Martin Bashir interview: a broken man who can’t quite admit he wronged Diana

Martin Bashir interview: a broken man who can’t quite admit he wronged Diana

The journalist says he loved the princess, never wanted to harm her, and that she remained close — so close she visited his wife and their third baby in the hospital.

Martin Bashir tells Prince William and Harry he is “deeply sorry”. Speaking for the first time since he was found to have obtained his 1995 interview with their mother by deception and with his reputation destroyed, Bashir sounds like a broken man.

Yet he cannot quite bring himself to admit that he wronged the princess.

“I never wanted to harm Diana in any way and I don’t believe we did,” he protests. “Everything we did in terms of the interview was as she wanted, from when she wanted to alert the palace, to when it was broadcast, to its contents … My family and I loved her.”

A still from the notorious 1995 Panorama interview
A still from the notorious 1995 Panorama interview

The princes are in his thoughts, Bashir insists: “I can’t imagine what their family must feel each day, although I know a little of that myself having lost a brother and father prematurely.” But he rejects the charge that the Duke of Cambridge laid at his door on Thursday evening: that the way the interview was obtained, by feeding her fantastical stories, fuelled her isolation and paranoia. “Even in the early 1990s, there were stories and secretly recorded phone calls. I wasn’t the source of any of that,” he responds.

Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, has gone further than William, arguing that Bashir pouring poison into his sister’s ear led her to give up her royal security detail and contributed to her death.

“I don’t feel I can be held responsible for many of the other things that were going on in her life, and the complex issues surrounding those decisions,” Bashir says.

“I can understand the motivation [of Earl Spencer’s comments] but to channel the tragedy, the difficult relationship between the royal family and the media purely on to my shoulders feels a little unreasonable … The suggestion I am singularly responsible I think is unreasonable and unfair.”

Bashir stresses that the princess was happy with the interview
Bashir stresses that the princess was happy with the interview

Bashir, 58, stresses how ill he is. He speaks incredibly softly, his voice so muted that I keep inching my voice recorder nearer to catch everything. The confidence on show when he interviewed Diana 25 years ago has been replaced with a mournful air and puppy dog eyes. Over the course of our interview, he reels off such a panoply of family ailments that so often coincided with his professional mistakes that it would seem the Bashirs were cursed. My impression is of a man who wants me to feel sorry for him, although he denies trying to court public sympathy.

The report by Lord Dyson about the interview, published last week, was damning about Bashir. He stated: “There were significant parts of Mr. Bashir’s account that I reject as incredible, unreliable and, in some cases, dishonest.” He called Bashir’s decision to show Spencer forged bank statements “devious and dishonest” and repeatedly referred to Bashir’s “lies”.

A former colleague at Panorama told me that he believes Bashir finds the truth an “inconvenience”, yet Bashir’s speech is peppered with phrases such as “let me be completely transparent” and with the word “honestly”.

The main tranche of Bashir’s defense is that Diana was happy with the interview and that the two remained close after it aired, so close that she visited his wife Deborah at St George’s hospital in Tooting, South London, on the day Deborah gave birth to the couple’s third child, Eliza. He plucks out a photograph of Deborah on her hospital bed beside Diana, who is clutching the newborn and beaming.

“We were friends,” he says. “She was spectacular. She said to me: ‘You must let me know the moment the baby arrives,’ and an hour later, there was a knock on the delivery room and in she walked.” Before the birth, in March 1996, Diana wrote to Deborah after Bashir says his wife developed pleurisy (inflammation of tissue between the lungs and ribcage), inviting the family to go on holiday with her. “I wondered if the idea of staying a couple of nights in Scotland (!) might appeal?” she wrote. “I’m so sorry to hear how uncomfortable you’ve been.”

The thank-you note dated November 21, 1995 — the day after their BBC interview was broadcast
The thank-you note dated November 21, 1995 — the day after their BBC interview was broadcast

Although they never took Diana up on her offer, Bashir says that she also invited his family for lunch at Kensington Palace to celebrate his eldest child’s eighth birthday. “Prince Harry was there and [her butler] Paul Burrell was serving,” he recalls. “Our eldest and Harry kicked a ball around. It was a very precious relationship and one we treasured.”

After the interview, he wrote speeches for Diana, showing me a handwritten draft of a talk she gave about leprosy. His wife, he adds, is “very distressed” about the Dyson report’s findings.

Bashir emphasises that he never exploited the relationship financially: “We loved her. That’s what we wanted to protect, and that’s why I have never taken money, never said anything, never written anything.”

