For 25 years it was a question as tormenting as it was troubling: did Princess Diana go to her grave believing her most senior aide had betrayed her?
As her private secretary, Commander Patrick Jephson was privy to many of Diana’s secrets. But he was excluded from the most explosive of all – her decision di lei to give a covertly recorded interview to Panorama.
In persuading the Princess to do the broadcast, presenter Martin Bashir invented such a litany of lies about the courteous ex-Naval officer that Diana no longer trusted her right-hand man and came to doubt his loyalty.
Yesterday, the poisonous legacy of the Bashir scandal took an unexpected turn as the BBC agreed to pay Jephson £ 100,000 in compensation for the untruths that were invented about the former courtier, who served Diana faithfully as equerry and then chief of staff for eight years.
In a statement, the Corporation said: ‘The BBC accepts and acknowledges that serious harm was caused to Commander Jephson as a result of the circumstances in which the 1995 interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, was obtained.’
As her private secretary, Commander Patrick Jephson was privy to many of Diana’s secrets (pictured in 1990)
The statement added that the BBC apologized ‘unreservedly’ and had paid his legal costs.
It is the second major payout by the Corporation, which last year agreed a settlement of £ 750,000 with graphic designer Matt Wiessler, who was blacklisted by the BBC after blowing the whistle on Bashir’s deceit.
Significantly, Jephson will not personally profit from the payout. He has donated the entire amount to a South Wales children’s hospice, which was the last charity patronage he set up for the Princess of Wales.
Last year, an official investigation by former Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson showed how Bashir had charmed, lied and forged his way to the global scoop that the BBC spent a quarter of a century defending.
He concocted a series of falsehoods about Mr Jephson – first revealed by the Daily Mail —including the outrageous claim that he was paid to spy on the Princess.
‘I have spent the past 25 years wondering what I’d done wrong because I assumed, wrongly, that I must have done something wrong,’ he told me last night. ‘Why did that relationship suddenly turn to ashes and all that meant for my life? I had a young family and it was a tough time. So I’m relieved that Dyson has given me resolution. ‘
In persuading the Princess to do the broadcast, presenter Martin Bashir invented such a litany of lies about the courteous ex-Naval officer that Diana no longer trusted her right-hand man
Of his royal boss, he said: ‘She died thinking I had betrayed her after eight rewarding but often very difficult years in which we had worked so closely. To suddenly discover what had happened – and that it wasn’t a misunderstanding but a calculated, cold-blooded act of deception – is still very hard to process. ‘
Mr Jephson quit royal life in the aftermath of the interview, by which time his working relationship with Princess Diana had soured so much it had become untenable.
‘I got on with life and have been fulfilled and fortunate with my new career as a reputation and brand consultant,’ he said. ‘But it was always at the back of my mind.’
Bashir’s ‘interview of the century’, as the BBC boastfully billed it at the time, attracted an audience of nearly 23 million viewers and had profound and far-reaching consequences for both Diana and the Royal Family.
Mr Jephson quit royal life in the aftermath of the interview
Her brother, Earl Spencer, said he could ‘draw a line’ between the Panorama program, which was broadcast on November 20, 1995, and her death in a Paris car crash just under two years later.
It was the interview, with its admission of adultery and barbs at the Prince of Wales, that finally persuaded the Queen to order Charles and Diana’s divorce.
In turn, the Princess, fueled by Bashir’s smears and lies about those closest to her, all but severed her ties to the ‘Firm’ and lost the support of her wisest staff.
Even today, the interview, which was watched by almost 40 per cent of the British population, sends shivers through the Royal Household.
It contained Diana’s immortal line about there being ‘three of us in this marriage’ – a reference to Charles’s extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles – and her own admission of adultery with Cavalry officer James Hewitt. Over the course of 54 minutes, she talked about her eating disorder and self-harming di lei, and questioned Charles’s suitability di lui to be the next monarch.
It is now clear that the documentary, which at the time was garlanded with awards – many now withdrawn – contributed directly or indirectly to the fatal decisions she made 22 months after it was screened.
Prince William was scathing about the BBC’s’ deceitful behavior ‘, blaming the Corporation for fueling his mother’s’ fear and paranoia’ and worsening his parents’ relationship.
It was through Spencer that Bashir first set out to entrap his sister, spinning a web of convincing lies that were calculated to isolate Diana from friends and advisers who might have thwarted his plan to land the interview of a lifetime.
Bashir claimed the two men were ‘good friends’ and had other business connections through a financial investment company
That interview was coveted by some of the biggest names in TV on both sides of the Atlantic, but Bashir secured it by persuading a vulnerable mother she was in danger. Then, having egged her on di lei, pretending that not only did he understand her, but that he also could keep her safe di lei.
