This week in the United Kingdom, a time-traveling visitor from the 1990s might have been excused for thinking that Princess Diana had never died.
For Diana, perhaps the most iconic figure of modern royal history, has been everywhere.
Diana’s tragic story is, for example, the beating heart of the new Netflix series of The Crown, which becomes available for streaming on Sunday. Played by newcomer Emma Corrin, the shy Diana of The Crown looks set to conquer the small screen this winter.
Diana has also not been far from the minds of keen observers of the royal family owing to her two sons’ increasingly nasty feud. Meghan and Harry’s sense of victimization by the royal establishment has seemed to many like one of history’s rhyming couplets, except these two did actually manage to flee the crushing gravitational field of Buckingham Palace (one imagines Diana would be delighted for them, if saddened by the animosity between her beloved boys).
Among the many oddly Diana-centric coincidences of this moment is that the next time we are likely to see William and Harry standing side by side is at an event to unveil a statue of their mother in the summer of 2021.
However, Diana is back in the news this week because of some extraordinary allegations of corrupt journalism connected with the famous interview with Martin Bashir, in which she revealed that her marriage was “a bit crowded.” Twenty-five years after that interview, persistent rumors that Diana and her brother, Earl Spencer, were persuaded to engage with Bashir by deception on his part have now been confirmed.
It has long been known that Bashir ordered a graphic designer to create fake bank statements that suggested trusted aides were selling secrets to the press and feeding intelligence to the British security services, in an apparent attempt to feed Diana’s insecurities.
Now, however, the designer who mocked up the bank statements, and who has for decades been used as a scapegoat by the BBC, gave an interview to an ITV program investigating the background and fallout of the interview this week. Matt Wiessler, 58, said that he was led to believe the statements he made were just being used as props, and was horrified when he learnt they had actually been presented to Earl Spencer, forming part of Bashir’s campaign to get Diana to sit down with him.
When the Daily Mail revealed, six months after the interview first screened, the existence of the fake statements, the BBC cleared Bashir and effectively blamed Wiessler by saying it would never work with him again. After being thus blacklisted, he left the media and now works for a bicycle design company in rural England.
Bashir, by contrast, went on to be hailed as one of the great celebrity interviewers of his generation, and to have a storied career that notably included his devastating series of interviews with Michael Jackson.
Wiessler said in the new interview, screened this week: “I was the one that was going to be the fall guy in this story. All I want is for the BBC in this instance to come forward and honestly make an apology. Because it’s had a huge impact.”
He told the program: “I’m this guy that’s remembered for forging the document and I want to clear my name.”
He thought the bank statements he was asked to create were going to be used for background shots, in fact, Bashir took the fakes to Earl Charles Spencer. Spencer said that this, along with other deceptions were the reason he introduced Bashir to his sister. He is asking for a posthumous apology to Diana, and a fully independent investigation into the BBC’s handling of what he calls “a whitewash” and “a web of deceit.”
Wiessler said he was afraid to speak up before now, in part because he was spooked when computer disks containing the forged bank statements were stolen from his London flat in a break-in.
He said: “I became quite paranoid, because I thought there must be more to this statement story than I can ever dream of. Because, why would this happen? Why would someone break in? And I wasn’t getting any clear answers from anyone.”
Spencer says that while the documents led him to introduce Bashir to Diana, after the actual meeting with Diana (which he attended) he tried to discourage her, because Bashir had trotted out a series of fantastical stories including that the queen was terminally ill, Prince Edward had an incurable disease and 13-year-old Prince William’s new Swatch watch was being used to spy on his mother.
The royal writer Lady Colin Campbell, who was close to Diana up to 1991 when they fell out, told The Daily Beast that Diana was vulnerable and paranoid, and would have been easily convinced by such wild stories.
“Bashir deliberately played upon her extremely suspicious nature and the fact that she was well known to be a fragile personality, who was very susceptible to believing all sorts of extravagant things which to most people would have seemed unrealistic,” she said.
Campbell had met Diana in the 1980s as they were both involved with some of the same charities, and Diana had agreed to a project where Campbell would write a book with her about those charities.
Over the course of dozens of meetings at Kensington Palace, Diana changed course and asked Campbell to write an unauthorized biography of her. Diana dropped her, Campbell says, when she made it clear her book would not be heavily skewed in Diana’s favor. Diana turned to Andrew Morton to do the job instead, but Campbell published her book, Diana in Private, six months before Morton.
Campbell’s book revealed, before Morton did, that Diana was bulimic. It also revealed that both Diana and Charles had been having affairs.
Further evidence of Diana’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories is found in Campbell’s revelation that Diana believed her first extra-marital lover, police bodyguard Barry Mannakee, who was killed in a motorcycle accident, was murdered by the security services.
“She definitely had a paranoid streak in her personality but that does not alter the fact that she had enemies. Bashir cleverly played on all of this and tipped her over the edge,” Campbell told The Daily Beast.
Perhaps, having been so mercilessly targeted by the tabloids and victimized by the royal family, Diana was also clearly ready to talk to an interviewer like Bashir to try and make the public understand what she had been through. She was pursued by paparazzi wherever she went, and the entire Palace machine was set against her.
The royal biographer Penny Junor—previously sympathetic to Prince Charles—told The Daily Beast that while there was “no doubt” Bashir got to Diana “by feeding on her paranoia and insecurity” via the forged bank statements which suggested that her closest aides were untrustworthy, “that once she decided she was going to do it, she then quite enjoyed the process, and was quite gleeful about it. It was a very polished performance. The inexplicable thing is why she didn’t think about her boys. But she wasn’t in a very good frame of mind.”
We may get some additional answers in the next few months, as the BBC has said that it plans to to hold an independent inquiry into all the allegations. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has even been drawn into the matter, expressing the view that such an inquiry is “the right course of action… As a public service broadcaster we expect BBC journalists to adhere to the highest standards.”
Unfortunately, the one man who might be able to answer all the questions is indisposed. The BBC has said it has been unable to speak to Martin Bashir, now the corporation’s religion correspondent, because he has been off work, “seriously unwell” with the coronavirus and recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery.
Bashir was, however, apparently well enough to pop out of his $2.4m London townhouse last week, when he was photographed picking up a curry and a bottle of wine.
Let’s hope he soon feels up to speaking to the BBC’s investigators—and maybe thereby laying to rest forever the unquiet spirit that is Diana’s ghost.