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Diana, Bashir and the impact of trusted advisors

Natalie McEvoy

Martin Bashir’s alleged deception of Princess Diana’s inner circle in 1995 is an uncomfortable reminder to interrogate information before talking.

This has been an uncomfortable week for the BBC. Lord Dyson’s investigation into how Martin Bashir secured his interview with Princess Diana in 1995 concluded that he used deceitful methods and broke BBC Editorial Guidelines. Amid the rush to distance Bashir’s particular drive to obtain this one seminal interview from the normal practices of other BBC journalists, there is also a general clamour for tougher governance for journalists.

Interestingly, Martin Bashir’s deception was not of Diana, Princess of Wales directly, and this fact insulated him from criticism during an earlier investigation. What now emerges is a far more considered, concerted deception of her inner circle, in the knowledge that confidence earned there would be transferred to Princess Diana. Bashir presented forged accounts to Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, to suggest that a newspaper had paid a member of Diana’s staff for a story and that therefore she was already out of control of the narrative. By letting that “evidence” sink in, then extending the offer of a controlled process, he knew that he was more likely to ensnare her.

What followed was a once-in-a-lifetime interview, which made Bashir an overnight success, but the fall-out of which precipitated a letter from the Queen encouraging Charles and Diana to separate, led to a dramatic decline in public support for Prince Charles as the next King of England, and - Prince William has now revealed - left Princess Diana feeling paranoid and isolated to the end of her life.

Did the magnitude of the scoop simply outweigh the professional, editorial risk for Martin Bashir? Probably. Would independent, highest-level sign-off of the type now being tabled have prevented the interview from taking place? Only if that process had been granular enough to interrogate Bashir’s supporting evidence underpinning the interviewee’s consent at that preliminary stage.

Of course, we already have standards preventing an interview from being obtained by deception. The Independent Press Standards Organisation, the independent regulator for the majority of the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, specifies that engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means. Likewise the Ofcom Broadcasting Code requires that broadcasters or programme makers should not normally obtain or seek information, audio, pictures or an agreement to contribute through misrepresentation or deception (with exceptions relating to public interest or entertainment wind-up calls with consent before broadcast). The BBC, of course, also has its own editorial standards, which Bashir would have been familiar with.

Will the BBC survive this controversy? Absolutely, yes. Ask Boris Johnson, the last person of significant influence to have been found to have mislead a member of the royal family. In 2019 the Queen prorogued Parliament on the advice of Boris Johnson, later held by the Supreme Court to have been unlawful. Not an exact parallel, questionably lacking the deception element, having few political consequences due to the speed of judicial intervention and with no personal consequence for the Queen herself, but an interesting reminder that not only did the Government of the day survive, but the Prime Minister himself was later re-elected on a larger majority. It serves only as a reminder that hares have been set running precipitously before, where an independent high-level objective sign off might similarly have assisted. Or, in short, we tend in all arenas to trust people to do their jobs properly.

Publications obtained by deception have an agenda from the outset. Loaded reporting, where the publisher fits the statements to a pre-ordained direction or fails to share relevant background which would illuminate the whole need to be challenged every time. This controversy, relating as it does to the infiltration of an interviewee’s wider circle, reminds those engaging with the media to interrogate how we arrive at what we consider to be informed decisions, to challenge both our sources and advisers and their respective interests and influencers, and to make the most of objective, independent sounding boards in deciding how to control the opportunity.

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