BBC pulls controversial royal documentary about spin after death of Princess Diana

Radio Times reveals last-minute decision to postpone BBC2 broadcast followed legal intervention

The BBC has pulled from the schedules a controversial documentary which claims ‘spin’ was used on behalf of the royal family to win favour with the public after the death of Princess Diana.


Radio Times understands that the decision to postpone BBC2’s transmission of Reinventing The Royals came after an intervention from lawyers known to represent senior members of the royal family, including the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

The BBC2 documentary is presented by Steve Hewlett, who was the editor of Panorama when the programme’s interview with Princess Diana in 1995 sparked a crisis in relations between the BBC and the royal family.

Unlike most programmes about the royal family since then, Reinventing the Royals has been made without the close cooperation or involvement of Buckingham Palace or Clarence House.

The Corporation’s relations with the royals have been fragile since ‘Queen-gate’ in 2007 when the controller of BBC1 resigned over a misleading trailer for a fly-on-the-wall film about the monarch.

Radio Times understands that the new two-part documentary, which was to have started on Sunday January 4 at 9pm, was seen and approved by senior executives at BBC2 before it was given such a prestigious prime time slot.

The decision to postpone the broadcast until later in the New Year is believed to have been taken by James Harding, head of BBC news and current affairs. Danny Cohen, BBC director of television is also understood to have seen the film.

The postponement decision was taken after the programme was included in schedules released by the BBC for inclusion in television listing magazines. Extensive details of the programme are revealed, however, in an article published exclusively in the new issue of Radio Times written by Mr Hewlett. 

He says the documentary includes the first-ever television interview with Sandy Henney, who was press secretary to Prince Charles at the time of Diana’s death. In the interview, Ms Henney, who was in London in the days after the Princess’s death, says: “I remember briefing one of our private secretaries on the phone saying, ‘I know you’re seeing this on television but you really have to be here to feel the atmosphere. The people here are really anti-monarchy.’ I was really worried about where it was going to go.”

Ms Henney goes on to describe how the Prince of Wales’ public image was in tatters when she took up her post in 1993: “He was getting some pretty virulent criticism – bad father, unloving husband. I think he was pretty hurt… if you’ve got a middle-aged balding man and a beautiful princess, it’s a no-brainer as to who is going to get the media coverage.”

Mr Hewlett says in his article for Radio Times that Prince Charles hired Mark Bolland from the Press Complaints Commission to act as entirely new sort of a royal media manager – a spin doctor. He quotes one royal commentator describing Mr Bolland as a genius who was very good at pulling strings and playing with the press but whom Princes William and Harry called ‘Blackadder”.

Mr Bolland tried to repair his client’s battered image, says Mr Hewlett, by taking every opportunity to show his different side as a single parent and caring father. His other principal objective was to bring about a degree of public acceptance for the woman the Prince described as a ‘non-negotiable’ part of his life – Camilla Parker Bowles – a campaign known to palace insiders as ‘Operation Mrs PB’.

In the article for Radio Times, Mr Hewlett says Prince William was left distraught when details of his first meeting with Mrs Parker-Bowles at St James Palace made headlines in the Sun ten months after his mother’s death, just before his 16th birthday: ‘The first Sandy Henney over in the press office knew of the meeting was when Sun reporter Charles Rae telephoned her. She had to break the news to William that The Sun had the story.”

Ms Henney says in her interview for the documentary: “He (William) was understandably really upset because it was private. And apart from being angry and upset that this had got out, he wanted to know how it had happened.”

Mr Hewlett writes: “In fact news of the meeting had leaked accidentally from one of Camilla’s staff but all the detail, Rae says, was furnished by Bolland – a version of events Bolland wholly rejects. In any case, Henney describes it as a ‘defining moment’ for Prince William, who felt as if he had been used to further his father’s interests.”

The programme also includes an interview with Tom Bradby, a one-time royal correspondent and personal confidant of the princes, now ITV’s political editor, who says the princes have never lost their disdain for the press. ‘William and Harry were very angry. They thought that the media had hounded their mother to death. I don’t mean they vaguely thought that – they actually thought that’s what had happened.”

Mr Hewlett says: “For William, protecting his personal privacy and that of his family has perhaps understandably become a virtual obsession. But with anything not classed as ‘public duty’ regarded as off limits, and in a new media age dominated by the internet, with all the accompanying expectations of openness and transparency, there are real concerns even within the royal household over the sustainability of William’s approach. Can a future monarch be so media shy in the modern age? Many doubt it.”


The BBC said in a brief statement today that the programme was being delayed into the New Year “until a number of issues including use of archive footage” were resolved.