For anyone who wasn’t there it’s hard to explain just how cataclysmic it was. How difficult it is to imagine the feeling that almost anything could happen next. Here was the wife of the heir to the throne, Princess Diana, telling a BBC journalist that she “would not go quietly”, that “there were three of us in this marriage” and “it was rather crowded”.
She was talking, of course, about Prince Charles, the father of her two sons William and Harry, and his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.
It was 20th November 1995 and this was Martin Bashir’s finest moment. Or so we all thought. As I stood preparing edition after edition for the Daily Express that night we had to tear the sub-editors away from the television to get them back to work. 20 million people watched that edition of Panorama. Many millions more have seen it since. Now it will never be shown by the BBC again.
Less than two years later, Princess Diana was dead. Killed in a high speed chase through tunnels under the streets of Paris with the paparazzi in pursuit. She had become Diana the hunted. And this week her brother Earl Spencer accused the BBC of being complicit in her death.
It was the BBC, he said, that fed his sister’s paranoia. Through the forged documents and misinformation supplied to her by Martin Bashir she had come to the conclusion that she couldn’t trust anyone connected to the Royal Family. Not her protection officers, not her ladies in waiting, and not even her nanny. As a result she cast them all aside and left herself vulnerable.
Spencer is now calling for Scotland Yard to investigate just how Bashir got the interview, alleging that she was a victim of his blackmail and fraud. The Prime Minister has already voiced his “concern” about what happened. And the Metropolitan Police will surely be under new pressures to probe inside the secret hallowed halls of Broadcasting House to see what other troubles may lurk there.
Many are asking where Sir Keir Starmer is in all of this. The leader of the opposition enthusiastically carried out his brief against journalists from tabloid newspapers while he was Director of Public Prosecutions – ordering dawn raids in their homes, leaving them on bail for years, ruining their livelihoods and reputations. This week he has been remarkably absent on the subject of the BBC.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said that Lord Dyson’s findings have raised “very serious issues” and that forgery and fraud might well have occurred.
If that’s the case then surely the very least we can expect is a Commons Select Committee hearing at which Bashir and the BBC’s bosses are hauled before the cameras to answer for their conduct.
The question now is whether the BBC, already under the tightest of scrutiny over its charter renewal, will emerge from this scandal unscathed. My belief is that it will not. Once more the organisation has proven itself to be the resting place for too many highly paid executives who appear to answer to no one but themselves.
The diversity the organisation crows about does not appear to have reached the executive dining room where few women, and even fewer members of ethnic minorities, sit at the table.
How Bashir could have managed to pay a professional forger without anyone else’s knowledge seems fanciful at best. How he was rehired on a fat salary in 2016 as religious and ethics correspondent when the forgery was known about seems incredible. And yet, there has been little in the way of apology, punishment or ramifications of any kind.
The Royal Family has come through many scandals. Even now Prince Harry seems determined to pull it all down around him in a festival of self-pity. But it is a family that has survived much over the centuries.
The BBC may not prove to be quite so robust. This could be the beginning of the end.