Diana: How we saw it

The death of the Princess of Wales and its aftermath has spawned an outpouring of emotion, speculation and reflection that has left everyone in the media reeling. Virginia Ironside tracks how the story unfolded in the press; Thomas Sutcliffe reviews how we saw it - and ourselves - on television, while Ann Treneman observes crisis management PR in action
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The Independent Online


Monday September 1

By Monday, the themes of the week were all in place in the papers: shock and grieving, idealisation and recrimination. Millions of words, many of them analytical and thoughtful have followed. But as with Diana herself, it was the emotion that counted. The Mirror, with the perfect common touch, was the first paper to go religious. "Born a Lady, Became our Princess, Died a Saint" ran one headline; "Magic Touch of a Goddess" said another. And Lord St John of Fawsely said that she had "a real and charismatic gift for healing. It was not something dreamt up by the press. It came from deep within."

Mother Teresa added her tribute, and The Mirror asked its readers: "Did Diana touch your life? Phone us and tell us," thus spawning an unending series of stories about Diana with crippled children, Diana with pensioners, Diana baby-sitting, Diana writing charming cards to complete strangers.

The Sun was less celestial: "Goodnight, Sweet Princess ... "She was Royal but she was Special - because she was one of us," they insisted. "Around the world, the words `Lady Di' brought a smile to the lips of the needy, the sick, the dying and those in despair. They probably didn't know what the words meant - only that they made them feel better ... The World will never Forget Diana. But it needs a place to focus its feelings." It suggested, rather bizarrely, "What better than the Millennium Dome at Greenwich?"

But it was not a comfortable time for the tabloids, however many extra they sold. Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, had already condemned anybody who ever bought a paparazzi photograph. The Sun's editor, Stuart Higgins, said that he had fallen under Diana's spell when he met her. But within 96 hours he, in common with several other tabloid editors, had been publicly disinvited from the funeral service.

Interestingly, the first small broadside at the Royal Family came from The Financial Times. Philip Stephens wrote: "The Royal Family cannot for ever rely on the reservoir of goodwill and respect which has seen it through the past decade. It must begin again to earn the loyalty of its subjects ... Just as there will never be a princess like her, so after her 15 turbulent years in the public eye, the monarchy can never be the same." The first rumblings are heard. But not yet by the Palace.

Poor old Richard Kay of the Daily Mail, Diana's best journalist chum, wrote a long article insisting she had found happiness at last with Dodi before she died (those royal reporters must be bereaved in two ways: personal loss at the death of Diana, but also at realising that a big chunk of their job has disappeared). James "fat tomato" Whitaker, royal reporter extraordinaire of The Mirror, wrote: "The Princess of Wales is dead. I can't believe I've written those words but as I do so I'm crying ... I adored her and I will miss her dreadfully."

The idea of Diana living on to haunt Charles and everyone was also developing. Sarah Bradford heralded the sound of distant thunder when she wrote: "For Charles, in his relations both with his children and with his future subjects, the shadow of Diana will always remain, more inescapably, perhaps, in death than if she had lived happily ever after."

"Whatever becomes of this stricken family, there, in the firmament above them will hover the problematic image of a woman whose power will not dim," wrote Polly Toynbee in this paper. "Her story will be used and abused in a thousand ways, twisted and exaggerated, a constant weapon in the hands of enemies of Charles or Camilla. If some day the monarchy finally draws peacefully to a close, Diana's ghostly spirit will have played its part."

Also in The Independent, David Aaronovitch wrote of the near religious mythology: "Now we have Diana the martyr, those clear eyes looking down from that sympathetic, sad but smiling face. She, who died for our sins, because we have to buy the newspapers that printed the photographs taken by the professionals - maddened by greed - who eventually killed her. 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. It will not be long, and I say this in no spirit of levity, before some start to claim that she is not dead at all."

The worldly speculators were no slower than the other-worldly. In The Times, marketing strategists predicted a " `Diana Cult' which will eclipse the multi-million-dollar industry associated with such showbusiness icons as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe". A City of London public relations company was quoted as saying: "The Diana industry will dwarf anything we have seen before. The potential is incalculable."


Tuesday September 2

Phew! It might not have been the paparazzi after all. The relief of the tabloid press is transparent. The Mirror's headline is "121 miles per hour, 3 times over the limit, 1 nation mourns." The paparazzi are out of the spotlight.

This was the day when the remoteness of the Royal Family started to become apparent, and the whole issue of whether they should show their feelings or not was addressed. Cry, for God's sake, cry, seemed to be the message.

Liz Taylor wept with rage. (That's more like it.) James Hewitt said he loved Diana, and readers' personal stories of how she touched their lives privately continued to flood in. A beggar claimed she had changed his life, and The Financial Times revealed that the sales of tabloids had soared on the back of the tragedy. The Sun sold more than a million extra copies on Monday.

