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Diana, Martin Bashir and the anger of the crowd

Diana, Martin Bashir and the anger of the crowd

Nick Spencer comments on the public reaction to the Dyson report. 25/05/2021

Ian Hislop, longstanding editor of Private Eye, once observed that the single most controversial issue of his satirical magazine had been the one printed after Princess Diana’s death. The front page had shown a picture of Buckingham Palace thronged by a crowd. “Media to Blame” was emblazoned in red across the top. Three speech bubbles hung above the people. “The papers are a disgrace”, says the first. “Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere”, the second. “Borrow mine, it’s got a picture of the car,” the third.

Inside, the paper featured a mock retraction from all newspapers of everything bad they had ever published about the newly sanctified People’s Princess. Readers’ reaction was furious, although not because the Eye had dared to criticise the media. Everyone was doing that.

“Sh*tbag. The tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has brought home to me what a truly shitty magazine you’ve become,” read one letter to the editor. “I never want to read your magazine or hear of you again,” said a second. “‘Jokes’ of this nature, and at this time of national grieving especially, will NOT be tolerated”, a third. “By God I wish you ill”, a fourth. There were many, many more. The magazine’s suggestion that the public’s hysterical reaction was perhaps a little hypocritical did not go down well.

I was reminded of this response to the first Diana storm this week when we entered a second. Now, I need to make two important points right away.

Firstly, I am not neutral on the subject of Martin Bashir. I first met him five years ago when he was appointed as the BBC’s religion correspondent and have stayed in contact with him since. We’ve met a dozen or so times, and probably spoken on the phone as many – although never about Diana, a subject that interests me only as a (remarkable) social phenomenon. I always found him friendly, professional, honest, and decent.

Most strikingly, I have found him kind. Last year, I was hit by the kind of news that every parent fears. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, he phoned me regularly to ask about the situation, made a donation to the relevant medical charity, and even tried to visit us in hospital until Covid made it impossible. And this was all while, unknown to me, he was suffering from his own serious health problems. I was, and remain, touched.

Second, I am not here to defend his actions in getting the Diana scoop. Lying and forging a bank statement, risking edging a clearly vulnerable woman into greater paranoia, and effectively sacrificing the career of the graphic designer, Matt Wiessler, in the process is beyond the pale by anyone’s reckoning. I have no information that would question Lord Dyson’s findings nor any intention of minimising the venality of these actions.

Points made, however, I cannot but feel that the reaction to Dyson’s findings over the last week or so feel like the same kind of crowd hysteria that Private Eye lampooned a quarter of a century ago. What was, in and of itself, a serious ‘error of judgement’, and a comparably serious botched institutional enquiry, have become a lightning rod for the same crowd emotions that erupted in September 1997. It is almost as if people are reliving that strange time only now with a name and a face to which they can direct their guilty fury. It’s not the media that is to blame. It’s the BBC. It’s Martin Bashir.

Indeed, the fury is arguably worse this time round as not only is there the howl of an indignant public to deal with, but there’s an opportunity too. The Dyson report pitches straight into a culture war that was only simmering 24 years ago. Martin Bashir’s behaviour, and the BBC’s cover up, epitomises everything about it that its many cultural enemies claim: deceitful, arrogant, ineffective, biased, corrupt. Defund it. Bashirgate, as it is predictably being called, becomes a lightning rod not only for public anger but for political agendas.

Martin Bashir came out fighting – or at least defending himself – in the Sunday Times, making the point that, however ill–judged his actions had been, he had never intended to harm Diana, and that she did not feel harmed, or indeed deceived, by the experience. “There are no words adequate to express how I feel having had my wings returned to me”, she wrote in one letter. “Thank you, Martin, for listening to me, for supporting me, and for understanding this particular lady, no one has ever shown such belief and acted upon it.”

Only in a kind of crude utilitarian calculus does this in some way cancel out the original deception. But it is nonetheless a significant detail, and a factor in a story that is complicated and messy and nothing like as morally absolute as some sections of the press and the public would have it.

Curiously, Hislop himself allegedly made a similar point in the recording of the satirical quiz, Have I got News for You? last week (allegedly because his comments were apparently cut from the final edit.) According to one report of the filming, he is said to have reminded the audience that Diana had already written the book of her life, unattributed with Andrew Morton; that she was intending to do a TV interview anyway, after Prince Charles’ with David Dimbleby; that she had writers prepare famous lines for her (like the endlessly–repeated “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”) – and that Martin Bashir’s actions pushed him to the front rather than persuade her to do one at all. I can’t imagine this would have gone down very well with the audience. Generally speaking, the anger of the crowd does not leave much room for joking or justice, not least when the crowd itself may also be in the dock.

In case you imagine I am vaguely alluding in all this to a more famous instances of angry crowd justice – perhaps the woman caught in adultery or Jesus before the Jerusalem mob – I should make clear that I am not. The comparisons would be absurd and unwarranted, not to mention blasphemous. Better, the measured words of the Torah, which tell us, in one verse, that we should not spread false reports or be a malicious witness, and in the very next one that we should not follow the crowd in doing wrong. (Ex 23.1–2) That seems to pretty much cover it.

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Image: Lenscap Photography/

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 25 May 2021

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