Glasshouses all the way down: As the British press throws rocks over Bashir and Princess Diana, the BBC hands them more

The BBC loves to self-flagellate about past wrongs while the tabloids are sinners who persist in pretending sainthood.

I come not to praise Martin Bashir, but to bury him. It’s just that I also want to throw some of the cheering observers at this sick funeral in the hole with him.

Because, while Lord Dyson’s report comes to the clear conclusion that Bashir used deception to get to Princess Diana and secure the infamous interview, and that the BBC conducted investigations that amounted to the institutional equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing “la, la, la”, the likes of Piers Morgan and other newspaper ghouls past and present cannot occupy the moral high ground.

The story told by Lord Dyson’s report is one of Bashir moving from a junior liar to an inveterate one. After having fake bank statements made up — something he still claims was merely “a stupid thing to do” — Bashir lied and lied and lied again to BBC investigations by executives who had every reason to be credulous.

If Tony Hall, then director of news but now former Director-General Lord Hall, and the then-Director General Lord Birt agreed to believe that Bashir was “even with his lapse, [an] honest and honourable man [who was] contrite,” they didn’t have to ask any further questions about the award-winning scoop or the wider culture of the BBC. This was the BBC’s equivalent of News International’s “one rogue reporter” defence over phone hacking many years later.

The BBC’s investigations into Bashir’s actions were, according to Lord Dyson, “flawed and woefully ineffective” and Hall should not have concluded that Bashir was “honest and honourable”. The BBC covered up not just Bashir’s methods but that there had even been an investigation into them.

Lord Dyson concludes that the BBC “fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark”, which is the former senior judge equivalent of The Sweeney saying, “We’ve got you bang to rights, you slags.”

Similarly when Lord Dyson says that Hall and Anne Sloman, then acting Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, “did not scrutinise Mr Bashir’s account with caution and the necessary degree of scepticism” after knowing he had lied to them three times and failed to “provide them with any credible explanation of why he had commissioned the statements”, a reasonable translation would be: “How fucking stupid were you pretending to be, exactly?”

Across the 127-page report, Lord Dyson paints a detailed picture of studied ignorance at the BBC, with executives — right to Lord Birt at the top — actively trying to bury the Bashir bad news. The section that has the newspapers salivating is point 300 where Dyson says:

I am satisfied that the BBC covered up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview. I am not persuaded by the attempts that have been made in this investigation to justify the evasive responses that were given to the questions by the press.

The BBC should have answered these questions once it had completed its investigation in April 1996… there was no good reason not to mention the issue at all on any news programme. By failing to do so, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark.

That Dyson says there was an official BBC line to editors which “must have been someone from senior management” but “can’t say who it was” leaves the press with a tasty mystery to sink their teeth into.

The part that most newspapers reports skip over or scramble to find excuses for, however, is the section where Dyson says:

In May 1995… It is clear that Princess Diana was now very keen to talk to the BBC. I have no evidence of the reason for the change in her attitude to the idea of talking to the BBC. It is possible that it was, in part at least, as a result of the Princess Charles interview…

Prince Charles 1994 interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, his official biographer, had included an admission of adultery, which was hard to deny after the 1993 publication by The People of a transcript of a bedtime conversation between Charles and Camilla recorded in 1989. You know, the one where Charles wished he could be Camilla’s Tampax…

Princess Diana was 34 at the time she gave the Panorama interview with Bashir. But in The Times today, Valentine Low writes:

Everything Diana said and did in her Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, from her make-up to her carefully rehearsed lines about Charles and Camilla, was calculated to make the maximum impact. Not even Diana, however, could have realised quite how damaging the interview would be — or indeed that she would come to regret it.

Dressed in black, and with her eyes heavily ringed with kohl, Diana wanted to portray herself as a victim but also as strong and defiant.

That phrase “portray herself as a victim” has a familiar ring to it if you’ve spent much time looking at the coverage by Low and others in the British press who have obsessed over Harry and Meghan in recent years; a sneer poking out from beneath a thin veneer of politeness.