He first met Diana through Spencer in September 1995. He says that he and Diana bonded because he had just made a programme about postnatal depression, which his wife had suffered after the birth of their second child. “Diana talked about her own experience of postnatal depression,” he claims. “She spoke about bulimia a bit. She also said something like — and this is hard to recall and I didn’t take notes — she said something about feeling suicidal.” Bashir replied to her that in 1981, his father, who later killed himself and from whom he was reportedly estranged, had taken an overdose of barbiturates. Bashir claims that he and Diana connected because “I wasn’t in any way judgmental; I wasn’t stiff upper lip.”

The holiday offer: nearly four months later, Diana writes to Deborah
The holiday offer: nearly four months later, Diana writes to Deborah

In the weeks leading up to the 1995 interview, Bashir says they went for drives together in hire cars, including a trip to the New Forest that lasted five hours. He would also be smuggled into Kensington Palace in Burrell’s car, either in the boot or on the back seat under a blanket. At one meeting, he says Diana showed him correspondence with her father-in-law.

“There was this pile of letters between her and the Duke of Edinburgh,” he recalls. “She was talking about the difficulties in the marriage, and he was trying to be supportive and understanding.”

He believes this was a test by Diana: “She showed me those to see if I would say anything about them … I never said a word.” He remembers once being followed by a vehicle when he left the palace: “Paul’s driving was incredible because by the time we’d reached the Thames, we had lost them.”

Bashir admits that he showed Spencer forged bank statements, which were made by the graphic designer Matt Wiessler. “Obviously I regret it, it was wrong,” he says. “But it had no bearing on anything. It had no bearing on [Diana], it had no bearing on the interview.”

It did have a bearing on Wiessler, I say. Wiessler turned whistleblower, and his reward was to be banned from the BBC by Tony Hall, then head of news and current affairs, later the corporation’s director general and now Lord Hall of Birkenhead.

Did Bashir feel guilty about that? “I didn’t know.” Did he try to contact Wiessler afterwards? “I don’t think I did, no. I am sorry about that.” There’s a carelessness about Bashir when it comes to other people that surfaces again later when I ask about the 1986 Babes in the Wood murders.

In 2004, the mother of one of the victims alleged that Bashir lost her daughter’s clothing — potentially crucial evidence — which he had taken while investigating the case. “I may have lost it but I don’t remember,” he replies.

Lord Dyson damned Bashir in his report
Lord Dyson damned Bashir in his report

Bashir did not confess immediately to his BBC bosses that he had shown the forgeries to Spencer, but believes he did tell Hall during the 1996 internal inquiry into how the interview came about. “I eventually told them I had done that and I was sorry.” Hall’s inquiry found Bashir to be “honest and honourable”.

It took the BBC another 24 years to admit what it knew. The deceit and the BBC’s cover-up came to light only when we revealed last October that Spencer had seen the forged bank statements.

Bashir disputes Spencer’s timeline, accepted by Dyson, that Bashir had not met Diana when he commissioned the fake bank statements in August 1995 and showed them to Spencer.

Bashir claims that the forged bank statements were made not in August, as both Spencer and Wiessler told the inquiry, but in October 1995 after he had developed a relationship with Diana.

The forgeries were couriered to Heathrow, and Bashir claims the only flight he took at the time was on October 7.

He says he “deeply regrets” showing them to Spencer. “It was wrong. I felt as though I was placating him because he was still pressing me to do this story [about Spencer’s former head of security, Allan Waller].” Did Bashir show Diana those documents? “No, never.”

Spencer, who took contemporaneous notes, also says that Bashir made 32 fantastical claims to him and his sister to help secure the interview, including that Prince Edward had Aids and that Prince Charles was having an affair with the children’s nanny, Tiggy Legge-Bourke. Bashir goes through them with me, emphasizing how ludicrous they are, and how few he could have known.

“If I were trying to ingratiate myself, why would I be saying things that would take one phone call to be dismissed as absolute arrant rubbish?” he asks. The context, however, was Diana’s growing (and not unfounded) fears for her safety, alongside her alienation from many close to her.

When I ask what these notes are, Bashir doesn’t answer. Is it possible Diana said some of this? “It’s possible,” he replies.

He ineffectually tries to hit back at Spencer: “Her relationship with him was very difficult. Fairly soon after we met, she didn’t want me to communicate with him. She felt he would leak details of the interview and stuff, and felt that he wasn’t trustworthy.” Dyson found Spencer to be “a credible and convincing witness”.

Few contest that Diana wanted to do an interview, an attempt to hit back at Prince Charles, who had spoken to Jonathan Dimbleby the previous year. Bashir feels she was “impressed” by the Panorama brand and “saw me as someone who wasn’t really part of the establishment … I was just a kid from a poor working-class background.”

