Diana: the story of the story
On Saturday 30 August 1997, as midnight passed, a few journalists prepared to while away the time until their shifts ended. Five hours later, the story of the decade had broken. Gabriel Thompson tells the story of the night Diana died
Tuesday 01 September 1998
It had been a good night out and, after a little too much wine, I decided that a cup of coffee before bed was a good idea. Waiting for the kettle to boil I turned on the television as the first reports of the crash were coming in. From my time working on the Independent on Sunday I knew that its news operation closed at 12.30. It was going to miss the story completely. I panicked, and reached for the telephone.
Elsewhere in London, Richard Sambrook was being teased about the fact that he always carried a pager. Sambrook, the BBC's head of newsgathering, pointed out: "I need it in case the Queen Mother dies, or something." A few minutes later, the pager went off.
At The Sunday Times, the night editor Ian Coxon was drinking coffee as an uneventful day drew to a close. A colleague rushed into the room with news of the crash. Coxon didn't get to finish his coffee.
After 15 minutes of fuming at colleagues' answering machines and swearing at endless ringing tones, I got through to Colin Hughes, then deputy editor of The Independent, who was at home in bed. As I told him what had happened, Hughes said immediately: "She's dead."
Another journalist caught the late-night news and rushed off to his office. He completely forgot to tell his wife what he was doing.
1.10-2.30am `Stop the presses'
Hughes made up his mind. There was no one at the Independent on Sunday, but he was a reporter and I was a sub. We could be at the office in 30 minutes, and get a front page out to the printers by 2.30am - our last chance of the night. He rang the printers and told them to stop the presses. He ran for his car, and I jumped into a cab.
At The Sunday Times, Coxon was blessing his luck. Not only did he have enough staff but, by coincidence, the paper's royal correspondent was doing a stint on the night news desk.
Nik Gowing, one of BBC World Television's most experienced new presenters, had been asleep for just 40 minutes when the telephone rang. By 1.30am he was in a cab heading for the office. By 2.30am he was broadcasting live - and would continue to do so until 7.30am.
At one radio station, a beleaguered reporter was so afraid to leave his desk that he resorted to relieving himself into a Coke bottle.
2.30-3.30am `Does anyone KNOW anything?'
After the first rush to get the news out, everyone began the hunt for hard facts.
At the Independent on Sunday we had been given a reprieve by the printers, and a deadline - 3.30am. Most other papers had also managed to get a story about the crash out to their printers, and were preparing the next edition.
At the BBC, they had decided to broadcast their 24-hour World channel on both BBC1 and BBC2 throughout the night.
Everyone was wondering what had happened to Diana. Buckingham Palace had delayed making a statement; there was no real information coming from the Government; the French authorities were being obtuse.
I was talking to a French radio station, trading "live interview with British journalist" for any news they had. They knew no more than we did. Gowing was growing more and more suspicious as he tried to separate fact from speculation. Coxon feared that the very paucity of information indicated that there was grim news to come.
We knew Dodi was dead. But Diana? She was concussed, she had a broken arm, she was severely injured - which story to believe?
In the midst of all this, Gowing's desktop printer broke down. Looking for some technical support, he spotted a chap with a beard and wearing jeans, wandering through the newsroom. Gowing demanded his aid in fixing the printer. The bearded man looked surprised but did oblige. And that is how Gowing first met Richard Ayre, deputy chief executive of BBC News.
3.30-4.30am `The Manila connection'
Our luck changed. Because the crash was in France, it was a matter for the Foreign Office. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was in Manila. The time difference meant that Cook and his staff were already out of bed and therefore fair game for the British reporters who had accompanied them on the trip.
The official version is that Diana's death was confirmed just before 5am London time. The truth is that, long before then, the reporters with Cook had rung in with unofficial confirmation of the death. All night we had survived on official statements and guesswork. Finally, we had hard news about Diana.
For the Independent on Sunday, Steve Crawshaw rang from Manila. Hughes, who likes to behave in a calm and collected manner in such situations, shouted "Yes, yes, yes!" We finally had some news from someone we knew and could trust.
Sadly, the news was that Diana was dead.
4.30-5.30am `Diana killed in crash'
Hard news was finally arriving. We learnt that there would be an announcement simultaneously in Paris and Manila, shortly before 5am. At the Independent on Sunday we had already acted on Crawshaw's information and remade the front page with the story of Diana's death. The page was sent to the print sites with strict instructions that they were not to start printing without our say-so.
The confirmation came just before 5am. We were printing it three minutes later.
At the BBC, Gowing read the confirmation - a "snap" from the Press Association - twice on air. Twenty minutes later, Buckingham Palace issued its own confirmation. Gowing had his first and only attack of nerves, and calmly announced the news. No one knows for sure how many people around the world saw that broadcast, but the best estimate is 500 million.
5.30-7.30am `Time to go home'
The end of the story had been told. No newspaper could keep printing any longer. Television and radio had reported the news and were now looking for more angles, and more opinions, to flesh out the coverage.
At The Sunday Times, Coxon was already thinking about how the paper would deal with the story in the following week's edition.
At the Independent on Sunday, Hughes was calling in staff from the daily Independent to prepare the next day's paper.
Gowing handed over to another presenter and slipped quietly away. Sambrook was organising the movement of reports, cameramen, engineers and equipment to Paris.
I couldn't get a taxi home - they were all booked to rush journalists to their newsrooms around London.
It was a new day. Sambrook was delighted to discover that a royal correspondent had cut short her holiday in Devon and was on her way to London. By taxi.
A freelance cameraman was sent to Buckingham Palace. He found plenty of people - almost all clubbers who had been dancing the night away as the news broke.
As for the journalist who rushed off to his office without telling his wife what he was doing - she caught him coming home at 7.30am, and still thinks he's having an affair.
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
MOBO Awards 2014: Jess Glynne hits back at 'ridiculous' criticism of nominated white artists
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational and sensitive
The Apprentice 2014: Nurun Ahmed and Lindsay Booth fired in double elimination
MOBO Awards 2014: Sam Smith sweeps the board with four gongs
The Apprentice, episode 3 - review: Lord Sugar hacks away at the deadwood with double elimination
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters