The BBC says it has found the handwritten note from Princess Diana that it claimed clears Martin Bashir of wrongdoing in relation to his landmark 1995 interview with the royal.
The broadcaster had previously said it had lost the crucial piece of paper, which it used to explain away Bashir’s use of fake bank statements to gain an introduction to Diana.
An internal investigation at the time of the original broadcast concluded that Bashir did not coerce Diana into giving the interview and “we also have her word in writing for that”.
Until Friday the corporation had insisted it had lost the letter. However, after weeks of press coverage to mark the 25th anniversary of the interview, the BBC says that it has found the memo from Diana. It will provide the document to an independent inquiry that it is being set up to reinvestigate how Bashir obtained the interview.
A BBC spokesperson would not provide a copy of the letter or explain where the note had been.
The issue also raises questions about the corporation’s compliance with the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. A 2007 request for internal documents relating to the investigation into Bashir’s interview with Diana was turned down on the basis that the BBC no longer held any such material. A repeat request by the makers of a Channel 4 investigation this year revealed that the corporation had at least 57 pages of high-level internal documents – but not the handwritten note from the royal.
Andy Webb, the journalist who made the Channel 4 film, wrote in the Sunday Times that the BBC had released the documents to him at the last minute before his programme went to air, frustrating his attempts to get it included in the show.
He also said the corporation had denied for a third time having the crucial piece of paper from the member of the royal family: “We did ask the BBC FoI office another question. Remember that note from Diana? The get-out-of-jail-free card? Any joy finding that? Well, since you ask, no. When we said it had been lost, that was entirely accurate. It has somehow wafted into the waste bin of history. And no one even made a copy.”
On Friday he told the Guardian: “Fascinating that it has turned up, just in time for an inquiry. With the history of forgeries in this case, they’ll hopefully look at it very closely indeed.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Following the announcement of the independent investigation, the BBC has now recovered the princess’s original handwritten note which is referred to in our records from the time. We will pass it on to the independent investigation.
“As there has been a lot of commentary about this note and journalists have asked about it, we thought it appropriate to put on record that we’ve now recovered it. We will set out further details of the independent investigation shortly.”
Bashir rejoined the BBC in 2016 and is currently its religion editor. He was signed off work with complications relating to a coronavirus infection earlier this year and a quadruple heart bypass. As a result he is unable to answer questions relating to the incident.
There is a growing expectation in the BBC newsroom that Bashir will not return to work as a result of the scandal.