted to an internal BBC inquiry that he had shown the fake bank statements to Spencer in the early stages of his reporting. He was let off with a reprimand. The story went away. Bashir left the BBC for ITV, its main commercial rival. In 2003, he interviewed Michael Jackson and later worked as an anchor and correspondent for ABC and NBC. He rejoined the BBC, as its religion correspondent, in 2016. Tony Hall, the executive who led the initial inquiry into Bashir’s conduct, became the BBC’s director general. Last November, just before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the interview, Spencer laid out his side of the story to the Daily Mail, which prompted Lord Dyson’s recent investigation. A few days before Dyson presented his report, Bashir resigned from the BBC, for health reasons. On May 22nd, Hall, who left the broadcaster last year, resigned as chairman of Britain’s National Gallery. The current director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, apologized. “It is clear that the process for securing the interview fell far short of what audiences have a right to expect,” he said. The broadcaster has announced a further review of its “editorial policies and governance.”

Bashir’s deception has, for the time being, occluded the contents of the interview itself. Perhaps it always will. Last week, Prince William blamed the program for further damaging his parents’ relationship and his mother’s mental health. “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,” he said. The “Panorama” interview has now joined the docket of other unfeeling media intrusions that worsened Diana’s state of mind and hastened her early death. An incipient version of this narrative existed in 1995. Six minutes after the interview aired, Nicholas Soames, a Conservative government minister and a close friend of Prince Charles’s, told the BBC that he believed Diana to be in “the advanced stages of paranoia,” because she had referred to her phone calls being listened to and letters going astray. A few days before the interview was filmed, her solicitor said, “She was convinced that there was a conspiracy.”



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