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Why did Diana die?

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 22, 2021 - 12:00am

BBC News has itself become news and is in crisis.

The top UK story on all the mainstream media, including its own, is about  the dishonest means by which journalist Martin Bashir convinced the late Princess Diana to do a tell-all interview with him. Her sons and brother have drawn a direct line from the interview to the deterioration of her marriage and death in a car accident in Paris two years later.

The BBC is an institution that is as much criticized and hated as it is loved. If you own a television in the UK you must pay a license fee – the equivalent of P10,654, that’s how the BBC is financed. Everyone here has a stake in it; all the other television channels and radio stations complain about the BBC’s enormous advantage. It employs more than 35,000 staff, including the freelancers and part time staff. It is a true mammoth and UK institution.

In 1995, its flagship investigative current affairs program, Panorama, landed a huge scoop. Its reporter Martin Bashir persuaded Princess Diana to give him an exclusive interview. It was unprecedented, and made global headlines at the time. In the interview the princess admitted having an affair; said Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (now his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall) had made her feel worthless; spoke of there being “three of us” in the marriage; said she had had bulimia and self-harmed; suggested Prince Charles might not be able to adapt to being king; and said Prince Charles’ staff were waging a campaign against her.

More than 20 million people watched the interview and it caused huge controversy. Soon afterwards, the Queen wrote to Prince Charles and Princess Diana telling them to divorce.

But how did Bashir manage to persuade the princess to agree to the interview?

Her brother Earl Spencer claimed that in the weeks before the program, Mr Bashir showed him bank statements that related to alleged payments made to his sister’s former private secretary and another former royal household member by the security services. The documents suggested the individuals were being paid for keeping the princess under surveillance.

Separately, a graphic artist who had just quit the BBC to start his own freelance television graphics business told the media and an internal BBC inquiry that Bashir had called him, requesting an urgent “mock-up” of a bank statement. Matt Wiessler followed the journalist’s instructions and delivered the graphics after a frantic’s night work, unaware of how it would be used or its significance.

The interview had already been broadcast by the time the allegations that Bashir had forged the documents emerged. The BBC then launched an internal inquiry and concluded Bashir “wasn’t thinking” when he commissioned the graphic but was ultimately an “honest and honorable man.”

(What had not been made public until this year is that the same inquiry, presented to the BBC board, concluded that Wiessler should never work for the corporation, in part because he had spoken to the media about the incident.)

Now the results of another enquiry, by the former supreme court judge John Dyson, have been published. It found that Bashir had engaged in “deceitful behavior” by commissioning fake bank statements to land the interview – a “serious breach” of the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

The judge also criticized the conduct of Tony Hall, the corporation’s former director-general, who led the previous inquiry. He was accused of overseeing a flawed and “woefully ineffective” internal probe into the issue. As the then head of BBC News, he was aware Bashir had told “serious and unexplained lies” about what he had done to persuade the princess to speak to him.

And when other media began asking questions about how the BBC had secured the world exclusive, Dyson said the corporation “covered up in its press logs” what it knew. “Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark,” the report said.

The devastating findings provoked widespread condemnation and prompted a series of apologies from current and former BBC executives – including one from the corporation to the royal family. The corporation also handed back every award it received for the interview, and has said it will no longer broadcast the interview. It has lost all legitimacy.

The infamous interview is not just the stupid mistake of an ambitious journalist who subsequently became a household name. Earl Spencer has said he “draws a line” between the Panorama interview and her death two years later. Would she have gone on that ill-fated and fatal car journey with Dodi Fayed and his drunk personal driver and security that August evening had her marriage not unravelled and her paranoia been fuelled by Bashir’s false documents?

Her children think not. You can hear the pain in Prince William and Prince Harry’s statements reacting to Dyson’s findings. Prince William said the corporation’s failures contributed to the fear she felt in her final years and was part of a “culture of exploitation and unethical practices that ultimately took her life.” He added that BBC leaders had failed his mother with their “woeful incompetence” and that the “deceitful way” the interview was obtained had substantially influenced what his mother had said.

He said he was saddened the corporation had not properly investigated complaints earlier and that his mother had never known she had been deceived. Prince Harry said: “The ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life.”

It is without doubt a terrible crisis and PR disaster for the BBC. Bashir was re-employed as Religious Affairs Editor by BBC News and Current Affairs by the former head of the Department Tony Hall, who also led the appallingly useless internal inquiry and eventually became the top boss known as the Director-General until he left last year. Bashir quit last week, saying he thinks the princess would have given him the interview anyway.

The damage has been done, not just to the royal family, but to journalism as a whole. There will be a lot of soul-searching and editorial restructuring at the BBC to prevent anything like this happening again.

As I see it, a culture of journalistic expediency was allowed to overrun genuine excellence based on honesty and responsibility. Twenty-five years later it has damaged national institutions (the BBC and the royal family) as well as journalism itself at a time when it is struggling to be trusted.

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