Princess Diana, the Panorama interview, and duty of care

This isn’t your run of the mill royal story. It involves about a dozen different things that don’t lend themselves to clickbait-y headlines. Things like mental health, anxiety, paranoia, spying, secret pay logs, duty of care, and crappy family members. I’m going to give you the boiled down version as much as I can, but this is a complicated story and I don’t think anyone has 100% of the nuance or answers.

The Background

In November of 1995, Princess Diana had been separated from Prince Charles for almost three years. Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story, had been released in 1992 and caused a worldwide scandal. All signs pointed to Diana having provided information for Morton’s book. In December of 1992, Charles and Diana announced their separation, and they had been living largely separate lives since then. In 1994, Charles admitted on camera to having cheated on Diana, presumably with Camilla Parker-Bowles. It was an incredible mess.

Cut to the fall of 1995. Martin Bashir, a journalist at one of BBC’s flagship news programs, Panorama, convinced Princess Diana to give him an interview for the program. The interview would be conducted totally in secret, inside Kensington Palace. Even KP staff didn’t know that it was happening. Diana only told the royal family that it was happening after it had been taped. A massive number of people in the UK (around 23 million) watched this interview live. In it, Diana expressed desperation, sadness, and frustration with the royal family. She told Bashir that she didn’t believe she would ever be queen because she didn’t think the high-ups in the royal family would ever allow it. She admitted to infidelity while married with Charles, but accused him of having had a deep, years-long affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, which presumably was much worse than the occasional fling.

Basically, she lit a match and walked away in slow motion.

Shortly after the interview, Queen Elizabeth put her foot down. It was time for Charles and Diana to divorce, period. They filed for divorce and it was settled in 1996. Diana was stripped of her style, Her Royal Highness, but remained Princess of Wales until her death in August 1997.

Still with me? Great. Now here’s where it gets more complicated.


A question you might ask Diana, if she was still alive, is: Why did you decide to give the interview to the BBC and Martin Bashir?

Princess Diana was arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time of the interview, in 1995. Dozens of outlets were gunning to be the place where Diana finally spoke her true feelings to the world. So it’s a reasonable question. What did Martin Bashir offer Diana that no one else could?

Well, the short answer is that he offered doctored documents “showing” that Diana was being spied on and that the people spying on her were being paid for it. Bashir knew that Diana was in a precarious mental state and that she was paranoid that she was being watched, that her phones were being listened to, the whole bit. And she had reason to feel this way: As the News of the World phone hacking scandal demonstrated in the 2000s and 2010s, members of the royal family were routinely having their phones hacked and listened to for the purpose of tabloid stories. So Diana was afraid of tabloid interference, but she was also concerned that she was being listened to and watched by members of groups employed by the royal family – Kensington and Buckingham Palace staff, members of the secret service, bodyguards, policemen, etc. Diana had written a letter once saying that she believed she would be killed in a car accident and that her brakes would be cut. She was paranoid and she was worried.

We can talk til the cows come home about how concerned Diana was for her safety and privacy. She’s not around to ask, so that will be a subject of debate forever. We can also talk about how valid her concerns were. Certainly she had some justification to feel scared about her privacy. But was she going way over the top by saying that the BRF was keeping tabs on her? Again, we can’t ask her, so we will never know either how paranoid she was or how likely she thought the BRF spying on her actually was. And we also don’t know what her mental health was like at the time.

All of this came to a head in 1995 when Martin Bashir started communicating with Diana. He told her that her concerns were justified, and that he even had PROOF that the BRF was spying on her and leaking the information back to the family and the media. Bashir produced bank logs of two of Diana’s Kensington Palace staff with large payments from the British security services. This, he said, was proof of the BRF spying on Diana. Why should she protect them, he asked? It would be best for her to tell her own side of the story on the BBC. And she did.

All ‘s well that ends well. Diana gets to say her peace, and Bashir gets the interview of a lifetime. This interview propels him to national and international fame and secures him jobs and high profile interviews for decades.

One problem, though: Bashir had gotten a BBC graphic designer to create the bank records. They were fake.

The Brother

So you might be wondering why we’re talking about this now, in 2020. The answers are: 1) it’s the 25th anniversary of the interview taking place and therefore easy stories that tabloids can run for a few months; and 2) Earl Spencer, Diana’s doofus of a brother, is stirring up shit about it.

I’m not a fan of Charles Spencer. (I’ve talked about this before, it’s confusing but he is referred to as Earl Spencer because he holds the title of Earl, but his first name is Charles. I’m going to call him Charles from here on out.) He appears to want to be Diana’s loving, supportive brother only when cameras or money are around. The truth is that he was kind of a jerk to her. When Diana was really struggling after her divorce, she asked her brother if she could move into a guest house on the Althorp estate, the ancestral home of the Spencer family.

She explained to her brother that she was being hounded everywhere she went, and thought that living back at home, outside of London and behind a gate, with her family, would give her a sense of peace and privacy. Charles said no. He told her that she would bring the chaos with her, even if she was in a guest house, and that the estate would become overrun with helicopters flying overhead and cameras at the gates. She could find somewhere else to go.

Shortly after this, Diana hopped on a jet to go on summer holiday with the al Fayeds. The family owned Harrod’s department store at the time and had a security staff who could protect her. Had Charles offered Diana a guest house at Althorp, would she have even been on the al Fayeds’ yacht in the summer of 1997? Would she have gone to Paris with Dodi? Would she have been in the tunnel when the car crashed? I don’t know. But Charles has made a tidy sum of money and gained worldwide attention from saying that if only someone had protected Diana, she would still be alive today. He seems to not understand that he is calling himself out when he says this.

So, in typical Charles Spencer fashion, he is talking to anyone who will listen about how Marin Bashir led Diana down the rabbit hole with false conspiracies and forged documents. How could anyone do that to her, Charles asks. How could anyone be so cruel to his sister, all for a paycheque and a bit of fame? (Cough, pot, kettle). So Charles keeps tweeting and speaking about the injustice of it all.

By the way, did you know that just as this was stirred up, Charles Spencer published a book? No? Coincidence, surely!

Investigations and inquiries

Spurred on by Charles Spencer’s calls for an inquiry into what Martin Bashir said or did to Diana to make her give the Oanorama interview, the BBC announced that it would complete an independent investigation into what happened. The BBC has said that it will be fully independent and not biased in favour of Bashir or the BBC. Prince William has said that he welcomes the review. “Sources close to Harry” say the same. Martin Bashir has been unable to comment as he has been desperately sick with coronavirus for weeks. Too sick to speak. Here is a picture of Martin Bashir a couple of weeks ago picking up a curry takeaway around the corner from his flat in London. Too sick to speak but not sick enough to not grab a curry takeaway. Got it.

There are some questions that need to be answered, and I’m not sure that some of them ever will be answered. I can help out with these few, though:

  • Is Martin Bashir a jackass? Yes
  • Is Charles Spencer a jackass? Yes
  • Were both men awful to Diana in their own ways? Yes
  • Did both men use Diana to their own benefit regardless of her mental or physical health and wellbeing? Yes
  • Did either of these men demonstrate any level of duty of care to a person they knew was scared, paranoid, anxious, and suffering from depression? No.

We will never know the exact level of responsibility that Martin Bashir and the BBC had to Diana given her unknown mental state and emotions at the time. We will also never truly know if Bashir said something that we are unaware of, something that shook Diana to her core and compelled her to talk. He’s certainly not going to own up to it now. But I think it can be reasonably said that Bashir and the BBC were in the wrong, demonstrated gross journalistic malpractice, and need to apologize and make amends for it. That’s the bare minimum.

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