In 1995, the BBC broadcast one of the most iconic interviews in television history, topped only by the Harry and Meghan Oprah interview this year. In the program, Princess Diana spoke openly with reporter Martin Bashir about her life as a royal and the breakdown of her relationship with Prince Charles,
succinctly described with a single sentence that likely still echoes through the halls of Kensington Palace: “There were three of us in this marriage.”
It was the Bashir interview that solidified the narrative of the royal marriage—Diana was the victim and Charles was little more than a philanderer—but it was also what permanently severed her fraught relationship with the palace. Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, always considered the event and Bashir himself to be exploitative.
But the question of just exactly how the Princess found herself sitting across from Bashir, sharing some of her most intimate secrets with millions, has loomed large over the interview since it first aired. An investigation into how Bashir got close enough to the Spencer family to approach Diana, commissioned by the BBC, alleges that it involves a trail of deceit—specifically a set of forged bank documents which Bashir showed to Diana’s brother, who facilitated an introduction between the two.
The forged documents which made their way to Earl Spencer were meant to illustrate that people were being paid to surveil Diana after she had separated from Prince Charles, but before the two had formally divorced. According to the BBC, an internal investigation was also conducted in 1996, which the network now describes as “woefully ineffective.” In that first investigation, Bashir claimed he had never shown the bank statements to anyone and the BBC cleared Bashir of any wrongdoing, unaware at the time that the documents were forged. Bashir now admits he forged documents and showed them to Earl Spencer to gain his trust. Nonetheless, he stands by the claim that Diana never saw them and that he is “immensely proud” of the interview itself. However, despite his pride in the interview, Bashir left his position with the BBC before the findings of the investigation were published.
Helping Bashir’s case slightly is a handwritten note from Diana herself which reads, “Martin Bashir did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of.” The note ends with Diana claiming she had “no regrets” about doing the interview and agreed to speak to Bashir of her own volition. By this time, Diana had already cooperated in Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words but her contributions to the book were unknown until 1997. A televised sit-down interview was an entirely different beast, with a more immediate public reaction.
Still, Bashir’s willingness to lie repeatedly to get the interview and to later protect his own image is an immense stain on his reputation and raises questions about his second most important work, Living With Michael Jackson. The results of this investigation also come in the midst of a Crown-driven revisiting of how Diana was treated by the palace and the press. Bashir and the BBC could not have chosen a worse time to be caught in the middle of what will surely be an ongoing public debate about Diana’s life and legacy.
After publishing the findings of the investigation, the BBC claims it sent formal apologies to Prince Charles, both of Diana’s sons, and Earl Spencer. Kensington Palace confirmed the apology sent to Prince William (Charles and Harry have yet to confirm) but it is an apology years overdue and soured by the fact that had Bashir not lied his way into the good graces of the Spencer family, history might look completely different.