IN one of several documentaries marking 25 years since Diana’s Panorama interview, one former tabloid editor recalled how she was dubbed “The Princess of Sales” for her ability to make money for the papers.

More than two decades on, Diana is still on the front pages. This time, however, the focus is not on what she said in that interview. The sound bites – three people in the marriage, she will not go quietly, I adored him – are so well worn as to have lost much of their impact. But how and why did she come to say such things to the reporter Martin Bashir?

Therein lies a tale. It has been alleged by the Princess’s brother, Earl Spencer, that Bashir used faked documents to convince him, and in turn Diana, that he was on her side, and should be given the interview everyone wanted. The mocked-up bank statements were supposed to show newspaper payments to sources for information on the princess.

Further, it is claimed that the BBC knew what had happened but chose not to act on it, save for sacking the graphic artist allegedly commissioned by Bashir. The executives concerned with the story, and the subsequent inquiry, went on to bigger and better things, while Bashir, after a spell in the US, returned to the BBC in 2016 as religion editor, a job he still holds.

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After days of its usual deer in the headlights impersonation, the corporation has now blinked. Tim Davie, the new director-general, has promised an independent inquiry to “get to the truth” about the fake bank statements and other documents. It cannot start a moment too soon. This murky affair has the potential to do for the BBC what phone-hacking did to some newspapers. It is that serious.

At this point it is customary to rush to the defence of dear old Auntie. Isn’t this just another stick to be wielded by a government and press that hate the BBC? Wasn’t it quite the coincidence that this story should surface around the same time as the UK Culture Secretary was starting talks on the licence fee, and a government review into public sector broadcasting is taking shape?

In any event, who cares about the princess’s motivations? She said what she said. It was a quarter century ago. There are far more pressing matters with which to concern ourselves. In these coronavirus times has not Auntie, as so often when there is a crisis, shown she is worth her weight in gold? Add a mention of Strictly, the World Service, and a dash of Morecambe and Wise, and there you have it – the perfect cocktail to make you forget any notion of the BBC being in the wrong. Drink up chaps, and let’s have another.

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Except we know the BBC does occasionally get things wrong, and is often its own worst enemy when it does. From its performance over the gender pay gap to the disappearance, then reappearance, of the First Minister of Scotland’s daily briefings on coronavirus, the BBC has form in doing the right thing only when other options have been exhausted.

The Diana interview remains relevant today for many reasons, and it is vital that that any investigation should be independent and its findings published. As a former chairman, Lord Grade, said this week, a “dark cloud” has been cast over the corporation’s journalism. On the BBC’s World at One on Monday, he asked: “Was it known by those editorially in charge of the BBC at the time that forged bank statements had been used, or were tried to be used? … Who knew, when, and was it covered-up at the time?”

An internal BBC inquiry took place in 1996, after allegations about the bank statements appeared in a newspaper, but came to nothing. If there was a cover-up, how has it managed to stay intact for so long? If not for the sterling work done by Channel 4, ITV and the Daily Mail, and the prompting of Diana’s brother, few would be any the wiser.

Quite apart from the possible damage done to the BBC’s reputation, there are obvious victims here. I do not think the course of history would have been changed had there been no sit-down, or a different interviewer. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, Andrew Morton had already told all in his biography Diana: Her True Story, in 1992, and Prince Charles had confessed his adultery on TV a year before his wife’s interview with Bashir. The truth was in plain sight. But one has to wonder, as one friend of Diana’s has, whether the acquaintance with Bashir fuelled her anxieties, made her believe that this interview was the only fitting response to the situation in which she found herself.

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Another victim is Matt Wiessler, the graphic artist who turned whistleblower. He gave his first interview on camera to the ITV team who made The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess, shown on Monday and Tuesday this week. Wiessler says he was made the fall guy after reporting his concerns to management. After that initial inquiry, led by Tony Hall, then director of news, the BBC’s governors were told, by Hall, that the artist would not work for the corporation again. He struggled to get work for anyone, and believes he was blacklisted.

He is at the front of the queue of those who want an apology from the BBC. As for Bashir, he was said by the BBC to be too ill from heart surgery and Covid-19 to answer questions, yet he was pictured in the Mail on Sunday returning home with a takeaway.

There are plenty of questions to be answered by him and his BBC managers then and since. This “cloud” over the BBC has not been put there by one of its hardworking, not very well paid staff, many of whom are on contracts, but by the Beeb’s officer class, the “men in chinos” who stuff the upper ranks of the corporation; the ones who never apologise and only explain when they absolutely must.

As Lord Grade said, the BBC holds itself in high esteem and is the first one to call for independent inquiries, but when it comes to itself “the rules seem to change”. The corporation has the chance here to prove its critics wrong, or admit it was itself wrong. Either way it must act.

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