To mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, this is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s:
‘It’s a pity Gucci don’t make designer face zips,’ suggested Carol Malone in the News of the World on 31 August 1997; ‘then when Princess Diana was on the verge of opening her ill-informed mouth and causing an international incident (an increasingly frequent occurrence these days) she could just zip her trap shut.’
Barbara Gunnell in the Independent on Sunday that day mocked ‘the inane Sloane-ish inarticulacy of a woman with fundamentally nothing to say about anything’, while the Observer, in a column titled ‘Mrs Blair’s Diary’, described Diana as ‘a woman who, if her IQ were five points lower, would have to be watered daily’.
Petronella Wyatt in the Sunday Express was not much more supportive: ‘She seems to relish her role as a martyr. God help her if she ever finds happiness – it would make her miserable.’ In the same paper, Bernard Ingham dismissed her and her new partner – ‘I’m told she and Dodi are made for each other, both having more brass than brains’ – and in the Sunday Mirror Chris Hutchins drooled at the possible emergence of another taped conversation with James Gilbey: ‘this one is hot, hot, hot!’
It was, of course, unfortunate for all these writers that their words had already gone to press by the time the reports emerged from Paris in the early hours of that Sunday that Diana and Dodi Fayed had been killed in a car crash.
The news of Diana’s death at the age of thirty-six was deeply shocking and yet somehow not entirely surprising. The image of her as a middle-aged, let alone elderly, woman had never been easy to conjure up, and the manner of her passing, pursued through the Parisian night by a pack of paparazzi photographers, seemed almost immediately to make sense, an appropriate end to a life that had long since lost any semblance of reality. It felt fated.
Still it caught the country and the country’s media unawares. The confusion of the early reports added to the immediate difficulties of coverage. BBC Two broke the news of the car crash at 1 a.m., followed within the hour by ITV, but it was still understood at this point that Diana had suffered only minor injuries. ITV closed down its rolling news programme around 4.20 a.m., believing that the story was finished, only to have to return to the screens twenty minutes later to announce her death.
Thereafter black ties were compulsory, even for weather forecasters. All scheduled programmes on BBC One were dropped in favour of a rolling news show, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live trod the same ground with a joint broadcast, while Radio 3 played only slow movements from popular works of classical music and Radio 1 only slow pop songs – for the first time in the latter station’s existence, it did not broadcast the chart show. ITV made the commercially painful decision to abandon all advertising, at least until the evening.
Tributes were relayed from other revered figures – Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher – and interviews were given by the likes of David Mellor, demanding action against an intrusive press, while Jeffrey Archer and David Starkey drew comparisons respectively with the murder of John Kennedy in 1963 and the death of James Dean in 1955. The state of the nation was captured best on GMTV: ‘You might not believe this,’ said newsreader Anne Davies, sounding as though she couldn’t quite accept it herself, ‘but I’m afraid it is true.’
The continuous media coverage was more than matched by the public’s response. Radio stations reported the greatest number of phone calls ever received, their switchboards jammed with people who felt the need to talk about the event, even if there was nothing in particular to say. The same phenomenon could be observed across the country. There was just one topic of conversation and one overriding emotion: stunned disbelief.
For want of words to express something that was largely inexpressible, crowds began to gather outside Buckingham Palace and, particularly, outside Diana’s own home of Kensington Palace, where they lay flowers. By the end of the week, it was estimated that £50 million had been spent on these floral tributes.
Some details emerged over the next few days, establishing that Diana hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, that her driver was well over the legal alcohol limit and had been speeding, but beyond that, there was nothing new to say, and hours and hours to be filled saying it.
The newspapers followed the lead of the broadcast media, though some had first to scramble to claw back lost ground, none more so than the American magazine the National Enquirer: ‘We apologise for the Princess Diana page one headline DI GOES SEX MAD, which is still on the stands at some locations. It is currently being replaced with a special 72-page tribute issue: A FAREWELL TO THE PRINCESS WE ALL LOVED.’
It was later calculated that Diana’s death generated more newspaper and magazine coverage than any other single event in the history of humanity, appropriately enough for the most photographed woman in the world. In life, she had been a banker for any publication wishing to increase sales, and in death she continued to work her magic: the Sun sold an extra million copies that Monday.
As the week wore on, the response of some was to question how genuine any of this public passion was, so perfect a media story did it seem. Adrian Mole’s fifteen-year-old sister chose not to go to Kensington Palace to lay flowers: ‘Rosie preferred to watch the Diana-mourning on television. She said it was “more real”.’
Tony Benn shared the same sense of unreality from another perspective: ‘I hope by this time next week we will be able to re-enter the real world again, because there is something slightly sick about this,’ he observed. ‘It was also,’ noted Giles Radice, ‘a generational thing – it was the twenty- and thirty-year-olds, especially women, who felt Diana’s death most. It was my daughters and stepdaughters who were most touched.’
The response of those at a more elevated social level was to look to their own position. ‘They’re all going to blame me, aren’t they?’ fretted Prince Charles, while Tony Blair saw opportunities as well as challenges: ‘I also knew that this was going to be a major national, in fact global event like no other. How Britain emerged was important for the country internally and externally.’
Blair it was who seized control of the moment. Having decided that he ought to speak to the media on his way back from church that Sunday morning (‘Anything before that would look tacky,’ he agreed with Alastair Campbell), he delivered perhaps his most enduring soundbite: ‘She was the people’s princess. And that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and memories – for ever.’
It wasn’t an entirely new phrase. The title ‘the people’s princess’ had already been used of the Duchess of York, of Princess Anne (most recently in 1996) and of Diana herself, the title being bestowed upon her by Julie Burchill in 1991 and by James Whitaker in 1992. In November 1993 the Daily Mirror had published photographs of Diana taken by a hidden camera above a machine in an LA Fitness gym in West London; although Diana sued for this invasion of her privacy (the paper settled out of court for £200,000 damages and around £1 million in legal fees), the article was largely sympathetic and was headlined THE PEOPLE’S PRINCESS.
Never, though, had the epithet struck such a chord. It was clearly a terrible cliché, yet at the same time it sounded like an entirely original thought, and in that contradiction it encapsulated the public mood. It also, of course, implied that the other royals didn’t belong to, and weren’t part of, the people.
In a trembling voice, Blair described himself as being ‘utterly devastated’, and summed up the mood of the country: ‘We are today a nation in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us.’ That came dangerously close to using the royal ‘we’, but it was no accident, as Jonathan Powell wrote in his diary: ‘he obviously feels real grief but also feels he needs to express it for the nation.’
Later that day, as he waited at RAF Northolt for the plane carrying Diana’s corpse to arrive from Paris, Blair reflected ‘that this was a moment for the country to unite. There had to be love for Diana; respect for the Queen; a celebration of what a great country this was.’
He had been prime minister for just four months. Still riding his own wave of acclaim and popularity, he was confronting a situation for which no one was even vaguely prepared. Had Diana still been married, there would have been some precedent, some protocol upon which to draw, but there was no known procedure for the sudden death of a divorced Princess of Wales who had, just a year before, been stripped of her right to be called Her Royal Highness.
In the absence of any comment from the royal family themselves, Blair stepped in to speak for the country and did so convincingly. He was quite correct in assuming that there were points of comparison to be made between Diana’s emotional appeal and the nebulous values of New Labour, but he resisted the temptation to make this a time for scoring political points and he was cautious about stepping too far into the limelight. ‘We have to be careful,’ noted Alastair Campbell the next day, ‘that it doesn’t look like we are writing our script, rather than hers.’
There were plenty of others who did wish to write her script. ‘You cannot be a sentient human being and not feel grief and horror,’ judged the historian Ben Pimlott, but he found himself topped in his garment-rending by other highbrow journalists.
The novelist Piers Paul Read said that a ‘comparison could be made with the Virgin Mary’, a sentiment with which Paul Johnson could only concur: ‘I am reminded of the Blessed Virgin.’ Norman St John Stevas believed she had ‘a real and charismatic gift for healing’, and David Aaronovitch wrote: ‘We therefore crucified her, with our strange appetite for celebrity. And however much we attempt to read paparazzi for Pharisee we know that it is really our fault that she died.’
As the initial disbelief turned to shock, a new narrative began to emerge. Apart from the grief, there was also anger at the actions of the paparazzi, chasing after the photographs that the British people had so often enjoyed seeing in their newspapers. This was not, for obvious reasons, an angle that the press wished to pursue in any great detail, and instead a new target was sought onto which the public rage could safely be deflected. It was found in the form of the royal family.
A few months earlier, Armando Iannucci had written: ‘In time of national crisis or tragedy, the royal family doesn’t share grief through the expression of recognisable emotion. They express it through staring at flags and inspecting rubble.’ At the time of Diana’s death, the Queen, Charles and Diana’s sons were in Balmoral, far from the rising tide of flowers in West London, and the absence of ‘recognisable emotion’, of any direct response at all, was seized upon by the newspapers, anxious to deflect attention from themselves…