In the days before smartphones, it was possible to spend an evening out without constant news alerts and Twitter notifications. On the night of Aug. 30, 1997, I attended a play and then dropped by a nightclub, so it was after midnight when I got into my car and flicked on the radio to hear the shocking news: Princess Diana had been killed in a horrific accident.
Within 24 hours, I was on my way to London to cover her funeral.
For the next week, I witnessed the raw grief and outrage of the British people: their anger at the royal family and their fury at the media, especially the paparazzi, whom they blamed for the car crash.
Every flower laid in front of Kensington Palace was a rebuke. “For 17 years we have seen her in the papers and on television,” mourner Ray Moore told me. “I’m quite hardened, but I was shocked at the grief I felt. It was like losing a member of the family.”
It was the biggest story in the world: No detail was too small for the voracious public, but those of us reporting were regarded with resentment and suspicion.
The truth, of course, was more complicated. Diana was the most famous woman in the world — beloved, betrayed, pitied and pursued. Unlike the rest of the British royals, she innately understood the power of the media, and she used it to become a superstar and, later, to wage war with the palace. She believed she could summon the cameras when she wanted flattering stories, and send them away when she’d had enough.
In the end, she was the victim of a taciturn royal family, an insatiable celebrity culture and her own tragic misunderstanding of what it meant to be a fairy-tale princess in the real world.
An estimated 750 million people worldwide watched the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, a 20-year-old beauty with no past and, it seemed, an unlimited future. From the moment reporters realized that the shy kindergarten teacher was dating the heir to the throne, the public couldn’t get enough of her.
To say she was woefully unprepared for the demands of the modern monarchy is an understatement. Charles — in love with Camilla Parker Bowles and ill-equipped to deal with a naive, emotionally fragile young woman — was unable or unwilling to help her.
So Diana turned to the public, which loved her for her beauty, her charisma and the affection it had never seen from other royals. She gave them an adorable heir and a spare. The tabloids were extravagant in their praise, breathlessly following her every move. She upstaged the other royals by charm or by calculation.
She cultivated reporters, flattering them, leaking choice bits of news. “Let it not be said that she lacked sophistication about the media, her use of it and its use of her,” Times of London editor Peter Stothard said after she died.
Later on, the media became her weapon of choice as she battled Charles during their separation and divorce. The palace was furious when she secretly cooperated with author Andrew Morton for the sensational biography “Diana: Her True Story.”
“She just couldn’t really get to grips with being an international superstar on the one hand and being treated in such a poor way by both the royal family and particularly by Prince Charles,” Morton told “Frontline.”
But it was Diana’s 1995 BBC interview, in which she spoke of depression, bulimia and infidelity, that was the last straw for the queen. The divorce was finalized the following year, and Diana lost “Her Royal Highness.”
The only thing that sells better than a fairy tale is a fairy tale gone wrong. Diana believed that the only way to fight the royals was to have the public on her side. She sat alone in front of the Taj Mahal, and she wore a sexy black dress the night Charles admitted to adultery on national television. Diana’s quest for happiness became the new story line.
It’s useful to remember that Diana had a personal life when she wished — she kept her love affair with Hasnat Khan private for almost two years. The handsome heart surgeon wanted nothing to do with the media frenzy that surrounded Diana, so the two saw each other at home and Diana wore disguises when they went out in public. Convinced that he could never live a normal life if they married, he broke up with her at the end of July 1997.
Shortly afterward, she was photographed with the millionaire playboy Dodi Fayed in the south of France. As the tabloids covered the whirlwind romance, one of Diana’s closest friends, Rosa Monckton, said she believed it was all a show to make Khan jealous.
On the way back to London, Diana and Dodi decided to stop in Paris for the night.
On the morning of Aug. 30, 1997, Diana called the Daily Mail’s Richard Kay, her favorite royal correspondent. She said she might withdraw from public life, but she still wanted to be a humanitarian. Maybe she was getting married. Maybe not.
