Last year must have been tough for Nicola Young. The 54-year-old town clerk of Whitchurch in Shropshire achieved a unique distinction: she became the first person to be successfully prosecuted under the 20-year-old Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.
Ms Young’s crime was to destroy audio recordings of a councillor speaking in a debate, which had been requested under the FoI Act.
Hers was a court case which, while significant in legal circles, was understandably missed by most people.
But, for me, there was something unsettling about the way the full force of the law came thundering down on Ms Young, forcing her to pay £2,000 in fines and legal costs.
Tricked: A careful study of the Bashir report raises new questions about how key material was lost (pictured, Martin Bashir interviewing Diana, in his bombshell 1995 interview)
Because while a lowly town clerk has been clobbered for covering up information, one of this country’s most powerful institutions – the BBC – still has serious questions to answer over its handling of incriminating evidence related to its biggest-ever scandal.
It is a story I know well, having researched it for many years. Indeed, I am one of a small number of reporters who helped to prise open Dianagate: the exposure of the jaw-dropping deception deployed by BBC reporter Martin Bashir to land his sensational 1995 interview with Princess Diana.
The tawdry details of this saga are by now familiar.
Bashir tricked Princess Diana into appearing on the BBC’s flagship Panorama programme. He did so peddling a litany of outrageous lies and smears to the Princess, including encouraging Diana to believe the preposterous claim that Royal nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke had a secret holiday with Prince Charles and an ‘abortion’.
Convinced by Bashir’s deception, Diana appeared on TV and carefully denounced Prince Charles as unfit to rule, setting in train one of the worst crises to hit the Royal Family.
In May of this year, more than 25 years after that sensational interview, Lord Dyson, a former Supreme Court judge, finally laid bare the astonishing depth of Bashir’s activities in an excoriating report. He condemned the reporter’s ‘deceitful behaviour’ and was also highly critical of Lord Hall, the former BBC Director General.
Lord Hall had headed an earlier internal inquiry into the Bashir affair after this newspaper exposed his activities on its front page in 1996, but Dyson concluded that the investigation had been ‘woefully ineffective’.
Dyson’s report also condemned the BBC for covering up what it knew about Bashir’s conduct amid a growing media storm sparked by the MoS scoop.
Dyson’s report runs to 127 pages, with a further 78 pages of the original documents which underpin his findings. All are publicly available. But what has not been made public is the tortuous journey of these documents into the public domain.
A careful study of the report, and journalistic digging on my part, raises new questions about how key material was lost and even whether there were attempts to deliberately hide some of the most incriminating evidence at the heart of this scandal.
I have discovered that some of the most compelling documents, which led directly to Dyson’s damning findings, were not retained by the BBC and instead went missing for more than two decades. This must raise the possibility of a deliberate attempt to obscure the truth.
In May of this year, more than 25 years after that sensational interview, Lord Dyson, (pictured) a former Supreme Court judge, finally laid bare the astonishing depth of Bashir’s activities in an excoriating 127-page report
Indeed it is only by extraordinary good luck – and meticulous record-keeping on behalf of some BBC staff after they left the Corporation – that a series of critical documents ever saw the light of day.
The key exhibit, the crown jewel of the Diana archive, is labelled Document 13 in an annex to Dyson’s report. In a trial, Document 13 would be the prosecution’s devastating trump card – the smoking gun, presented with a theatrical flourish, as the jury gasp.
It comprises a six-page statement, handwritten in an A4 lined notebook. The writing, complete with frequent spelling mistakes and crossings-out, grows more crabbed and untidy as the story unfolds. But it is worth making the effort to follow the narrative.
The statement was compiled by Tim Gardam, then a 40-year-old executive in the BBC News department, on March 28, 1996 – just over four months after the broadcast of the interview that shook the world.
Dyson was also highly critical of Lord Hall, the former BBC Director General, (pictured) who headed an earlier internal inquiry into the Bashir affair, but Dyson concluded that the investigation had been ‘woefully ineffective’
As head of weekly programmes for BBC News, Gardam was a high-flyer: a Cambridge double-first English scholar who was tipped as a future Director General.