"Charles can no longer hide from reality," said The Independent's leader, "If ever there were a time, an occasion for the Prince of Wales to show that he has not been entirely intellectually and imaginatively stifled by his upbringing and adult capacity, this is it. He needs, for once, not just to talk to people outside the circle but to listen to them and their appreciation of the public mood." Prince William should be "allowed to live something of a normal teenage life (which if it were normal would have to include sexual experiment, even acquaintance with illicit substances)".

Then there was the flag. Anthony Holden, the biographer of Charles who long ago swapped sides and joined the Diana faction, wrote in The Express: "Although I appreciate that only the Royal Standard is flown at Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence - and never at half-mast - I was astonished that an exception was not made. The Palace flagpole was the only one in London, perhaps the British Isles, without a Union Jack at half-mast. When I said so on American TV I was cheered applauded, slapped on the back by a member of the crowd. "Thank you," they said, "for speaking on behalf of the people."

And attention turned to the boys. What would become of them? Libby Purves begged in The Times: "We must keep away from the Princes. Not just for a month, but until they are men." Fat chance.

Julie Burchill weighed in, writing in The Guardian, with her customary delicatesse: there was Diana the Good, Diana the Stylish, Diana the Dutiful and, she says, Diana the Destroyer. "And destroyer she has been, gloriously so, with bells on; the great force for republicanism since Oliver Cromwell. She leaves the Royal Family with one big ticking gift-wrapped time-bomb of a farewell present: the fact that, for the first time, more subjects of the House of Windsor are against it than for it ... God Save the Queen? God Help the Queen, more like." Charles, she showed up for what he was. Not the intellectual of The Firm, but "a third-rate mind with delusions of adequacy, a veritable human juke-box of philosophical cliches completely unable to concentrate or contribute to any cause for any length of time. (I always found the idea that Diana failed to provide the Prince of Wales with the intellectual companionship he craved a real scream - this was the man who turned to Camilla Parker Bowles, Dale Tryon and Selina Scott for solace! You'd get more cerebral stimulation from The Three Stooges.)"

In the other camp it was time to start rehabilitating Charles. The Daily Mail tried to screw out a bit of sympathy for him. In a wonderful parody of Private Eye's serial Sylvie Krin, a parody in itself, the Daily Mail wrote: "Charles weeps bitter tears of guilt ... he went walking round the moors on his own in the early hours. Bleary-eyed Charles walked the moors, asking, why, why, why? He had stayed up into the early hours drinking stiff gin-based martinis and making telephone call after call to friends, most of whom had long gone to bed. By now the tears that had coursed down his ever-sun-tanned cheeks had gone ... The question is: What made Charles weep such bitter tears? Sorrow, naturally ... Shock and nostalgia also at what he had seen, standing there beside an electric fan which made a breeze that lifted the fringe of the dead Princess's hair. And guilt ... No one has ever seen him racked with such a sense of frustration and confusion as yesterday. He was distraught, and entirely drained, seeking answers to the unanswerable."


Wednesday September 3

The Mirror continued to print the most heartfelt and unspeakable poems about the Princess. One runs:

There once was a lady called Di

Who used to be terribly shy,

But how she made her mark

In this world so dark

Oh why did she have to die?

There was a lot of inky anger at the royal silence and the idea that this was a crossroads for the Royal Family really took hold. The Independent leader said it all: "What would really do the monarchy good and show that they had grasped the lesson of Diana's popularity, would be for the Queen and the Prince of Wales to break down, cry and hug one another on the steps of the Abbey this Saturday. That such an event is unthinkable shows how great is the gap between the people mourning `their' princess, and the Royal Family to which she never, quite, belonged."

Journalists were clearly feeling surprised at themselves. As Nigella Lawson wrote: "Journalists are a cynical bunch; we look askance at the things most people go dewy-eyed over; if we see a bubble, we like to burst it. But I haven't read - or written - the expected cynical asides or witnessed the usual brittle world-weariness or got any measure of our archly professional distance."

The hardened journalist Tom Utley of The Daily Telegraph asked a woman what she thought about the princess. " `Well,' she began, `she was a remarkable woman who. ...' and then her mouth twisted, her faced creased up and she burst into convulsive sobs. I felt as ashamed as if I had slapped her in the face. I said, `I know, I know, I'm sorry,' and hurried away, afraid that I was going to burst into tears myself."

The public was all heart, journalists were all heart but the Royal Family was, apparently, hardly any heart. "Show us there's a heart in the House of Windsor," begged The Sun. "There is no flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, just an empty rope slapping against the flagpole in the wind. There has been no expression of sorrow from the Queen on behalf of the nation. Not one word has come from the royal lip, not one tear has been shed from the royal eye."


