JONATHAN MAITLAND: Ban of THAT Diana interview is loss to history

By calling on the BBC to never show THAT interview again, Prince William has silenced his mother – and it’s a loss to history… writes JONATHAN MAITLAND, author of a new play on the Princess and Panorama

Has any woman in history been more written or talked about than Diana, Princess of Wales? An online search of her name yields no fewer than 133 million results. There have been more than 2,000 books, many hundreds of documentaries and more than 20 films and TV series.

But curiously there has been no serious stage play devoted just to her. Which is why I have spent the past four years trawling a decent chunk of that mountain of material about her.

Just like other significant royal figures — Queen Victoria, for example — we may think we know everything there is to know about Diana but that won’t stop us trying to find new ways to make sense of her short, tragic life.

In my case, the new lens through which to view her afresh came in the shape of her now-infamous Panorama interview with the disgraced Martin Bashir, who I came to know well during the 13 years we were fellow reporters at the BBC and ITV.

The 2020 Dyson Report — an investigation into how Bashir procured the interview — may have concluded he forged vital documents which helped win her trust but even so, the story of the interview reveals much about her. It shows her at her best but also her worst.

First, the good stuff. We know about the sensational star quality — apart from Marilyn Monroe, has the camera loved anyone more? — but that interview highlighted Diana’s extraordinary, kamikaze-like bravery. You can think she was wrong to grant Bashir an audience in the first place but still admire the moral courage she showed as a 34-year-old woman, single-handedly taking on the British monarchy, one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

An upcoming play about Princess Diana’s infamous BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir will help understand her ‘at her best but also her worst’

There are many who say Bashir manipulated her into it — that she was, in effect, not in her right mind — but I don’t think that’s the case.

She knew what she was doing and it’s clear she was always going to grant someone that interview: it was simply a question of who she did it with. Bashir’s deceit didn’t generate the interview itself, it just ensured that it was he who got the gig.

But thank goodness someone did the so-called ‘interview of the century’ because it’s easy to forget the importance of what she said. Especially since it took place more than 25 years ago, in November 1995.

I’m not referring to the sensational headline-making stuff about there being ‘three of us in this marriage’ but the issues Diana talked about publicly: post-natal depression, bulimia and self-harm.

In 1995, mental health wasn’t the staple of our national conversation like it is today. To admit to so much as a headache, back then, was seen by many as a form of weakness. And even if you think our present-day preoccupation with such topics has gone too far, you can’t argue that it was Diana who helped forge the path to today’s healthier state of affairs.

She was also impressively aspirational. Although, by her own admission, she was famously as ‘thick as a plank’ (a remark she later came to regret), she was always trying to punch up intellectually.

She could have been a mere royal adornment like Princess Margaret but instead she tried to make a difference. The tireless charity work — HIV/Aids, landmines and so on — we know about. But a little-known fact is that, at the time of the interview, Diana volunteered to help in the Northern Ireland peace talks, which were then going on in secret.

Her request was, not surprisingly, refused: had she got involved, they wouldn’t have remained secret much longer. But it’s not outlandish to think her emotional intelligence could have been of value in later years.

The interview also highlighted more regrettable qualities. She could be capricious.

She often had several mobiles on the go at the same time — Bashir had access to one and would ring her several times a day during his intense pre-interview wooing of her — but if someone displeased her, she would simply terminate the relevant number and that person would find themselves cut out of her life for good. Today we would call it ghosting.

More significantly, the whole affair highlighted her catastrophic lack of strategic judgment.

Her attack on her then husband’s fitness to rule was a terrible error. She told Bashir ‘the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him, and I don’t know whether he could adapt to that’. This made her look vindictive.

As her former aide Patrick Jephson argues in his book Shadows Of A Princess, had she taken a more diplomatic line throughout the interview, she would have won the PR battle hands down.

Jephson thinks she could, and should, have forgiven Charles for his behaviour. Indeed, at least one close friend advised her to do just that. But Diana’s view was, essentially: ‘They need to apologise first.’

It would have been hard, admittedly, but had Diana taken a softer approach it would, in the long term, have helped to establish her as a substantial public figure of grace, wisdom and honesty.

She was impressively aspirational. She could have been a mere royal adornment like Princess Margaret but instead she tried to make a difference

The interview also highlighted her catastrophic lack of strategic judgment. Her attack on her then husband’s fitness to rule was a terrible error

Prince William demanded a boycott of the 1995 interview following Lord Dyson’s report, blasting Bashir’s ‘lurid and false claims’ to fuel the ‘paranoia and isolation’ of his mother’s final years 

Imagine if, instead of saying that the marriage was ‘crowded’, she had said: ‘I was heartbroken by my husband’s affair. But for the sake of my children, the country and the Royal Family, I am prepared to forgive and move on.’

If she had found it in herself to be that shrewd, who knows? She, not Camilla, could now be Queen.

Following the Dyson Report, Prince William said: ‘It is my firm view that this programme holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again.’

The BBC immediately agreed to his request and so the interview is now, in effect, banned. Anyone who uses chunks of it for a documentary, film, or indeed play, runs the risk of being sued for breach of copyright.

So that means we can no longer hear, or see, an interview which, despite its dodgy provenance, is a truly historic and significant journalistic document.

I can understand why the BBC caved into William but it was supine and undemocratic. The Corporation should reconsider its decision.

How can it be right for a public-service broadcaster devoted to free speech, to censor a revealing interview with one of the 20th century’s most significant figures? It’s ironic that the eldest son she brought up to have the courage to speak out has silenced his own mother… who had the courage to speak out.

It is a cliché to compare Diana to a tragic heroine but banning the interview will only serve to perpetuate that.

Like Philomela, the beautiful woman of Greek mythology, whose tongue was cut out to stop her telling the truth, Diana has been rendered voiceless.

The fact that we can no longer hear her truth from her own lips means we will continue to be fascinated by her for centuries to come. She was magnificently, terribly, dramatically human.

Outstanding qualities, tragic flaws. We should be shining the spotlight on her, not bringing down the stage curtain.

Jonathan Maitland’s play The Interview runs at Park Theatre, London, from October 27 to November 25. 

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