He began looking into Bashir’s behaviour before the press became involved because Panorama whistleblowers had raised concerns. In his statement he recorded how he made various attempts to establish why Bashir had commissioned a BBC graphic designer to forge two bank statements and what Bashir had done with the forgeries.
On at least three occasions, Bashir assured Gardam that the forgeries had not been shown to anyone.
By this time, the BBC was facing mounting questions from this newspaper over how Bashir had secured his scoop. Indeed, the MoS had told the BBC it believed the reporter had shown the fake documents to Earl Spencer in a bid to secure an interview with his sister.
On the evening of Saturday, March 23, 1996, hours before the BBC believed the MoS was about to break its story, Bashir cracked. In a phone call with Gardam, the reporter admitted he had shown the fakes to Earl Spencer. Bashir was, in effect, confessing to having repeatedly lied to his bosses.
Dyson ruled that the presentation of the forgeries was crucial in inducing Earl Spencer into arranging a meeting between the reporter and his sister. Hence, no forgeries, no Panorama interview.
Although restrained, Gardam’s 1996 statement highlights the significance of Bashir’s confession.
‘I told Bashir that this overturned every assurance the BBC had been given and the BBC would have to consider its position,’ he wrote.
In his Zoom interview with Dyson, recorded on February 16 this year, Gardam was more explicit.
‘I remember absolutely crystal clear, because, you know, it was one of those moments when you just go cold and I know exactly where I was standing at the time. I was absolutely staggered that a BBC journalist… [would]… deceive someone, and then at the same time lie to his editors and managers.’
Document 1: A six-page statement, handwritten and compiled by Tim Gardam, a former BBC news exec, reveals how Bashir admitted in a phone call he had shown the fakes to Earl Spencer and repeatedly lied to his bosses
Document 2: Rogue reporter's handwritten confession: Martin Bashir crucially admits showing the completed forged documents to Spencer in order to ‘encourage the relationship’
Document 3: This 1996 reprimand letter to Bashir, in which he was rebuked for forging the bank statements and then failing to tell Gardam that he had shown them to Earl Spencer, was 'probably' never sent
Document 4: This is the note, handwritten by Princess Diana herself on her monogrammed notepaper, at Kensington Palace, on Friday, December 22, 1995
Document 13 tells the reader all they really need to know about the Diana scandal. It is the sole item in the entire Diana dossier in which Bashir is unequivocally portrayed as a liar.
As Gardam was careful to put on record during his talk with Dyson, regarding the handwritten statement, he ‘gave it to the office of Lord Hall’, retaining a copy for himself.
But here is the extraordinary punchline, not revealed publicly before now. Document 13, the most crucial piece of evidence and the key to the entire affair, was not presented to Dyson by the BBC.
Gardam left the BBC’s employment 25 years ago. A former close colleague claimed that Gardam was ‘astonished’ to learn, during his encounter with Dyson, that the copy of the notes which he had preserved was the only one in existence, or at least the only one presented to the inquiry.
Had the BBC failed to present this vital piece of evidence? I put that question to Dyson himself. His solicitor replied: ‘I am able to confirm that Mr Gardam provided his notes dated… to the Investigation direct when responding to Dyson’s request for evidence. The notes were not provided to the Investigation by any other source.’
So what happened to the document Gardam gave Lord Hall’s office and why was such crucial evidence not apparently archived by the BBC?
The fate of three other vital documents also raises important questions.
Document 12 is a second handwritten statement, five pages long and tidier than Gardam’s hurried scrawl, with paragraphs neatly numbered and both the time and date carefully noted: March 28, 1996, 11.30am.
The handwriting is that of Martin Bashir and is effectively a confession. Crucially, he admits showing the completed forged documents to Spencer in order to ‘encourage the relationship’. But in an apparent attempt to muddy the waters, he also falsely says Spencer earlier gave him a photocopy of a bank statement. Document 12 clearly contains material of vital interest to Dyson.
I asked the BBC whether they had presented a copy of it, amid the large bundle of other documents presented to Dyson’s solicitor. They had not. It is not known how it came into Dyson’s possession.
Meanwhile a third document –Document 11 in Dyson’s report –became, for a time last year, Britain’s most famous missing piece of paper.
