August 31, 1997, shortly after midnight. Crowds of photographers and onlookers gathered in front of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Suddenly there was movement in the crowd, men jumped into cars, turned with squealing tires, and motorcycles chased a dark Mercedes. In it sat Diana with her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed, her bodyguard and the head of security at the Ritz, who was driving the car.
The Mercedes crashed into the tunnel at the Pont de l’Alma near the Eiffel Tower. The car crashed into the 13th concrete pillar in the center of the tunnel and was thrown back against the right tunnel wall. Diana’s friend Dodi and the driver died at the scene. Diana had to be cut from the wreckage. She later died at the hospital. She was 36 years old. The bodyguard survived.
Dirty divorce war
Diana’s brother Charles Spencer blamed the media for his sister’s death. At her funeral, he finds clear words: “I think she never understood why her very best intentions were always dragged through the mud by the media. Why do they always seek to destroy her? My only explanation is that the truly good is a threat to those, at the other end of the moral spectrum.” The greatest irony, he said, is that Diana, named after the ancient goddess of the hunt, has become the most hunted person in these modern times.
Photos and stories of Diana guaranteed tabloids high circulation for years. And the dirtier the divorce war or the more intimate the kisses with her new boyfriend, the better. Director Ed Perkins, who brought the documentary “The Princess” to theaters this year, describes how depressing he found the research for the doc. “I spent hours looking through footage from paparazzi cameras. And I felt very uncomfortable with the way someone’s life was being invaded,” he says. But he also felt uncomfortable as a viewer, he says, because the viewer ultimately generates the demand.
“Readers wanted these stories “
Author Ian Hislop has edited the satirical magazine, Private Eye, for more than 30 years and recalls that the issue was boycotted by some newsagents after Diana’s death because they thought the cover was inappropriate. “A lot of people at the time thought it was in poor taste,” he says. “It was an attack on the general public, who seemed to us to be no less to blame than the media. “The cover at the time showed crowds outside the palace. One man says, “The newspapers are despicable.” And another responds, “Yeah, I couldn’t even get another one.” Hislop says, “We wanted to show that in the face of all this uproar against the press, it’s important to remember that readers always wanted to read all these stories about Diana, too. And that made them complicit.
Driver was drunk
Two years after Diana’s death, a French court concluded that the driver of the car who was killed, Henri Paul, head of security at the Ritz, was drunk and had lost control of the vehicle. But conspiracy theories boomed and were gratefully spread by the tabloids. The father of Diana’s slain boyfriend Dodi, Egyptian billionaire Mohammed Al Fayed, was convinced: Dodi and Diana were murdered by the royal family because she was not supposed to marry a Muslim. After a mammoth trial with 240 witnesses, the British judiciary also concluded in 2008 that the driver and the paparazzi were to blame for the accident. It was a case of involuntary manslaughter.
“She got better and better”
But of course, Diana needed the media, too. A princess who embraced children with AIDS needed journalists to carry that to the world. Diana was very aware of how she could also use the press to her advantage, Alastair Campbell has observed. He was press officer to newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 when Diana died and was part of the planning committee for her funeral service. At first, she didn’t even know what was happening to her when there were cameras and photographers everywhere snapping everything, he says. “And then she realized she needed to control that. And she got better and better at showing herself the way she wanted to be seen – while making sure the media got what they wanted.” Some of the most impactful images may have been created while the press was hounding her, she said. “But she controlled what she wanted to show.”
Palace exerts controlPaparazzi boundary crossings have declined overall since Diana’s time, although Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, have also filed repeated complaints against newspapers. But covering the royals generally remains a challenge, described Johnny Dymond, one of the BBC’s royal house reporters. One problem, he says, is limited access, the control the palace exerts at all times. “Normally you have many sources on any subject, here it’s just one,” Dymond says. “You announce what’s newsworthy. But it’s often ceremonial and frankly dull.” And if you come across topics that were interesting, the palace would say, “That’s private.”