Despite recent reports that Diana had wavered about the interview, Bashir claims he saw no hint of hesitation. “None whatsoever … One of her biggest anxieties was that she felt if anything came out beforehand, they — I don’t know who ‘they’ is but I’m assuming the institution — would use a mental health argument to say, ‘How can you possibly do this to this woman?’”

Does he mean the palace would claim that she was too ill to speak? He nods. “She repeatedly said to me: ‘That’s what they’ll do’ … She’d been through some of the best therapy available, she had processed the things she had been through. That was why she was ready to talk.”

She was happy with the interview. In a letter written on November 21, 1995, the day after it was broadcast, Diana praised both Bashir’s journalistic nous and the pesto pasta he had rustled up in her kitchen. “Thank you, Martin, for listening to me, for supporting me and for understanding this particular lady, no one has ever shown such belief and acted upon it,” she wrote.

He says his Panorama colleagues envied his scoop. I have heard the program described as a nest of vipers — is that fair? He pauses. “There was a viciousness. I remember a head of the department said that people were frightened to walk through the open plan area of the office because it was so caustic. I think a lot of the viciousness and animosity that has come is from people who were like that.”

When the rumors started about how he obtained the interview, Diana wrote another note in December 1995 defending Bashir, which was later used by Hall’s inquiry: “They were satisfied she was not deceived in any way and she wasn’t.” That note was subsequently lost by the BBC until it mysteriously reappeared last November. “An executive took it as a memento, apparently,” Bashir explains. “I never had a copy.”

One of the puzzles that hang over this story is that the homes of both Weissler and Mark Killick, Bashir’s former producer, to whom Weissler had sent copies of the faked documents, were broken into. Floppy discs containing the documents were stolen from Weissler’s London flat. When I mention this, Bashir sounds exasperated. “Oh come on! I had absolutely nothing to do with anything.”

The interview propelled Bashir from an unknown to one of the country’s most famous journalists. He moved to ITV and then the US, where he endured a troubled stint that culminated in his sacking over comments about Sarah Palin, the Republican politician. He says that his wife was ill at the time and he shouldn’t have been at work. He says that his wife was suffering from breast cancer at the time: “She had had surgery about ten days before that happened and I shouldn’t have been at work.”

Bashir, an Anglican, rejoined the BBC in 2016, becoming the corporation’s religion correspondent, meaning he has had audiences with Pope Francis. He left this month on health grounds. He hits back at those who doubt he is really ill. “I shouldn’t have to … produce the medical reports of my admissions to [accident and] emergency.”

He says he contracted Covid-19 in March 2020, recovered, but then found himself very ill in September. He was referred to a cardiologist who told him he needed emergency surgery “because all four of your coronary arteries are 60 to 90 per cent blocked”. Next he says he suffered a pericardial effusion when blood and fluid gather in the heart sac, then an inflamed liver and in December, a heart attack. “I don’t want to over-labor it but it’s been difficult.”

I ask what he will do next. “I am going to have to focus on recovering if I can,” he replies. He then adds that he wants to turn to charity work, including with muscular dystrophy charities in honor of his brother, who died from the disease, and with mental health charities, including Brave Mind.

“In 2001, I had to identify my father’s body because he took his own life,” he says. “His body was dragged from the River Thames. There are things I would like to be able to serve in.”

He asks that people remember Diana’s interview for what she said, not this scandal. “I would love for people to reflect on … what a trailblazer she was. The saddest thing is that all of this crap — built on my stupidity, I accept that — [is] that people haven’t focused on the remarkable things she did.”

To speak about mental health 25 years ago was “extraordinary”, he says. “She was a pioneering princess. When you think about her expressions of grief in her marriage when you think about the admission of psychiatric illness — just extraordinary! And her sons have gone on to champion mental health.”

He adds: “I don’t understand what the purpose of this is ultimate? OK, maybe you want to destroy me, but outside of this, what’s the point? I did something wrong … but for pity’s sake, acknowledge something of the relationship we had and something of what she contributed through that interview!” He looks bereft: “One of the saddest things about all of this has been the way the content of what she said has almost been ignored.”

Bashir hopes that people will believe that he has redeemed himself. “I was a young man [32] when the interview took place,” he says. “I hope in the time since I rejoined the BBC, I have demonstrated higher levels of probity and integrity.”

When I ask if he is able to forgive himself, there is a long pause. “That’s a really difficult question because it was a serious error. I hope that people will allow me the opportunity to show that I am properly repentant of what happened.”

Courtesy: The Times and Sunday Times UK