Without Diana here to give her reflections on the interview, Low opts for a quote from Rosa Monckton, a friend of Diana’s who popped up in the tabloids to talk about their friendship countless times in the subsequent years:

After Diana’s death her friend Rosa Monckton said that she later regretted what she had done. “As the wounded, trapped animal she could be terrifying, and her infamous Panorama interview was an example of that,” she said.

“It was born of some basic desire to hurt those who she felt betrayed her. But she also had the ability to admit her mistakes, and she said to me that she regretted doing the programme. The sad thing is that it was her only television interview, and it was Diana at her worst.”

Just as the press now acts as though Prince Harry — 36, two years older than when Diana did the Panorama interview — is not capable of making his own decisions, it has returned to writing about the Princess as if she were a scared puppy without the higher executive functions required to make decisions.

Prince William’s statement on the Dyson inquiry’s findings is understandably raw:

It is welcome that the BBC accepts Lord Dyson’s findings in full – which are extremely concerning – that BBC employees: lied and used fake documents to obtain the interview with my mother; made lurid and false claims about the Royal Family which played on her fears and fuelled paranoia; displayed woeful incompetence when investigating complaints and concerns about the programme; and were evasive in their reporting to the media and covered up what they knew from their internal investigation.

It is my view that the deceitful way the interview was obtained substantially influenced what my mother said. The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others.

It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.

But William was also a child when the interview was broadcast and his view of the events seems to skim over the fact that his father spoke first. The notion that Bashir needed to cajole Diana into saying the things she did is not a credible one. It’s clear he fuelled her fears to ensure she spoke to him but Charles’ words and actions had already made her keen to ‘speak out’.

Prince Harry’s statement — shorter and sharper than his brother’s — will get quoted less by the newspapers, particularly the tabloids, because he is less reticent about drawing a line between Bashir then and the media now:

Our mother was an incredible woman who dedicated her life to service. She was resilient, brave, and unquestionably honest.

The ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life.

To those who have taken some form of accountability, thank you for owning it. That is the first step towards justice and truth. Yet what deeply concerns me is that practices like these – and even worse – are still widespread today. Then, and now, it’s bigger than one outlet, one network, or one publication.

Our mother lost her life because of this, and nothing has changed. By protecting her legacy, we protect everyone, and uphold the dignity with which she lived her life. Let’s remember who she was and what she stood for.

While Harry has been speaking candidly about the dark deal between the Royals and the British press, William and Kate continue to comply with it — whether it’s offering quotes in support of tabloid newspaper campaigns or acquiescing to their children’s pictures being featured in free souvenir calendars.

The Bashir revelations — which were not remotely surprising to anyone who has watched his career since — have provided vast amounts of ammunition to the tabloids, especially the Mail titles who have chased Bashir’s wrong-doing since the interview was first broadcast. But once again the British press is engaged in a Captain Renault in Casablanca act — it is shocked! shocked! that a journalist might do dodgy things to ensure a scoop. It maintains that shock by scrupulously ignoring the long list of court settlements by tabloid newspapers over phone hacking and all kinds of other ‘blagging’.

I have neither the space nor the time to address every single hypocrite in the British press putting their hands to their keyboards to decry Bashir while having so many skeletons in their closets that they resemble extremely amateurish ossuaries. Instead let’s focus on a particularly poisonous hypocrite, one who absolutely loves the attention — Mr Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan.

From within one of the biggest glasshouses in the British media, Morgan is once again throwing stones and howling about how much he bloody loves to throw stones and is certain no stones will ever shatter his beautiful house.

Piers Morgan was interviewed by the police in 2000 over the alleged theft of 60 letters written by Diana to Captain James Hewitt between 1989 and 1991. The half-an-hour interview, conducted by Scotland Yard’s Serious and Organised Crime Unit, took place at Charing Cross police station on the third anniversary of Princess Diana’s death.

Morgan, then editor of The Daily Mirror, said at the time:

The Mirror tried to protect the name and memory of Diana from improper exploitation by James Hewitt and I am proud of having done so… It seems a curious use of public money to deploy high-ranking detectives from the country’s most important crime unit in such a matter.

