Episode seven of The Crown’s fifth season opens not with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, or Princess Diana—or indeed any other royal family member that dominates the majority of the season’s screen time. Instead, it opens with an eager BBC reporter named Martin Bashir. Despite his best efforts, the program he works on, an investigative documentary series called Panorama, is not getting the traction he wants. A glimmer of hope arises when he hears a rumor that the Princess of Wales, spurred by Charles’s recent interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in which her husband admitted adultery, wants to share her side of the story. But how can he beat out much more famous and accomplished journalists like Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer?
By lying and manipulating, the show suggests. The Crown first includes a scene of Bashir asking a graphic designer to forge bank documents that imply Diana’s own staff is leaking information to Charles and the royal family. As the episode progresses, Bashir shows that to Diana’s brother, who then relays that to already immensely paranoid Diana. She agrees to talk and ends up baring all in a televised interview with Bashir, admitting to suicidal thoughts and bulimia and uttering a damning line about Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
The Crown is known for exaggerating and sensationalizing story lines. But in the case of Diana’s infamous “An Interview With HRH the Princess of Wales” TV special, what is historically accurate—and what is just histrionics?
For decades, Bashir’s 1995 interview was regarded as a journalistic triumph. Immediately after airing, it dominated television chyrons and newspaper headlines around the world. (Although the reactions were wide-ranging: “Fury of a Princess Scorned” read The Daily Telegraph’s headline the next day, whereas the Chicago Sun-Times called the whole thing “quite bland.”) Bashir and producer Mike Robinson would go on to receive the BAFTA Award for best talk show in 1996, and many described it as one of the scoops of the century.
Hidden from view? The deeply problematical means by which it was achieved.
In 2020, after years of whispers and outcry about Bashir’s alleged unethical behavior, the BBC appointed the former UK Supreme Court justice Honorable Lord Dyson to lead a formal investigation. He wrote the Dyson report: The exhaustive, investigative 127-page document outlines the way Bashir manipulated the Spencer family into the Panorama interview—and his subsequent attempts to cover up having done so. The BBC published the findings in 2021.
Here’s what Dyson discovered.
In 1995, Bashir was a relatively junior BBC reporter. The network, in fact, had other names in mind at first to interview the princess amid her tumultuous marriage. In 1993, they first reached out to Princess Diana’s private secretary, Commander Patrick Jephson, asking if she had an interest in talking to veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley. He declined the offer.
But Bashir, intrigued by stories surrounding the monarchy, was willing to go to great lengths to ensure access. First‚ as depicted in the show, he asked a graphic designer who did freelance work for the network to mock up a fake bank statement that suggested the Earl Spencer’s (Diana’s brother) security guard, Alan Waller, had taken payments from both the British press and suspicious offshore companies in exchange for leaking information about the Spencer family. Unaware of the true context, the graphic designer obliged. In early September, Bashir then showed the fake papers to the Earl Spencer.
Shortly after that, Bashir showed the earl a second set of bank statements that were even more damning. They claimed Commander Richard Aylard, Prince Charles’s private secretary, and Jephson were receiving secret payments from shady sources in the Channel Islands. (Unlike the Waller statements, which Bashir himself—as well as the graphic designer—eventually confirmed were completely made up, Dyson could not find any concrete evidence that the Jephson and Aylard ones were also forged. Yet he felt like it was likely that “they were created by Mr. Bashir and that the information allegedly contained in them was fabricated by him.”) The earl called the BBC to vouch for Bashir’s credibility. They did.
Spencer immediately alerted his sister of Bashir’s findings. Alarmed, Diana agreed to an introduction. He then set up a meeting between the reporter and the most famous woman in the world. “[It was] to groom me so that he could then get to Diana for the interview he was always secretly after,” Spencer told Dyson of the documents.
Diana and Bashir first met on September 19. Dyson believes that Bashir preyed on her deep paranoia: “Princess Diana had paranoid fears about various things, including that she was being spied on and in danger of her life,” Dyson wrote. “Mr. Bashir would have [had] little difficulty in playing on her fears and paranoia.” One of her panics? That some darker forces were trying to get rid of her or injure her so they could declare she was “unbalanced.” A particular fear is that it would be done through a car accident, such as a preplanned brake failure. (A notable scene in this season of The Crown touches on this deep anxiety.) According to notes of the meeting made by Earl Spencer at the time, they discussed the potential of her car and phone lines being bugged—and senior police officers making money off the illegally collected information. The Dyson report, quoting from Spencer’s notes, also alleges they talked about the royal family possibly paying off various tabloid journalists, who in turn would publish negative stories about Diana.
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The network returned all awards the interview received, including the BAFTA.
Bashir maintains his stance that the bank statements did not influence Diana to participate in the interview. “I apologized then, and I do so again now, over the fact that I asked for bank statements to be mocked up. It was a stupid thing to do and was an action I deeply regret,” he said in a statement after the findings were released. “I also reiterate that the bank statements had no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice by Princess Diana to take part in the interview.”
He added: “In fact, despite his other findings, Lord Dyson himself in any event accepts that the princess would probably have agreed to be interviewed without what he describes as my ‘intervention.’”
There is much ado about The Crown exaggerating history and damaging the real-life reputations of the royal family in the process. But this episode may, in fact, do the reverse—informing its vast audience of the true and previously unknown methods used to secure this questionable interview with information that only recently came to light.