This was when Bashir finally crumpled, having realised his lie about his now infamous forged bank statements ‘was no longer sustainable’.
But in a decision that would have far-reaching – in some cases, devastating – consequences, BBC management looked the other way and mounted a cover-up that would take a quarter of a century to unravel.
The decision by the BBC executives caused a cover-up about the truth behind the Princess Diana interview which lasted 25 years
Doubts about Bashir’s bombshell interview with Princess Diana began to circulate in early 1996. Some weeks later, Mail on Sunday journalist Nick Fielding received a phone call from a source claiming that Bashir, a Panorama reporter, had used deception to gain access to Diana.
Fielding and colleague Jason Lewis made inquiries and amassed much corroborative evidence, later asking searching questions of the BBC which, on the basis of assurances from Bashir, insisted the newspaper was mistaken.
Temporarily, The Mail on Sunday was held at bay, but behind the scenes BBC executives were concerned and repeatedly questioned Panorama’s star reporter.
On three separate occasions in the days leading up to March 23, Bashir categorically denied to his bosses that he had shown forged documents to Earl Spencer or anyone else.
The inquiry led by the former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson, whose report was published last week, details what happened later that day.
He recounts how a BBC press officer ‘spoke directly to the [MoS] Editor who gave a clear account of The Mail on Sunday story. This suggested that the specific allegation was that Earl Spencer had been shown “codded” documents which had persuaded him to recommend to his sister that Mr Bashir should be given an interview.’
Following this conversation, Tim Gardam, then BBC head of weekly programmes, questioned Bashir a fourth time. Finally, the reporter cracked, admitting that he had shown the documents to the Earl.
Mr Gardam was furious, later recalling that it was ‘one of those moments when you just go cold’. He added: ‘I was absolutely staggered that a BBC journalist… could have behaved like this. It would never have occurred to me that a BBC journalist would produce something to deceive someone and then at the same time to lie to his editor and managers.’
Mr Gardam told Bashir that his confession ‘overturned every assurance the BBC had been given and the BBC would have to consider its position’.
One might reasonably think that at this crucial juncture the BBC would have come clean and admitted to The Mail on Sunday that its story – as outlined by the Editor to the Corporation’s press office – was correct and deserving of a transparent response.
But as history shows, the cover-up often matches or indeed eclipses the misdeed, and so it was with this scandal. A conspiracy was born.
At the time of Bashir’s confession, Mr Gardam was days away from leaving the BBC and wrote a handover note setting out all of the rogue reporter’s lies.
It also records Tony Hall, then director of news, as having agreed with Mr Gardam that since Bashir had ‘misled us and… appeared to have acted unethically and in breach of the guidelines’, the Corporation should conduct a ‘full inquiry’.
But according to Panorama reporter John Ware, whose investigation into the affair was broadcast last week, ‘what transpired could hardly be described as a “full inquiry” and was compounded by misleading statements’.
By now other executives were becoming drawn into the affair. It was decided that Tim Suter, then head of weekly programmes, and communications chief Richard Peel should interview Bashir to obtain a full explanation.
Mr Peel says he cannot remember doing so but Mr Suter, while noting that ‘there were elements of [his account] that were hard to understand’, said he thought Bashir’s explanation was ‘credible’.
In his report, Lord Dyson wrote: ‘Mr Suter explained to me that he and Lord Hall based their conclusion that Mr Bashir’s dealings with Princess Diana were “absolutely straight and fair” on the basis that, among other things, she had not been shown the documents and the wholly false assumption that the information contained in them came from Diana herself.’
Rejecting this, the judge added: ‘They reached this conclusion by relying in large part on the uncorroborated assertions of Mr Bashir when they knew that he had lied about something that was highly material to the propriety of the methods used by him to secure the interview.
‘This error was compounded by their failure to approach Earl Spencer and take into account what he had to say. They should have approached Earl Spencer once they knew that Mr Bashir had shown the documents to him. The fact that Mr Bashir had previously lied in saying that he had not shown them to him should have set alarm bells ringing in their ears.’
