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HomeWorldBurned By The Diana Cult: The Fall Of Martin Bashir

Burned By The Diana Cult: The Fall Of Martin Bashir


The interview was infamous, made his name and was bound
to enrage. It also received a viewing audience of 23 million
people who heard a saucy tale of adultery, plots in the
palace, and stories of physical and mental illness. But the
tarring and feathering of Martin Bashir for his 1995
Panorama programme featuring Princess Diana was
always more than the scruples of a journalist and his
interviewing methods.

Princess Diana’s brother,
Charles Spencer, eternally committed to excoriating press
coverage of his sister, brought pressure to bear on the BBC
last year in allegations that Bashir had used forged bank
documents to induce the interview. The documents suggested
that people were receiving cash to monitor the princess.
Bashir, Spencer accuses, sowed the seeds of concern that a
conspiracy within Buckingham Palace was afoot against his
sister. Bashir, for his part, claimed
that the documents in question had “no bearing whatsoever
on the personal choice of Princess Diana to take part in the
interview.” For Diana fans, such a detail is
irrelevant.

In November, the BBC appointed retired
Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson to revisit old ground,
notably the 1996 investigation by Tony Hall, who found
Bashir to have been “honest” and an “honourable
man”. Lord Dyson begged to differ. “What Mr Bashir
did,” the
report states
, “was not an impulsive act done in the
spur of the moment. It was carefully planned… What he did
was devious and dishonest. To dismiss his actions as no more
than a mistake, unwise and foolish did not do justice to the
seriousness of what he had done.” Hall’s investigation
was “flawed” and “woefully ineffective”. The BBC had
fallen “short of the high standards of integrity and
transparency which are its hallmark” effectively
instigating a cover up.

Figures have queued up in a
feast of Bashir bashing. John Birt, Director-General of the
BBC at the time of the interview, called
the journalist’s conduct “a shocking blot on the BBC’s
enduring commitment to honest journalism; and it is a matter
of the greatest regret that it has taken 25 years for the
full truth to emerge.”

Prince William and Prince
Harry have unsurprisingly joined the fray for their
mother’s memory. In his
statement
, the Duke of Cambridge accused the BBC of
contributing “significantly to [Diana’s] fear, paranoia
and isolation that I remember from those final years with
her.” She had been failed by both “a rogue reporter”
and “leaders of the BBC who looked the other way rather
than asking the tough questions.” Prince Harry looked
beyond the conduct of the public broadcaster, seeing
it
as part of “the ripple effect of a culture of
exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her
life.” Harry, it should be noted, is no fan of broad free
speech protections. “I’ve got so much I want to say
about the First Amendment as I sort of understand it,” he
told
actor Dax Shepard, the host of the Armchair
Expert
podcast, “but it is bonkers.”

Lord
Dyson’s report, as with the Leveson
Inquiry
into the phone hacking conducted by such press
outlets as the now defunct News of the World, risk
becoming springboards for a broader agenda of censorship and
press control. The latter’s suggestion that the press be
subjected to an “independent” and “voluntary”
regulator created by statute caused alarm and did not sway
the then Prime Minister David Cameron. As Index on
Censorship
warned
in 2013, “Any law which sets out criteria that the press
must meet, by definition introduces some government or
political control of the media.”

The press
regulation agenda ignores the fact that journalism as
practice can, even should, be unethical if the broader
public interest demands it. Going under cover, masking
identities, concocting fables may be necessary to expose
misconduct and villainy. “There are cases, and undercover
is one of them,” stated
former Panorama editor Tom Giles to the House
Communications Committee in 2012, “where technically, we
break the rules. Technically we break the law whether it is
on privacy or on giving a misleading CV in order to ensure
that we are able to go undercover.” For Giles, there had
to be “very clear prima facie evidence that this is
something that is of significant public
interest.”

The Communications Committee also heard
similar
testimony
from Chris Birkett, Deputy Head of News and
Executive Editor of Sky. “For us, there are times when the
only way to get the story is to do something that is
contrary to the laws of the country in which we are doing
journalism.” His example: reporting on Syria. “If you
try to film openly, you will be beaten up and arrested, your
camera will be smashed and you will be put into
prison.”

This is not to say that a journalist has an
inherent right to break the law. Bashir might well have been
prosecuted for forgery. The issue is one of degree. Nick
Davies, who exposed the phone-hacking scandal in the pages
of The Guardian, suggested
that “all citizens have a right of conscience in extremis
to say, ‘This is so important I’m going to break the
law’.”

The question as to whether knowing the
personal affairs of Princess Diana was in the public
interest, or merely interesting to the public, will never go
away. This was not the issue of exposing the handiwork of
war criminals, or the shady transactions of an underworld
figure. Bashir’s interview style and approach has always
had a certain tabloid flavour. But reporting on the
activities of a modern constitutional monarchy is bound to
blur the line. According
to
Tessa Clarke, herself a former BBC Panorama
reporter, “Bashir’s methods were neither exceptional nor
unjustified – the marital affairs and behaviour of the
heir to the throne is in the public interest.” People do
want to know what the royals are up to, while the royals are
keen to be talked about as long as they control the
narrative.

The eternal flame of the Diana Cult is one
that constantly threatens purges and censorship. Only
hagiographers are welcome to the shrine. Prince William is
keen to take the purging further. The interview, he
demands
, should be scrubbed from the historical record.
“It is my firm view that this Panorama programme
holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again.” The
concern now is how far that purging will go in the battles
over what can, or can’t, be reported.

Dr. Binoy
Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College,
Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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