How Martin Bashir won over Princess Diana with lies and smears

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Martin Bashir, the former BBC journalist, pictured here in 2007, vigorously defended his position during the Dyson investigation - Fred Prouser/Reuters
Martin Bashir, the former BBC journalist, pictured here in 2007, vigorously defended his position during the Dyson investigation - Fred Prouser/Reuters

Martin Bashir, in the words of a senior BBC executive on Panorama, “could charm the birds from the trees”.

He used that charm to full effect to woo Princess Diana into giving an explosive interview on Nov 20, 1995. Lord Dyson had another word for it. Lies.

The retired judge’s lengthy, weighty report details the scheming and maneuvering undertaken by Bashir, then a relatively unknown reporter, to persuade the Princess to give him the interview.

It involves 38 astonishing lies, allegations, and smears – the majority of which Bashir denies every saying – to win over the Princess at a conspiratorial first meeting at a flat in Knightsbridge two months before the interview and includes, a few days later, a five-hour drive to the New Forest and back from London.

Weeks later, Bashir was cooking for Diana at her apartment in Kensington Palace. Her complete trust had been gained.

What resulted from their burgeoning friendship was television dynamite. Watched by an audience of 23 million people in the UK alone, Diana told Bashir “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” in reference to her husband’s adultery with Camila Parker-Bowles.

Television dynamite: Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in 1995 - pixel GRG
Television dynamite: Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in 1995 - pixel GRG

It was quite the scoop, winning the BBC multiple awards and setting Bashir on a hugely successful career path, working for two networks in the US before returning to the BBC and being promoted to religion editor.

The pursuit of Diana for a BBC interview had begun in February 1993. Tony Hall, now Lord hall, had written to her private secretary, Commander Patrick Jephson, suggesting that “a respected figure, perhaps Sue Lawley” should conduct the interview. Kensington Palace rejected the offer.

Events changed after the Prince of Wales gave his own interview to his friend Jonathan Dimbleby, in which the heir to the throne admitted his adultery and discussed his failing marriage. The chase was back on, and the BBC suggested that Nicholas Witchell, then a diplomatic correspondent and now its royal editor, interview Princess Diana.

A meeting was arranged but, before it could take place, Steve Hewlett, the editor of Panorama, decided to hoik Witchell off the project and replace him with Bashir. Mr Hewlett, who died of cancer in 2017, is no longer alive to explain why.

Whatever the reason, Bashir set to work in winning over Diana. His gateway was her brother Earl Spencer, by his own admission an “inveterate hoarder of past records”.

On August 24 1995, Bashir made phone contact with Earl Spencer’s secretary, wanting to “just talk”, and succeeded in having a brief meeting at Earl Spencer’s offices in London. It was followed up on August 31 with a face-to-face at Althorp, the family’s stately home.

Bashir got to work on his deceit, telling Earl Spencer at the meeting that he was a “target of the tabloids” and that members of his household, including his former head of security Alan Waller, had been “selling private information about him to the media".

It was a lie. Earl Spencer scribbled on a piece of paper two amounts, £4,000 and £6,500. These were sums allegedly paid to Mr Waller by News International and an offshore company, Penfolds.

The choice of Penfolds was an odd one because it had cropped up in a previous investigation conducted by Bashir for Panorama. Nobody else would have known about the company.

Bashir had mocked up faked bank statements, using the services of Matt Wiessler, a freelance graphic artist with whom he had previously worked.

On Sep 14, Lord Dyson concluded that Bashir then showed Earl Spencer separate bank statements, this time purportedly belonging to Richard Aylard, Prince Charles’ private secretary, and to Patrick Jephson, who was Diana’s.

Lord Dyson admits it is “surprising” that Earl Spencer, “a person who made and kept detailed notes of meetings, did not record the important details contained in the Jephson/Aylard bank statements”.

But in the end he sided with the Earl. “I found Earl Spencer to be a credible and convincing witness,” he said. “On the other hand, there are significant parts of Mr Bashir’s account which I am unable to accept.”

In Bashir’s version of events – dismissed by Lord Dyson – that never happened.

Bashir then claims that days after the meeting with Earl Spencer, Diana phoned him out of the blue. According to him, it was Earl Spencer who had raised the subject of Mr Waller. Earl Spencer denies that, and the retired judge believed him.

A former British Army paratrooper and ex-US marine, Alan Waller, now 57, went to work for Earl Spencer in the mid-Nineties as his head of security. In 1995, a year after Mr Waller stopped working for the Earl at his Althorp Estate because the pair fell out, Martin Bashir faked bank statements showing two payments to Mr Waller, one from News International and another from an offshore firm. Bashir used the statements to gain Earl Spencer's trust and access to his sister Diana, Princess of Wales. The first Mr Waller knew about the fake statements was when they were exposed in 1996, after Diana gave her interview to Panorama. Mr Waller is now planning to sue the BBC and Bashir and make a complaint to the police. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA - News Scans
A former British Army paratrooper and ex-US marine, Alan Waller, now 57, went to work for Earl Spencer in the mid-Nineties as his head of security. In 1995, a year after Mr Waller stopped working for the Earl at his Althorp Estate because the pair fell out, Martin Bashir faked bank statements showing two payments to Mr Waller, one from News International and another from an offshore firm. Bashir used the statements to gain Earl Spencer's trust and access to his sister Diana, Princess of Wales. The first Mr Waller knew about the fake statements was when they were exposed in 1996, after Diana gave her interview to Panorama. Mr Waller is now planning to sue the BBC and Bashir and make a complaint to the police. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA - News Scans

Either way, nobody disputes that a meeting was arranged at a flat in Knightsbridge on Sep 19, 1995, at which Bashir and Diana met for the first time, with Earl Spencer taking notes.

Earl Spencer was horrified at what he was hearing from Bashir, including claims her car was bugged and allegations concerning Prince Charles and their children’s nanny, Tiggy Legge-Bourke.

He told Lord Dyson in his evidence that he thought that the BBC journalist was “scattering these things widely to see where Diana bit and she did bite Legge-Bourke, and the Jephson thing was obviously incredibly worrying. So I think that’s how he learnt to progress those theories.”

He details 38 extraordinary smears and lies – Bashir disputes they are all his and suggests this was Diana’s talking – which the journalist threw around the room.

“A few days later”, Bashir and Diana took a five-hour road trip to the New Forest and back, where he claims she raised the scale of payments to Mr Waller. Lord Dyson again dismissed Bashir’s version as lies.

In a glimpse into their developing friendship, Bashir later said Diana had retracted her claims against Mr Waller, who has always denied any wrongdoing.

Bashir told Lord Dyson: “I was cooking in Kensington Palace, we were chatting about various things, and she said: ‘Oh, by the way, I was wrong about that’ and her source was wrong and I said: ‘Fine’

“I think, my recollection, sir, is that she was basically saying, you know, the whole thing was not true, and, you know, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake’”.

The former Master of the Rolls liked little of what Bashir told him. He had, concluded the judge, had “little difficulty in playing on her fears and paranoia”.

Earl Spencer was a “credible witness”, he said, adding: “Regrettably, I cannot say the same of Mr Bashir.”

Lord Dyson’s conclusions were brutal: “By his deceitful behaviour… Mr Bashir succeeded in engineering the meeting that led to the interview.”

The rest, as they say, was television history.

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