It may well rank as the UK’s JFK moment: for many years after the event people would recall where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. The thing is, though, since the event in question happened in the early hours of the morning, the answer most would come up with is ‘just waking up in bed,’ and instead of hearing their usual programming on the radio they heard a succession of classic music pieces – as tends to happen on the demise of a member of the royal family.
Unless you’re a Daily Express reader, the facts are well known, and easy to explain. Diana, Princess of Wales, while on holiday in Paris with her companion, the film-maker Dodi Fayed, was killed with him after the car they were travelling in hit a tunnel pillar at high speed early on August 31, 1997. Additionally, while the pair were being pursued by paparazzi, their driver, Henri Paul, was drunk and in no fit state to drive anybody, much less a member of the British Royal Family.
While a death in the Royal Family has always been a solemn affair, the reaction to Diana’s shocking death was something considerably out of the ordinary. The then prime minister Tony Blair may well have put his finger on something when, in his first public statement after the event, he described Diana as “the People’s Princess” (it remains debatable whether he, or his Communications Director Alastair Campbell, came up with the term). A book of condolence was opened in St James’s Palace, and millions of bouquets of flowers were left at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Several people were seen weeping and hugging one another – though it’s still unclear as to how many (if any) of them ever actually met the Princess.
Why? How had such a figure, who had effectively been estranged from the wider Royal Family since her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996, commanded such an emotional (and some would say un-British) pull on the public affections? It could be precisely because Diana had a different outlook from the rest of the Family. It was almost as if she were more human than your average aristocrat, appearing decidedly more at ease at public functions, and taking a laudable lead in worthwhile campaigns such as meeting HIV patients and the fight against landmines.
Nonetheless, Diana’s death did expose that other, less laudable British trait of hypocrisy about the role of the press in her life. Yes, Diana was pursued constantly by the paparazzi, but she was a public figure, and her images did tend to boost the circulation of Insert Publication Here. It really was a case of Giving The People What They Want. Some of the people in question had the audacity to criticize the press and photographers for hounding Diana, and missing the irony of their position entirely, in the process. Such hypocrisy was memorably skewered by the satirical magazine Private Eye in its celebrated cover immediately after the event, in which speech bubbles appear above the crowd in front of Buckingham Palace saying ‘The papers are a disgrace‘, ‘Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere,’ and ‘Borrow mine – it’s got a picture of the car‘.
The national neurosis over its best-loved Royal Family member would continue to the Princess’s funeral, the following Saturday, with yet more evidence of a (possibly) changed nation (or not)…