The late Princess Diana was a media mastermind, an unabashed spin doctor of her own wounded cause. That’s not to say her cause was illegitimate: Marrying a man with little interest in loving her, she was sold a raw deal disguised with the saccharine frosting of her wedding cake.
Royal life was not the pleasure she’d been promised, marriage was not the solace she’d long sought, and womanhood was as terrifying and cruel as she’d always feared. Diana could be impetuous, but she was not unjustified. Which, of course, made the BBC’s use of her paranoia all the more tragic.
As depicted in the latest season of The Crown, the Princess of Wales was fanning the flames of her marriage’s collapse when Martin Bashir, a reporter with the BBC’s investigative Panorama unit, caught wind of her desperation. Her former lover, James Hewitt, had released a book about her; another lover, Oliver Hoare, had driven her to engage in obsessive phone calls late at night. Prince Charles had revealed his adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby in a broadcast interview of his own, along with the revelation that he’d never really loved his wife.
In essence: Diana was wounded, and she felt the Firm closing in around her. She’d long harbored suspicions that her phones were bugged; that her staff were betraying her; that the whole Palace brigade was in cahoots to oust her. Bashir clocked these emotions after Andrew Morton’s biography Diana: Her True Story was published, and headlines surged with reports that she’d been mistreated and denied. In other words, she was vulnerable. But she was also on the defense.
The princess was hunting for a chance to strike back against her separated husband, something with more oomph than the much-discussed “revenge dress.” Bashir gave it to her, though through an act of astonishing deception. Over the course of multiple months, he convinced her to do a television interview, one in which she could air all her grievances without interference. But to seal the deal, Bashir employed a Panorama graphics artist to create fake bank statements, ones that “proved” payments between News International—publishers of News of the World—and a one-time employee of Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother. Bashir forged a fake connection between her inner circle and the media, further catalyzing Diana’s fears that those closest to her were betraying her.
And so she engaged in her own act of deception: She betrayed the Palace’s unspoken rule of never speaking. She knew the power of media, and she decided to use it. The BBC interview took place on a Sunday in 1995 at Kensington Palace, after the staff had left for the evening. The reporters and their camera gear entered Diana’s sitting room under the guise of delivering a new hi-fi system. Diana later dropped a press release announcing that the broadcast would air on November 14—Prince Charles’ birthday.
In reality, the interview aired on the 20th, but the impact was no less felt in the Prince of Wales’ camp. Nor did it go over well at the BBC. As The Crown shows, the BBC Board of Governors chairman was Marmaduke Hussey, who was married to Lady Susan Hussey, a close friend of the queen. BBC Director General John Birt chose not to warn Hussey of the Diana broadcast, lest it be shelved due to its indictment of Prince Charles and the sovereign. As Tina Brown wrote in her 2007 book The Diana Chronicles, “This time Diana’s ‘instinct for co-option’ had ensnared the institution that for the last half-century had not only punctiliously negotiated its access to the Royal Family through official channels but had also been the television partner of the Monarchy for every state occasion since the Queen’s Coronation.”
The broadcast was earth-shaking: Lines like, “There were three of us in this marriage,” and “She won’t go quietly, that’s the problem,” resound to this day. Twenty-three million Britons tuned in. While the Morton book had allowed Diana deniability, there was no denying what the Princess of Wales was saying herself, right on TV. Everything from her kohl-ringed eyes to her soft, stifled laughs spoke to her internal turmoil as naturally as her inner strength. (Actress Elizabeth Debicki, to her credit, absolutely nails every second of her Panorama interview imitation in The Crown.) After the interview aired, a Daily Mirror poll showed public support of the Princess’s broadcast at a stunning 92 percent.
“Diana’s media moves always predicted the zeitgeist,” Brown wrote in her 2022 book The Palace Papers. “Her bombshell interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir in November 1995 was an Oprah confessional without Oprah.”
The Panorama interview was a hard-won moment, one that allowed Diana public support as she stepped into the world as a free woman. But it shook with the tragedies necessitating its existence. She’d been tricked by Bashir, who was eventually discredited in an inquiry by the BBC (though he claimed the forged bank statements “had no bearing on Diana’s decision to be interviewed.”) Princes William and Harry even publicly denounced the tactics used to secure the interview as “deceitful” and “unethical” as recently as 2021. Soon after the interview aired, Diana would be eternally severed from the man she loved: She and Charles formally divorced the following year. As The Crown rightly depicts, the BBC interview was both a tragedy and a revelation, a fitting if painful encapsulation of the woman herself.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.