That night, the paparazzi camped outside the Ritz Paris hotel as Diana and Dodi ate a late dinner. Slipping out the rear entrance, they hopped into the back seat of a car driven by Henri Paul, the hotel’s deputy head of security.
Over the past two decades, every detail of the next few hours has been dissected and debated: A few of the paparazzi jumped on motorcycles and pursued the Mercedes-Benz, which raced into the Pont D’Alma tunnel, clipped the back of a white Fiat Uno and slammed into a pylon at about 100 mph. An inquest would determine that Paul’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Dodi and the driver died at the scene; Diana and a bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, were seriously injured (she died at the hospital).
The first photographer arrived within a minute of the crash. A doctor who happened on the scene later testified that the paparazzi took pictures (which were never published) but did not interfere with emergency personnel. Seven photographers were detained; they thought it was to give witness statements, but they were held for three days and charged with manslaughter. (The charges were later dropped.)
Within minutes of the breaking news, cable channels speculated that the paparazzi had caused the crash. On CNN, Tom Cruise blasted the media: “It is harassment,” he proclaimed angrily. A few hours later, Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, read a scathing prepared statement:
“I would say that I always believed the press would kill her in the end. But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death, as seems to be the case. It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands today.”
What struck me then was how easy it was to blame the media without mentioning the millions who buy the newspapers and magazines. Any suggestion that Diana was in any way responsible for the constant crush of reporters and photographers became blasphemy. Royal expert James Whitaker was forced to make a public apology following the accident: “I regret now if I said anything that caused offense to anybody listening to what I thought was a balanced appraisal of Diana and her complicated life with photographers.”
It would be disingenuous to say Diana deserved the constant attention, but it would be equally unfair to say she didn’t actively participate in the process while complaining about how awful it was to be so famous.
“Of all the people who hungrily read every word written about her, Diana was the hungriest,” wrote John Lanchester in the New Yorker. “She pored over photos of herself, and loved the publicity that, by the end, had her entirely trapped.”
The funeral was unbearably sad, mostly because of the young princes, who had tragically lost their mother. The royal family faced a crisis mitigated only by public affection for Diana’s sons. Any forgiveness for Charles was swiftly revoked; the rest of the family — including the queen — were widely criticized for their tone-deaf response to Diana, in life and in death.
The queen made an effort to learn from the experience, says royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith, commissioning private polls and focus groups about the monarchy. “Their takeaway was that they needed to show the royal family was more in touch with ordinary people, and to display more Diana-style empathy rather than classic royal restraint,” she said.
Relations between the palace and the media have improved a lot, Smith said, thanks to relaxed protocol and more genuine cooperation. Camilla, once the villain of the story, has become a favorite of royal reporters for her down-to-earth style. The newspapers backed off when Prince William complained that photographers got too close to Kate Middleton before their engagement and when Prince Harry warned them to stop following his girlfriend, actress Meghan Markle. Like other celebrities, they now bypass traditional media and use Facebook and Twitter, which gives them more control.
But the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death has opened old wounds, as the media revisits all the low points of her ill-fated marriage — infidelity, secret recordings, mutual humiliations — and its aftermath. “Nearly all of her accusations about Charles and Camilla were well-known 20 years ago, but hearing them anew has given them unanticipated traction, particularly for young people,” Smith said. “It’s still too early to tell if these waves of negative stories will inflict long-term damage on the monarchy, but in the short term, the reputations of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have certainly been tarnished by Diana’s ‘revelations.’ ”
The People’s Princess remains frozen in time: beautiful, dazzling, beloved — the kind of mythological perfection conferred by an early, tragic death. It’s possible she would have matured into the international humanitarian she aspired to be, doting on her sons and grandchildren, still the most glamorous member of the royal family. Maybe she would have remarried. Maybe she would be older and wiser. She would have millions of Twitter followers.
And, I have no doubt, she’d still be in a love-hate relationship with the media.