This is the note, handwritten by Princess Diana herself, at Kensington Palace, on Friday, December 22, 1995.
It is written on Diana’s personally monogrammed notepaper and states that Bashir ‘did not show me any documents, nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of’.
I have a special interest in this document. In 2007, I requested to see it, in an FoI application, but was told by the BBC that it did not hold any correspondence with the Princess about her interview.
Astonishingly, on November 10, 2020, 24 hours after the announcement of Dyson’s inquiry, the BBC announced that the note had now been located.
Dyson’s account of the note’s 25- year history is intriguing, to say the least. He says, though does not explain the reasoning, that the mysterious story was provided to him ‘on condition of confidentiality’.
In essence, back in 1996 a member of BBC management told someone, who has never been identified, to guard the note ‘with his life’.
The individual took it home and, despite widespread coverage in the newspapers and TV, was apparently not aware of the hunt for the note until early November 2020.
So why did a BBC manager ensure that Princess Diana’s note of exculpation was squirrelled away, off the premises, yet carefully guarded?
I have a suggestion. The danger of it being allowed to remain in the archive was the red flag it would present to future historians, who would understandably be desperate to know what exactly were these mysterious ‘documents’ the Princess denied seeing.
It is also possible that, with an inquiry in prospect, the person holding the document decided they had held on to this hottest of potatoes for quite long enough.
It is difficult to think of a more important historical artefact than this handwritten note, by a senior member of the Royal Family and concerning the most significant interview the BBC has conducted in its 98-year history.
And there was a fourth key document which suspiciously failed to find its way into the BBC’s archive.
On April 4, 1996, Tim Suter, managing editor of BBC weekly programmes, drafted a letter to Bashir in which he rebuked him for forging the bank statements and then failing to tell Gardam that he had shown them to Earl Spencer.
‘You should be in no doubt of the seriousness with which we view this, nor the reprimand that this letter represents,’ Suter wrote.
Dyson said it was ‘probable’ this letter was never sent to Bashir. The letter states that ‘no purpose is served by making this a matter of public record’. However, Suter adds that the BBC might change its mind ‘if future events require it’.
It appears to be a cynical insurance policy: if the scandal was to deepen, the BBC would have documentary evidence that it had apparently taken steps to reprimand Bashir.
The BBC admitted to me that it did not have a copy of Suter’s letter until after the Dyson inquiry was announced last November. At that point it ‘came into our possession’, a spokesman said. There is no explanation of how or why.
It is impossible to know whether the BBC’s failure to retain these four key documents was due to carelessness or part of a wider cover-up of Bashir’s activities.
But at the very least, it raises some uncomfortable questions for former Director General Lord Hall, who has already been heavily criticised by Dyson.
It is curious that as a potentially explosive scandal was brewing, Gardam’s account of Bashir’s activity was delivered in handwritten form.
You would perhaps expect such a document to be, at the very least, typewritten and carefully logged for future reference.
The publication of Lord Dyson’s report was perhaps the BBC’s darkest day. It prompted a blistering attack from Prince William, who castigated the Corporation chiefs who ‘looked the other way’ and failed to investigate Bashir properly. It is now, however, clear that it was only by Dyson’s own endeavours that he was able to see the full truth.
If he had simply relied on the Corporation for his information, this scandal could, once again, have evaded the full glare of public scrutiny.
A BBC spokeswoman said: ‘The BBC commissioned Lord Dyson to conduct an investigation so that he could gain a full picture of what happened 25 years ago – including acquiring any additional materials people might possess.
‘In May the BBC published Lord Dyson’s report and accepted his conclusions in full.
‘Had Lord Dyson wanted to make any commentary about the BBC’s archiving, he could of course have done so. All the documents you reference are now in the public domain, via the Dyson report.’
She added: ‘After the passage of a quarter of a century, it is simply not possible for today’s BBC to know why certain specific documents were not archived.
‘What we can say is that we have conducted thorough searches of our archives and released the information we could, when we were able to.
Lord Hall said: ‘Any questions about the storage and archiving of documents are best asked of the BBC. Please direct your questions to them.’