The Mail on Sunday initially withheld publication, but on April 7, 1996, ran a front-page story by Fielding and Lewis under the headline: ‘Diana’s BBC man and fake bank statements’.
Given what has now come to light about what the BBC knew at this time, the statement issued to the newspaper was extraordinary. Approved by both Lord Hall and Steve Hewlett, the then editor of Panorama, it said the documents were ‘never connected in any way to the Panorama interview with Princess Diana’.
Yet both Mr Hall and Mr Hewlett knew Bashir had admitted showing the statements to Earl Spencer. In a written statement, Bashir had admitted showing the documents to Diana’s brother in order to ‘foster’ his relationship with him.
Fielding learned the truth only when it was revealed to him by Ware during last week’s Panorama special on the cover-up.
‘I am genuinely shocked to hear that,’ he told Ware on camera. ‘If they had answered in the affirmative, that they [the documents] had been shown to Earl Spencer at that time, it would have changed the shape of the story and we would have persevered with the story.’
Noting that Fielding described the BBC’s statement as ‘a perfect essay on evading the point and denying the truth’, Lord Dyson said: ‘I think this is a fair description.’
Reflecting on it now, Fielding said: ‘It is shocking that a news organisation like that should consciously make a decision to lie.’
Lord Dyson found Bashir to be ‘devious’ and ‘dishonest’ and said the way the BBC handled its public statements ‘fell short of its high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark’.
After our story broke, rival newspapers were briefed that jealous colleagues of Bashir were behind it. ‘The Diana story is now dead, unless Spencer talks,’ wrote Anne Sloman – who had taken over from Mr Gardam on a temporary basis and was involved in the bungled investigation into Bashir’s conduct – in an internal BBC management document a fortnight later.
Now retired, she remains as evasive today as she was back then. Answering the door of their Norfolk home yesterday, her husband said: ‘She does not want to say anything.’
Mr Peel was equally reluctant to speak. ‘Everything I have to say I’ve already said in the Dyson report,’ he said.
The cover-up didn’t end in 1996. Years later the BBC was still carefully preserving its story that Bashir had done nothing wrong.
In September 2014, The Mail on Sunday’s Arts Correspondent Chris Hastings submitted a Freedom of Information request asking the BBC to disclose all documentation which in ‘any way relates’ to the 1995 Panorama interview with Diana.
The response was 15 pages of anodyne documents which included congratulatory internal emails and some advice given to press officers on how they should handle inquiries about the programme.
In one internal memo, Will Wyatt, the then managing director of BBC Television, told Tony Hall, who would later become BBC director-general, that the interview was ‘an extraordinary coup’ which had given ‘a great fillip to everyone’. Appallingly, given what the world now knows, Mr Wyatt added that the interview ‘was conducted just as one would have hoped’.
Another document recognised that Bashir would not have ‘been an obvious front-runner for the job’ but had won it ‘through his journalistic integrity.’
There was nothing in the papers released that related to Lord Hall’s flawed investigation into Bashir. The BBC later claimed this was the only information it held about the interview. This was not true.
Meanwhile, film-maker Andy Webb was coming up against similar resistance.
He spent years investigating the truth behind the Panorama interview and first submitted Freedom of Information requests to the BBC in 2007, asking for details of the internal inquiry into the matter, only to be told there were no documents on file.
Last year, as he was planning a Channel 4 documentary on the subject, he submitted the request again. A file of 67 documents arrived in October, just two days before the programme was due to air. While he said it was ‘wonderful’ to have them, it was ‘followed by extreme annoyance’ because it was far too late to include them in his programme.
Similar annoyance – and then rage – was experienced by Earl Spencer who, aware of the new documents, decided to go public with Bashir’s web of deceit.
Resignations, recriminations and apologies are now flying, but Fielding believes there is one glaring omission.
‘I think the BBC owes The Mail on Sunday an apology,’ he said.