Thursday September 4

By now the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn had seen enough: "Blacks and gays have queued alongside pinstriped businessmen and the blue-rinsed battalions of Middle England to express their sorrow. Diana grieved publicly for others and now they grieve for her and for themselves. We appear to be going through an extraordinary period of mass catharsis. Some of us may not like it, we may not understand it. Plenty of people are uncomfortable with it. To be perfectly honest the concept of vicarious grief completely escapes me. There have been times this week when I have felt like a visiting alien. But it is no good complaining that the reaction to Diana's death isn't really British. It is now. We are just going to have to accept it."

To many eyes things had turned distinctly odd; a pretty pass when Dodi's father had to come along and feed the crowd with bowls of soup and sandwiches, when the Al Fayeds seemed more public-spirited than the Royal Family.

Like a child, angry with longing for a cuddle from mum, the Voice of The Mirror said: "Your People are Suffering. SPEAK TO US, MA'AM." "Your people have spoken - now you must Ma'am ... Some critics say Britain has lost its sense of nationhood. That the traditional values of our great kingdom have broken down. They say that the anything goes values of the Sixties and the get-rich-quick mentality of the Eighties have made us interested in ourselves alone.

"TELL THAT to the tens of thousands who queue through the night outside St James's Palace

"TELL THAT to the hundreds of thousands who have laid flowers or given a message

"TELL THAT to the millions who still cannot control their tears.

On Thursday evening the Palace gave way, thanks, apparently, to pressure from Tony Blair, though the press had played its part, though whether by articulating or inflaming national feeling is impossible to say. In the fevered ether of the past week the two are impossible to disentangle. The Queen was coming to give a message on television and Charles would come with the boys as well. No thanks to the Royal Family, however. Melanie McDonagh writes: "The one entirely credible supposition about the Queen's handbrake turn in her handling of Diana's death is that Mr Tony Blair had a hand in the matter. It may well be that he has helped save the Royal Family from themselves."


Friday September 5

The tide has turned at the Daily Mail. It discerned the national crisis and went into rehabilitation mode. Charles is given a warm bath by Penny Junor, the royal biographer. "When I first met Prince Charles I remember him saying that the biggest problem of fatherhood was keeping his suits clean. Whenever he arrived at Highgrove by helicopter, it would land in a field where sheep grazed. William and Harry would come running out and jump into his arms for a hug - thus smearing one suit after another with the sheep droppings on their shoes."

The paper's political columnist, Simon Heffer, warned: "If we choose to set out to destroy their father and their grandmother too, we destroy the lives of those two Princes. It cannot be allowed to happen; as a people we are better and nobler than that."

But others were still witheringly on the attack: "106 hours ... then finally the Queen does the decent thing on the flag," said The Sun. "It gives us no pleasure to say this, but the Royal Family have let us down. Of course they are deep in grief too but we are continually told that they always sacrifice person feelings for the sake of duty. The time has come when those words have to be matched by deeds. This was such a time." They print 100 faces of people in floods of tears.

In the Express Ross Benson gloated: The Royal Family used to tell us what to do. Now we tell them what to do."

And Anne Robinson wrote: "It is too late for the Duke of Edinburgh to go to hugging classes. For Charles to send away for the Gap mail-order catalogue. Or any of them to start wondering if they could get to McDonald's. But thankfully Diana produced two sons and taught them her warm, unashamedly emotional ways. What's more, she has left a disturbing legacy for the Royal Family. Welcome, your Royal Majesties, to People Power. Your not- so-loyal subjects are now demanding that their wishes be taken into account ... To hell with protocol. To hell with the done thing. Diana might be gone but the result of her magnificent spirit and her wonderful pig-headedness lives on."

The Times leader thundered: "Yesterday's Palace statement that the Royal Family had been `hurt' by press criticism is evidence of a fatal tendency to blame the messenger. The truth is that the monarchy has been ill-served by its flatterers, whether in the Palace or the press."

And Simon Hoggart in The Guardian went further: "I would guess that Prince Charles can never now become king. All the evidence is that he dreads the job, and approaches it only because of the ferocious sense of duty dinned into him from childhood. After what has been in many respects a miserable 50 years, he should be allowed to retire to his gardens, his organic biscuits, and marriage to the woman he loves."


Saturday September 6

Within hours, it seemed, of the tabloids' begging headlines, the Queen gave, for her, a pretty moving speech and Charles and the boys were seen actually touching each other as they went round the crowds. This reaction undoubtedly lanced the boil of public fury, and allayed the tears of people like David Starkie, a constitutional expert, who worried that "There is such a head of steam that anything could happen" and Christopher Hudson in the Evening Standard: "As the emotional barometer has risen so has a disturbing sense of menace in the atmosphere."