In his exchanges with Diana’s brother – which Spencer later described as ‘grooming’ – Bashir alleged that Jephson had received ‘very large’ payments from the security services for information about Diana’s movements.
To ‘prove’ this, he produced documents purporting to be bank statements from a Channel Islands account that he claimed Jephson shared with Commander Richard Aylard, Prince Charles’s then private secretary and a man who, because of his closeness to her husband, Diana viewed as an enemy.
Bashir claimed the two men were ‘good friends’ and had other business connections through a financial investment company.
This statement was crucial in persuading Spencer to introduce the BBC journalist to his sister.
Spencer later told me he recalled how at that meeting, at a flat in Knightsbridge, Bashir had gripped the documents tightly in one fist while waving them around.
Bashir alleged that Jephson had received ‘very large’ payments from the security services for information about Diana’s movements
During the encounter, Spencer kept a meticulous note of Bashir’s outrageous claims – notes, along with a dossier of all his meetings with Bashir, that he later shared with Lord Dyson. He filled eight pages of a notebook with 32 points.
Against Point 6, he noted that Bashir said Jephson had been taking flying lessons in Jersey and, as if to add emphasis, that Aylard was ‘from the Channel Islands’.
Learning of these claims so many years later, Jephson concluded that the assertions could only have been made to undermine him and his position in the Princess’s life – particularly the links with Aylard.
But there was an important distinction to be drawn: the claims about spying for money for MI5 and being in cahoots with Richard Aylard were fabrications. The flying lessons were true.
To this day, Jephson has wondered whether Bashir had someone on the inside helping him. He doesn’t think it could have been any of his colleagues di lui in the Princess’s small secretariat.
But could it, he has asked himself, have been someone who might have had the opportunity to glance at his diary at St James’s Palace, where Diana’s staff worked alongside Prince Charles’s team?
He confided to a friend that he had found the way Bashir had researched his life ‘chilling’.
To this day, Jephson has wondered whether Bashir had someone on the inside helping him
As unsettling as these false claims were, Jephson decided to go through his diaries, which are now part of an archive of his royal years that he presented to Churchill College, Cambridge, for the last four months of 1995.
Although they were not detailed journals, he wanted to see if he could pinpoint any clues to why his relationship with the Princess had so rapidly disintegrated. Friends said he might have a case for defamation and malicious falsehood.
It was on August 31, 1995, that Bashir met Diana’s brother at Althorp, the Spencer family home near Northampton – and almost three weeks later, on September 19, that he sat down with the Princess. Six weeks later, his interview about him, clandestinely recorded at Kensington Palace, was in the can.
When he watched it, Jephson was struck by one phrase – a Chinese proverb Diana had adapted: ‘Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.’ He believed that must have been a reference to him.
Looking back over the diary entries, he noted how in those final months the Princess’s behavior became unpredictable. One day she was ‘nice as pie’, as he told a colleague; two days later ‘the sky had fallen in’.
In his report, Lord Dyson said that while Spencer was ‘a credible and convincing witness’, Bashir’s account, by contrast was ‘incredible, unreliable and in some cases, dishonest’.
During the encounter, Spencer kept a meticulous note of Bashir’s outrageous claims
He concluded: ‘By showing Earl Spencer the fake statements and informing him of their contents, Mr Bashir deceived and induced him to arrange a meeting with Princess Diana. By gaining access to Princess Diana in this way, Mr Bashir was able to persuade her to agree to give her interview. ‘
Jephson said: ‘I suppose from Martin Bashir’s perspective I was the obstacle that had to be removed. So by removing me from a position of trust, it left the way open for him to give her any yarn he wanted. ‘
Welcoming the BBC settlement, he said: ‘This money enables me to turn a bad thing into a good thing and I’m grateful to have that opportunity.
‘Now I hope that my donation will provide a tangible tribute to the Princess’s patronage of a cause so close to her heart.’ As the first patron of the Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, Diana played an integral part in its foundation, although she was dead before it admitted its first children in 1999.
But she had a huge impact in getting it off the ground. In 1995, she persuaded opera star Luciano Pavarotti to perform at a charity concert in Cardiff castle which provided the funds to start building the hospice the following year. Prince Charles took over as patron in 2001.
Last night, Maria Timon Samra, chief executive of the charity, said: ‘On behalf of the children and families we support at Ty Hafan, I would like to thank Patrick Jephson for his thoughtful and generous donation.
‘This will help enable us to continue to provide vital care and support for hundreds of children with life-limiting conditions, and their families whom we work with every year.’