27 July 2021 by , , and Dispute Resolution Alert

Quick and dirty investigations: Ticking both boxes

The 1981 wedding of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer was a global event which is on the list of the most watched television broadcasts of all time. Approximately 1 billion people tuned in. This is remarkable as the event predated the internet and, lasting just a few hours on a Wednesday afternoon, had a similar viewership to the month-long football FIFA World Cup tournament in the USA in 1994 and the two weeks of the 2016 Wimbledon tennis championships.

It is no surprise then that the interview with Diana the Princess of Wales on 20 November 1995, three years after her 1992 separation from Prince Charles, drew a television audience of 23 million. It had been one of the most sought-after celebrity interviews but was eventually secured by an unknown British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporter called Martin Bashir.

How did Bashir get such a scoop? Never had a senior member of the British royal family opened up to the media so candidly. Eventually it was reported in the press that Bashir had approached Princess Diana’s brother, the ninth Earl Spencer, with fake bank statements purporting to show that a former employee of the earl’s had received kickbacks in exchange for sensitive information about the princess. This was done to persuade the earl that Bashir should be the journalist to conduct the interview with Princess Diana. A BBC investigation cleared Bashir and the smell went away. Or did it? 

More than 20 years later Earl Spencer was interviewed by The Daily Mail regarding proof of Bashir’s deception that he had secured from the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act. The graphic designer commissioned by Bashir to fake bank statements was then interviewed on TV and, under pressure, particularly from Earl Spencer, the BBC announced a full independent investigation by eminent retired judge Lord Dyson into Bashir’s career-defining interview and the BBC investigation.

Lord Dyson’s methodology is an example of the impartial thoroughness required in corporate investigations. He:

  1. reviewed the BBC’s extensive disclosure of documents received from various key witnesses involved in the matter;
  2. considered each witness’s written statement submitted to the BBC in its investigation (Of these witnesses, Lord Dyson personally selected and interviewed 18 people);
  3. provided each interviewee with at least five days’ notice of the topics he wished to cover and delivered to each a bundle of relevant documents to consider;
  4. conducted all interviews personally; and
  5. when minded to challenge a witness, he gave the witness notice of the criticism and 14 days to respond, taking each response received into account before finalising his report, ensuring completeness in the performance of his duties.

Ultimately Lord Dyson found that the BBC should have “introduced an element of true independence” when it investigated the claims; its failure to interview Earl Spencer was “a most serious flaw in the investigation”; the BBC did not “scrutinise Mr Bashir’s account with caution and the necessary degree of scepticism”; its answers given to the press were evasive; and its investigation fell short of the BBC’s high standards of integrity and transparency. “Without the benefit of hearing from Earl Spencer and without a credible explanation from Mr Bashir for what he had done and in the face of his serious and unexplained lies, Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded that Mr Bashir was an honest and honourable man who had told the truth and he should not have done so.

The two defining features of quick fix investigations into serious issues are first, that they are aimed at an expedited restoration of the status quo and second, that too often they have unintended and unfortunate consequences. The BBC’s quick investigation of serious impropriety on a topic of massive public interest has seen its reputation, and that of its investigator Lord Hall, take a big hit, albeit 25 years on. There was also a very sad and personal consequence of the Bashir interview and the BBC investigation, as Prince William, commenting after the release of the Dyson report, said:

“It is my view that the deceitful way the interview was obtained substantially influenced what my mother said. The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others … It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.”

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