All was calm as we read black-bordered specials produced by the tabloid press, and even the death of Mother Teresa, a more likely candidate for sainthood than Diana, only merited a quick spread in most of the papers. In an extraordinary cartoon in The Sun Diana was shown holding hands with Mother Teresa, both wore wings and halos, bearing out the view of Paul Johnson in the Daily Mail: "The surge of feeling for Diana this week has been a spontaneous collective religious act by the nation. It is a plea: `Give us a spiritual dimension. Make our lives meaningful. Show us there is more to existence than getting and spending, earning and acquiring' ... Let all those in authority recognise that, as the end of the Nineties approaches, a new spirit of democracy with a religious, almost mystical dimension, is moving across the country." Tony Blair was also near to occupying the space left by Diana. Several newspapers saw him as the new Father of the Nation, a spokesman for the "people" who can communicate the populace's feelings to the royals.

But Oliver James, in The Independent, saw it all as an event that can be simply explained by psychology. "Women will be more moved by ber death than men because all her problems were more common among women: twice as many women as men are depressed, three time times as many commit suicide and bulimia is primarily a female problem," he wrote. "For the many excluded or stigmatised groups, such as black, gays and the underclass, Diana represented one in the eye for the Establishment ... The scale of the reaction is caused by a massive undercurrent of misery that afflicts women throughout the world today and for which Diana's death is a conduit."

But David Aaronovitch of this paper had a different view. "It is enormously tempting to describe this as some kind of mass pathology. Media shrinks can explain some of it in terms of the stages of the grieving process or hysteria. But I don't think it necessary to reach for Freud when trying to understand what is going on. We are not witnessing any frenzies; there is no flagellation, no persecution of the Jews, no rending of clothing or attacks on minorities. Rather, there is an enormous desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, which links our quotidian experiences and the emotions to those of others. It is - in a sense - the obverse of road rage, that anti-civil phenomenon born of paranoia and isolation. It is the excuse for smiling at strangers, for crossing the boundaries of silence and suspicion that govern much of our lives."


Sunday September 7

It is said that after a bereavement people experience a series of emotions - shock, numbness, anger, guilt and grief -and certainly the reactions of the papers over the last week have followed just such a pattern. Finally, people just wanted to talk and talk about the death and certainly the Sunday papers produced almost as many words as there were bunches of flowers outside the palaces. The Diana I Knew, She Danced her Way into our Hearts, Sadness of a Princess - there is no question that Diana in death is being built up as a saint.

Apart from the huge coverage of the funeral, it was seen just as important whether the people in Westminster Abbey cried or not. The Sunday Mirror, having given us a report of the funeral that almost entirely consisted of the state of people's eyes, reported that Prince William was in floods of tears at the end; others say he was dry-eyed.

The big issue seemed to be not so much whether royalty will survive or not, but whether in future they should show their feelings more. In The Observer Euan Ferguson, slightly baffled by the whole display of public grief, wrote: "Some of us have not wept ... I don't want to be told what to feel and don't believe others should be either. I was brought up to believe that grief, like love, was personal and all the stronger for it."

"As an American," wrote Anne Applebaum in The Sunday Telegraph, "I shall miss British reserve when it finally disappears from these islands; it imparted a distinction and dignity to British popular culture. I shall also miss emotional repression when it finally disappears from Western culture."

The question of the boys and whether they will, too, be hounded by the press was also addressed after Earl Spencer's moving and angry speech. Despite the fact that both he and Tony Blair called for more stringent privacy laws (the boys now seem to have three fathers - Charles, Blair and their uncle, Earl Spencer), the prospect of them being shielded from the press doesn't look hopeful. The Sunday Mirror's front page ran a large picture of the two boys watching their mother's coffin, and the back page a huge photograph of Prince William.

But in the end we are left with two questions. First, what is the New Age other-worldliness that Diana's death has unleashed? As the leader in the Sunday Telegraph said: "The spiritual yearning which Diana's death has awoken is impossible to explain. The Princess was not a saint. But the spirituality her death has unleashed has shown that the yearnings of the soul are as strong as they always have been and can be harnessed in the interests of good."

And second, where now does Blair stand in the picture? Matthew d'Ancona, the political editor of the Sunday Telegraph, sounded warning bells. "The Tories felt almost excluded from the passions of last week ... But it would be a grotesque dishonour to her memory if the Government now tried to turn this fundamentally unpolitical woman into an icon of its new politics. But as Mr Blair sat down yesterday and Elton John approached the piano, it was hard us believe that Labour will give up the campaign to make `England's Rose' its own."

In death it seems possible, Diana may be used just as mercilessly as she was used in lifen