June 4, 2021
For the last quarter-century, Martin Bashir’s BBC interview with Princess Diana has been lauded as a seminal work of journalism. Not only because it gave the world a glimpse into the life and anxieties of Princess Diana and a peek into the cold, hierarchical machinery of Buckingham Palace, but also because there was an art to the interview itself. The interview opens with Princess Diana sitting still, cross-legged, in the tastefully-decorated parlor room of Kensington Palace. She is wearing a blue velvet blazer over a white blouse, the same shade of sapphire as her famous engagement ring. But her ring finger is bare, her demeanor firm. Throughout the 55 minutes of the exchange, Bashir is respectful yet pointed, leading without overtly prying — comportment that belies the underhanded tactics he’d used to secure the interview in the first place. For a novice reporter, Bashir was surprisingly competent, unfazed by the admissions that shocked even the Crown, including the still-resonant line, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” and her speculation that Prince Charles was unfit to be king.
An estimated 23 million Britons — 40% of the British public — sat fixed to their TV screens that night of November 20, 1995. Years later, the interview has again come under the spotlight due to a recent investigation. Former British Supreme Court judge, Lord John Anthony Dyson, concluded that Bashir had presented forged documents — which implied that the royal family was paying for security guards to spy on Princess Diana — to Diana’s brother, Earl Charles Spencer, to secure the interview. Dyson also found that a prior BBC investigation of the interview had found no wrongdoing.
The media outcry that followed the report’s release was inevitable, and unsurprising. Dyson’s findings on the BBC’s unethical practices amounted to a point in the Crown’s favor, in the never-ending chess match between the media and the royal family. And, as any Diana-related news is wont to do, the recent news also illuminated the differences between her two sons, and their respective relationship to the press. Yet, this is far more a media story than it is a royal one, and it couldn’t have been better timed, given the Crown’s current PR woes, the scrutiny the BBC faces, and the royal reckoning that followed another tell-all interview, this time across the pond — with Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and Oprah Winfrey.
The Princess Diana interview made Bashir’s career: the Pakistani British journalist went on to work in New York at ABC and MSNBC, and in 2003, played a key role in the documentary Living with Michael Jackson. Bashir’s career has not been without controversy, however. He was suspended from ABC for making “crude and sexist” remarks at the 2008 banquet of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). In 2013, he resigned from MSNBC after making offensive statements about former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Five years ago, he returned to the BBC to serve as their religious affairs correspondent before stepping down this past October, upon the BBC’s inquiry into his 1995 interview. Meanwhile, his health has been deteriorating: since last fall, he has reportedly suffered COVID-19 complications and has been in and out of the hospital following a heart bypass surgery.