Princess Diana’s former aide PATRICK JEPHSON reveals how he learned of Martin Bashir’s deceit

The royal protection officer must have been well over six feet tall, most of it muscle. He took my hand in both of his. It was a crushing grip but that was when I noticed the tears streaming down his face.

‘We would never have let this happen to her, Patrick!’ In a bewildering day, that at least I knew was the truth.

This was soon after Princess Diana’s death. I had come to London to see if I could help with the funeral arrangements. As her former private secretary, I thought my experience might be useful. However, the palace has a plan in readiness for every royal death and – even in adapted form – Diana’s was no exception.

So, having offered my services, and shared a few Diana memories with the devoted protection officer, I slipped away from the palace and headed for a nearby wine bar to share a sentimental wake of reminiscences and sorrow with former colleagues.

As I walked, amid the jumble of memories and emotions in my mind, I mused on another conversation I had just had in Buckingham Palace.

It was with the courtier in charge of the funeral arrangements. Everything was under control but, bizarrely, he was concerned that ‘we might not be able to fill the Abbey’.

It sounds incredible now. Even then, though we could not foresee the millions who turned out just a few days later to pay their respects to Diana, this struck me as an ominous example of how tone deaf the institution could be about popular feelings towards her.

Princess Diana pictured with private secretary Patrick Jephson in London in 1995

Princess Diana pictured with private secretary Patrick Jephson in London in 1995

Princess Diana pictured with private secretary Patrick Jephson in London in 1995  

At the time, I made no connection between the two exchanges. They were just two elements in a flickering newsreel of national bereavement, impossible to process at the time. But fast forward to today and the two conversations suddenly have a new significance.

The Dyson report, and the Panorama special investigation into the behaviour of Martin Bashir and the BBC that followed on Thursday night, together act as a surprising catalyst that reveals the link between the reactions of the grieving police officer and the perplexed courtier.

Put simply, had Diana not cut herself off from the royal support system by agreeing to the Bashir interview, it’s likely her circumstances would not have led her to a point where she entrusted her safety to people not competent to look after her.

Similarly, the courtier – a gallant gentleman with a great sense of humour but also a rigid sense of duty – found it hard to understand a royal life that had become detached from the traditional system he served.

It was a system that is easy to mock but which has evolved over centuries to help royal people fulfil their purpose and keep them safe from the hazards of the world while they did so.

Thus, I often felt that palace walls were not to keep intruders out but rather to keep the sometimes wayward and frequently unworldly residents from wandering out into a dangerously random reality.

To test this theory, count how many royal people have successfully transitioned to what might pass for normal life in the outside world.

The Duke of York’s decision to deal with American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein is an obvious example of the hazards that await the unwary. So too, in a different way, is Prince Harry’s comment on the American Constitution, the latest sign of confusion over his status and role.

At age 19, Princess Diana entrusted herself to this system. Seventeen years later she was careering through the Paris night, flitting from a hotel suite to a lover’s apartment, her life at the mercy of a drunk driver and the laws of physics. It’s hard not to see this tragedy as a catastrophic failure of that system and those it shielded, not least her husband and ‘his lady’ (Diana’s words to describe Camilla), at whose relentless affair, ironically, it raised the merest eyebrow of disapproval.

By November 1995 I and a handful of loyal staff were the last vestiges of that system, at least as it applied to Diana. Since before her separation from Prince Charles in 1992 we had evolved the traditions of the palace to keep the best of the past combined with the kind of nimble, responsive and approachable style that reflected Diana’s own priorities.

It worked really well – at home and all over the world, where the princess’s innately regal character, charisma and grace made her an unbeatable asset for her country and the many humanitarian causes she championed.

We were her palace walls, our purpose not to keep her in but to protect and empower her.

In return, as we frequently had reason to appreciate, she watched over us with a keen eye that never left our efforts unrecognised or our shortcomings uncorrected. In naval terms, we were a tight ship and thus a happy one.

It was this system that Bashir targeted in his bid to groom and exploit his prey.

Granted, she and I had discussed several possible media initiatives that summer, all intended to highlight not her allegedly fragile mental state but the work of her patronages and, reasonably enough, portray her and them in a positive light. A charity-focused BBC interview was one of them.

Patrick Jephson, private secretary to Princess Diana, resigned from the role in 1996

Patrick Jephson, private secretary to Princess Diana, resigned from the role in 1996

Patrick Jephson, private secretary to Princess Diana, resigned from the role in 1996

It was some such worthy project that I initially assumed she meant when, after it had been recorded, she broke the news to me that she had secretly given an interview to Panorama. I was dismayed, mainly by her secrecy. But it was not until the night of the broadcast that I knew the full extent of what had happened – and heard the name Martin Bashir for the first time.

As I watched in horror, it was obvious that the compassionate, philanthropic princess of our planned interviews had morphed into a self-pitying, vengeful victim.

Where we had talked of extolling the work of the Red Cross, the Leprosy Mission, Help the Aged and others, now there was only a catalogue of woes, laced with vague psychiatric references and confessions of her own adultery, with apparently no care given to the effect on her sons. What might have been in the hands of another interviewer a potentially therapeutic exercise – even a conciliatory one in relation to her in-laws – instead became overwhelmingly negative. It was a terrible lost opportunity.

In a scathing comment after Bashir’s subsequent Michael Jackson interview – itself now facing calls for renewed investigation – the New York Times described his journalism style as ‘callous self-interest masked as sympathy’.

Sympathy – even pretend sympathy – is the important thing. For journalists trying to bag a big royal story, it’s a reliable key to success.

