The tone of his delivery was subdued, which belied the severity with which the future king, Prince William, battered an institution that has historically striven to please and not provoke his family.
There was not one bit of comfort for the BBC in the 315 words uttered by William. This was the most damning criticism a senior royal has ever unleashed on the national broadcaster. Once lauded for its Diana scoop, the BBC will now forever be haunted by the accusation that its failures contributed significantly to the ‘fear, paranoia and isolation’ that Diana experienced in the final years of her life.
William’s statement was both damning and audacious. At its heart was a bold attempt to recast recent royal history. He argued that the deceit deployed by Martin Bashir ‘substantially influenced’ what Diana said in the infamous Panoramainterview. Building on this theme the prince maintained the broadcast had ‘effectively established a false narrative.’
There was no room in the words uttered by William for details of what he believed was the false narrative in the BBC interview that discussed his mother’s affair, Camilla Parker Bowles, and whether or not Charles was capable of fulfilling his destiny, taking on what Diana called the ‘top job’.
In essence, William clearly believes that if his mother had known she was being deceived by Bashir she might not have lit that touch paper in front of a global television audience and accelerated her divorce and her departure from the royal family.
A prince speaking as a bereaved son is a uniquely powerful force. Watching him, I reflected on the impact it could’ve had if he had spoken in the same way after Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World hacked his phone messages, along with his brother’s and his then-girlfriend Kate’s, who was targeted 155 times, including on Christmas day.
Instead of newspaper malpractice it’s the behaviour of the national broadcaster that has attracted royal opprobrium. Lord Reith would be spinning in his grave. From its inception, under Reith’s initial watchful gaze, the BBC has willingly played a pivotal role in sustaining the British monarchy.
Reith encouraged George V to make the first Christmas broadcast; he was in a nearby room as Edward VIII delivered his abdication message; and the Director General ensured during the war that the corporation was, in the words of the historian Ben Pimlott, a ‘propaganda mouthpiece’ for the monarchy. To this day, the BBC has a Royal Liaison Officer to smooth the path for programmes focusing on the royals. Thankfully, in my time, the holder of the office never meddled with news coverage.
The punishment meted out by the palace to the BBC after the Diana interview was that it lost its exclusive right to broadcast the Christmas message. Three decades on, how will William react now to the Bashir revelations?
The two institutions need each other. An accommodation will be found. But the BBC, as it approaches its centenary year, is tarnished. And Prince William will believe that his deep, lifelong wariness of all media, not just the tabloids, is justified.
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