Princess Diana: Expert discusses BBC Panorama interview
A recent report by Lord Dyson detailed how the BBC, and its former journalist Martin Bashir, employed “deceitful” tactics and fraud to secure its interview in 1995 with Diana, often dubbed the scoop of the century. Mr Bashir reportedly used a series of fake bank statements to show Diana’s brother Earl Charles Spencer that the Princess of Wales was being kept under surveillance by those close to her – and were being paid to do so. The report, which sparked a huge backlash against the BBC and its ethics after its release this month, noted this was a move employed by Mr Bashir to gain access to Diana.
The fallout of the findings has been fierce – with Diana’s children Prince William and Prince Harry both condemning the 26-year-old interview.
While William demanded the programme “never be aired again” as it “holds no legitimacy”, Harry claimed it ultimately led to his mother’s death in 1997.
The BBC apologised to William, Harry, their father Prince Charles and Earl Spencer, admitting it had fallen short of the “high standards of integrity and transparency” demanded of the interview.
Yet for the Royal Family, its relationship with the BBC has appeared to be fracturing in the years since Diana’s interview with Mr Bashir was released.
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Princess Diana being interviewed by Martin Bashir
Traditionally, the BBC was the Firm’s ‘go-to’ broadcaster for delivering some of the Royal Family’s biggest statements, including pregnancy, death and engagement announcements.
But after BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell once left Charles in a state of fury over an obituary he delivered regarding his aunt, and the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, many of these announcements and interviews have gone to the broadcaster’s rivals.
Mr Witchell, who has worked at the BBC since 1976, has tangled with Charles on a number of occasions, with reports from 2000 revealing the second-in-line to the throne was outraged with the journalist after he reported on a holiday he and then-partner Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, took to Greece.
The correspondent likened the trip to the extravagant holidays Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson would take, the ex-monarch who quit the throne to be with the divorced actress.
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Prince Charles in the moments when he was heard on a boom mic
A senior aide described Charles as “shouting and complaining” over his comments during a BBC News item, and that he was left “particularly upset that the Queen had seen Witchell’s broadcast too”.
Charles, the insider added to Daily Mail, was “absolutely furious for the BBC to make such a comparison”.
Since that landmark falling out, Mr Witchell’s relationship with the Royal Family continued to falter throughout the decade.
In 2002, as well as making comments about Margaret’s drinking habits in a BBC obituary after her death, Mr Witchell also commentated on the Queen Mother’s funeral in the same year, describing scenes of people “laughing and joking” at the ceremony.
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The Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002
The Prince of Wales’ true feelings towards Mr Witchell were also picked up by a boom mic while he holidayed with sons William and Harry in Klosters, Switzerland.
The trio were answering questions from the gathered media, which included Mr Witchell, and Charles was heard muttering in 2005: “Bloody people. I can’t bear that man. I mean, he’s so awful, he really is.”
But in a move to “exact revenge”, Charles reportedly snubbed the BBC by giving access for interviews to rival broadcasters, such as Sky and ITV.
The Daily Mail’s correspondent Geoffrey Levy wrote in 2015: “When, a few days after the Klosters episode, access to Camilla’s friends for a television documentary about her was given to ITV, there was talk of Charles bypassing the BBC to ‘exact revenge’.”
Nicholas Witchell interviewing Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
He added: “Some of Camilla’s best friends were wheeled out to ‘bat for her cause’ and put her in a positive light; something Charles may have feared the BBC could not be trusted to do.
“Prince Harry’s 21st birthday interview is another event which, in years gone by, would automatically have gone to the BBC.
“The interview, broadcast around the world, went, rather surprisingly, to Sky, with its then royal correspondent Katherine Witty asking the questions. Clarence House denied snubbing the BBC.”
Other interviews that were also handed to rival broadcasters included William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge’s engagement chat, which would have ordinarily gone to the BBC, but would be produced by ITV.
Royal Family tree
Prior to this, the Queen herself was reportedly upset with the BBC over the initial release of the Panorama episode with Diana.
It sparked fears from senior figures at the broadcaster, who felt the corporation was “sacked” as the producer of the Queen’s annual message as a reaction to the interview.
The Sunday Telegraph reported at the time that internal documents showed the BBC – which had up until that point produced the message – lost the privilege in 1997 and 1998.
Bosses at the broadcaster blamed the interview for this.
More recently, the BBC spoke out in support of Mr Witchell, as he found himself in hot water for his comments on Harry and William.
In his piece after Prince Philip’s funeral last month, Mr Witchell described the “rift” between the brothers, but viewers were unhappy he was making comments about two siblings who were grieving for their grandfather.
Following the backlash, a spokesperson for the BBC said William and Harry’s relationship “has been a focus of interest in recent weeks”.
They argued that Mr Witchell “offered analysis of the implications of this solemn event on the Royal Family and what could be construed about current family relations from what was seen at the funeral”, adding: “This was a legitimate, impartial and proportionate part of the coverage of this story.”