The roll call of interviewers who have hit the Windsor jackpot is proof: Jonathan Dimbleby with Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey with Fergie and also (spectacularly) the Sussexes, Emily Maitlis with Prince Andrew, Bashir with Diana – and those are just the headliners.

Practically every member of the Royal Family – with the significant exception of the Queen – has sat down with a journalist and confided in their seductively friendly microphone at one time or another.

Probably most of those journalists used sympathy to extract confidences from royal folk intrigued and often caught out by the confessional atmosphere of such an intimate conversation with an outsider. Such a refreshing change from obsequious courtiers or all those grovelling civic dignitaries and playgroup supervisors.

But Bashir was different. We now know for certain what has long been suspected: that he secured his royal interview by deceitful means.

He spun a web of convincing lies, calculated to isolate Diana from friends and advisers who might have obstructed his plan to land the interview of a lifetime. That interview was a prize coveted by big TV names on both sides of the Atlantic and he won it by pretending to a vulnerable mother that she was in danger, and then pretending some more to convince her that he was the only man who understood her plight and could keep her safe.

Tellingly, her brother heard the same lies and dismissed them out of hand. He assumed his bright, forthright sister would too. But she didn’t. She swallowed them whole and seemed eager for more.

Why?

Like most of us, Diana welcomed sympathy. From eight years of working with her closely, I knew that she enjoyed and deserved it more than most.

There was so much unhappiness in her life, from a sad childhood in the distant past to an all-too-current marital trap from which she watched, with increasing anger and distress, as her husband found love with another woman. Sometimes she took refuge and found satisfaction in her work, which continued in many ways to lead the world in its brave and authentic compassion.

But in 1994 she gave up many of her most supportive and sympathetic charities. Worse, she relinquished her devoted Scotland Yard protection.

By mid-1995, for all her claims to be strong and sorted, she was under great pressure, emotionally and professionally.

Enter Martin Bashir. Not, at first glance, everybody’s idea of a knight in shining armour and never (at least so far as she was concerned) a love interest. But he said exciting things about her husband and his mistress, about spies and secret payments, about bugged phones and intercepted mail.

The list was long and carefully crafted to not just titillate the royal imagination but dispel any royal scepticism that might dare put up a fight against such a legion of lies.

No fight came. It was a walkover.

In the few short months before the interview was broadcast on November 20, 1995, I became aware of a change in my boss. Normally upbeat, smart and sassy – even on a bad day – she became distant, moody and untrusting.

Patrick Jephson during his interview with John Ware for Princess Diana, Martin Bashir and The BBC

Patrick Jephson during his interview with John Ware for Princess Diana, Martin Bashir and The BBC

Patrick Jephson during his interview with John Ware for Princess Diana, Martin Bashir and The BBC

‘It’ll blow over,’ I told myself. But it didn’t. She began to tell me what I later realised were second-hand lies from Martin Bashir, watching my face for a reaction, as if this were some kind of test. A lurking assassin. A tracker in her car. Secret microphones in her sitting room. I had each investigated and dismissed, but she was strangely oblivious to the explanations. After the interview the wild stories became wilder. Her next revelation crossed the line from the melodramatic to the legally actionable. She told me that her sons’ nanny had had an abortion.

Only with the Dyson report did I discover the true extent of the deceitful ways Bashir had poisoned my relationship with my boss, with fake documents and smears about my loyalty and conduct. But back then the abortion lie was enough to convince me that something bad and irreversible had detonated in my working life.

This was no longer the princess to whom I had been willing to devote myself unconditionally and quite soon I was writing my letter of resignation.

It meant the loss of a secure, respected and highly desirable career. But this latest evidence of her inexplicable belief in fantastic allegations forced a divide with Buckingham Palace that I could no longer bridge. My job, already difficult, now became impossible.

Such was the eruption unleashed in the Royal Family by the effects of Bashir’s daring deception that the Queen soon directly intervened in Charles and Diana’s deadlocked separation negotiations to order an immediate finalisation of their divorce and with it the undeclared but terminal departure of Diana from the royal fold.

A liberation for Diana? Some – including, perhaps, initially Diana herself – might agree. Arguably the most famous and desirable woman in the world, the globe itself seemed to lie at her feet. What would she do with such an unprecedented opportunity?

I watched from the sidelines as the bachelor princess pursued a chaotic form of freedom that scored some major successes – such as her landmines work – but nevertheless seemed set on a downward spiral. The culmination of many baleful influences came on that frantic Paris night when she fatally entrusted her safety to people who couldn’t look after themselves, let alone a princess.

In his statement on Thursday, Prince William spoke movingly of his mother: ‘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.’

But with the benefit of 25 years’ perspective, we now know that Martin Bashir’s deceit was sadly not the first that Diana had encountered in her royal life. For an explanation of how his mother became so receptive to Bashir’s strange charms, her sons – and other seekers after truth – could begin by looking a lot closer to home.

Maybe Prince Harry is right to fear history repeating itself, but not necessarily in the way he means. In the end, royal people can control their history more than most of us. If you are born royal you may legitimately feel you’ve had a raw deal, but with humility and common sense it can still lead to a life of fulfilling public service and personal happiness. There will be police to protect you physically and courtiers to help you do your best, and hopefully they’ll catch more balls than they drop.

And there will be journalists trying to do their job reporting on how you do your job.

Most will respond well to courtesy and plain dealing. Some will abuse your good nature and try to catch you out. Work hard and say little and the taxpayers will reliably take your side against them.

And when things do go wrong (as they inevitably will) spend a few minutes alone with the mirror before you summon other people to blame. Ultimately, your reputation – and your happiness – are usually in your own hands. Much like the rest of us.

  • Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales 1988-96.

Link hienalouca.com

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