But in 2019, the story of the stolen letters returned to the spotlight. Byline Investigates reported1 that allegations about Morgan’s involvement in the plot to steal the letters resurfaced in submissions made as part of Prince Harry’s legal action against the Mirror’s parent company. It wrote:

Anna Ferretti entered the Devon home of her then-lover, Major James Hewitt, with her sister at her side – and a sensational and potentially lucrative heist on her mind.

While Italian socialite Ms Ferretti kept the housekeeper talking, her sister Lucia was targeting James Hewitt’s safe, from which were taken 62 private letters written to him by Diana, Princess of Wales, many sent while he was serving with the British army as a tank commander in the Gulf in 1991.

Ms Ferretti, it later emerged, was motivated by vengeance as well as money. She considered herself a woman scorned, and was betraying Major Hewitt because she had been shown – by journalists from the Mirror – photographs of him apparently with another woman.

What she was not told, however, was that the ‘other woman’ was none other than the Mirror’s own reporter Carol Aye Maung – and that the images were secretly taken by the paper with the intention of setting James Hewitt up.

… Angry, Ms Ferretti hatched a plan to steal the letters and sell them to her new allies at the Mirror, whose staff even physically twice drove her to Bratton Clovelly, Devon, where the burglary took place in March 1998.

And within days of the theft, the Mirror had indeed published parts of the letters, with the full front page headline: DIANA LOVE LETTERS SCANDAL EXPOSED BY MIRROR.

However, Ms Ferretti did not receive the £150,000 she negotiated for the sale. Put simply, she was double crossed.

In his 2005 diaries, The Insider — a rich source of partial admissions — Piers Morgan wrote:

There was no way we could ever publish them…

We set up a trap in which we promised Ferretti £150,000 if she handed over all the letters. She was greedy and eager and went back to get them all from the safe… Obviously we had a read of them before we sent them back. I mean, what human being wouldn’t have?

There was no criminal inquiry into the theft of the letters, something that Hewitt and others have speculated was because their contents would have embarrassed the Royal Family.

Regardless, Morgan’s shocked! shocked! act over the Bashir revelations is most galling because he has time and again avoided the consequences of his actions. There was never a Mirror Group Newspapers investigation into the way he acted as editor and his own ‘methods’ of getting scoops. Even now, Piers Morgan’s glasshouse remains gleaming, as long as you avoid all the mucky fingerprints.

As I write this newsletter, Nick Robinson and the rest of the Today programme team, especially the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan, are engaging in the traditional self-flagellation. There is nothing the BBC enjoys more than reporting on itself, gnashing its teeth and rending its garments over appalling things that happened years ago, while ignoring the things it’s fucking up right now.

But would British newspapers ever tell inconvenient truths about themselves as the BBC did with the Dyson Inquiry? Not a chance. The British press lied, dissembled and distracted throughout the Leveson Inquiry and applied heavy political pressure to ensure the second phase of Lord Leveson’s work, which was intended to explore connections between public officials — including the police — and the press never happened.

All these years on, the tabloids are still pretending that they had no role in the death of Princess Diana, that they had not hounded her for years and had not paid paparazzi to follow her at all times. In fact, they’re mirroring that behaviour right now by turning her youngest son, Prince Harry, into a press piñata because he has dared to say how the game works.

Papers like The Daily Mail are now making Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, an ally because he’s criticising the BBC. They thought very differently of him after his excoriating eulogy and his comments after her funeral:

I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling.

As the tabloids and broadsheets alike throw their stones today, remember how many of their proprietors, editors, and hacks are living in glasshouses, arrogantly assured that no one will smash their comfy positions.

The Dyson report was released after 6 months of investigations. The inquiry into the death of Daniel Morgan, which has also been in the news this week, began in 2013. Its 1,000-page report into questions of police corruption and the alleged involvement of the Murdoch press has still not been published. On Tuesday, Priti Patel demanded the findings be handed over for review before publication, mumbling about “national security concerns”.

The BBC’s greatest failing in the Bashir case is that it was far less competent in the matter of cover-ups than the rest of the British media.

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Read the whole piece. It’s definitely worth your time.