Here's the true story behind Princess Diana's controversial Panorama interview

why was diana's panorama interview so controversial
True story behind Diana's controversial interviewTim Graham - Getty Images

The Crown is back for season five, and to say we're ~into~ the royal drama would be an understatement. From Tampongate to rumours that Prince Philip had an affair, there seems to be no storyline too scandalous when it comes to season five of The Crown – which explores the events of the early nineties, up until Princess Diana's tragic death in 1997.

With that time frame in mind, it should come as no surprise that the show's creators opted to include Princess Diana's landmark Panorama interview, despite Prince William's request that it "should never be aired again".

The dramatisation of the lead up to the controversial interview takes place in episode seven of The Crown 'No Woman's Land', with the actual recording of Diana's interview with Martin Bashir being the focus of episode eight 'Gunpowder'.

Three decades on from the interview that rocked the Royal Family, and amid The Crown's retelling of it – with Elizabeth Debicki in the hot seat – we took a deep dive into the controversy surrounding Princess Diana's Panorama interview...

Why was Princess Diana's Panorama interview so controversial?

Queen Elizabeth II notoriously kept royal scandals under wraps, ensuring that family matters were kept behind closed doors and that speculation was shut down as early on as possible. Stiff upper lip, and all.

But on 20 November 1995, that changed when Princess Diana sat down for an interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir on Panorama – along with 20 million people who tuned in to watch.

the true story behind diana's controversial panorama interview
Tim Graham - Getty Images

What did Princess Diana say in the Panorama interview?

In the 54-minute live interview – which was the last of its kind until Prince Andrew’s disastrous Newsnight special in November 2019 – the then-Princess of Wales did not shy away from Bashir's hard-hitting questions about her time as a royal, her battle with mental and physical illnesses, as well as her thoughts on the future of the monarchy.

Perhaps most notable of all, Diana went into great detail about Charles' ongoing romance with Camilla Parker Bowles – as well as her own extramarital affair – uttering the now-infamous line: "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

At the time of the interview, the Prince and Princess of Wales had formally separated, but a divorce was not yet underway – something which Diana said she was not pursuing due to being a child of divorce herself. Nevertheless the interview proved to be the tipping point in the Wales' marriage, and less than a month later, divorce papers were filed upon the Queen's advice.

Elsewhere in the interview, Diana admitted that her friends had cooperated with Andrew Morton's biography, for which she herself had secretly recorded tapes. She also revealed her thoughts on who should succeed the Queen as monarch in the "top job", telling Bashir that: "There was always conflict on that subject, with him [Charles]."

Diana went on, "Being Prince of Wales produces more freedom now and being King would be a little bit more suffocating. And because I know the character, I would think that the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him and I don't know whether he could adapt to that."

As for whether Diana saw herself as one day being Queen, she said: "No, I don't, no."

"I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts, in people's hearts, but I don't see myself being Queen of this country. I don't think many people will want me to be Queen," the then-35-year-old added. "Actually, when I say many people I mean the establishment that I married into because they have decided that I'm a non-starter."

"Because I do things differently because I don't go by a rule book, because I lead from the heart, not the head, and albeit that's got me into trouble in my work, I understand that. But someone's got to go out there and love people and show it."

How did the Royal Family react to Princess Diana's Panorama interview?

Unsurprisingly, the royals kept tight-lipped during the fallout of Diana's interview, but that didn't stop those close to The Firm divulging their thoughts on it. "I had lunch with the Queen not long after and she said to me unprompted, 'How are things at the BBC?' and I said, 'Oh well, fine'. And she said, 'Frightful thing to do, frightful thing that my daughter-in-law did'," Sir Richard Eyre, BBC's controller of editor policy at the time of the interview, said on Channel 5's Diana: The Interview That Shocked The World.

More recently, Princes William and Harry have condemned the interview, particularly due to the means through which it was secured (we'll come to that shortly). "It is my firm view that this Panorama programme holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again," William said last year. "It effectively established a false narrative which, for over a quarter of a century, has been commercialised by the BBC and others."

"Our mother was an incredible woman who dedicated her life to service. She was resilient, brave, and unquestionably honest," Prince Harry added. "The ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life."

the true story behind diana's controversial panorama interview
Princess Diana just hours before her interview with BBC’s Panorama aired.JOHNNY EGGITT - Getty Images

What happened after Princess Diana's Panorama interview?

In May 2021, an independent inquiry – The Lord Dyson Report – found that the BBC covered up "deceitful behaviour" by Bashir to obtain the Panorama interview. The investigation was prompted by Princess Diana's brother Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer, who questioned the legitimacy of how Bashir got Diana on side.

In his inquiry, Lord Dyson found that Bashir deceived Earl Spencer into introducing the journalist to his sister by showing him forged bank statements that falsely suggested individuals were being paid to keep the Princess under surveillance.

Bashir – who is played by Prasanna Puwanarajah in The Crown – said that mocking up the documents "was a stupid thing to do" and he regretted it, but claimed they had no bearing on Diana's decision to be interviewed.

In light of Dyson's findings, BBC Director-General, Tim Davie said: "Although the report states that Diana, Princess of Wales, was keen on the idea of an interview with the BBC, it is clear that the process for securing the interview fell far short of what audiences have a right to expect. We are very sorry for this. Lord Dyson has identified clear failings.

"While today’s BBC has significantly better processes and procedures, those that existed at the time should have prevented the interview being secured in this way. The BBC should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew."

Can you watch Princess Diana's Panorama interview?

Unlike other TV shows that you can easily watch time after time on streaming services like Netflix, Princess Diana's controversial Panorama interview isn't as easy to find. Clips of the interview are available on YouTube – although, not from the official BBC account – and snippets have been used in various royal documentaries throughout the years.

The Crown season five is available to stream on Netflix from 9 November.

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