The Diana inquest: The circus with no audience

Despite all the coverage of the Diana inquest, the public gallery is virtually empty. Why? Robert Verkaik reports
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The Independent Online

Judging by the acres of newspaper coverage devoted to the Diana inquest, editors continue to be of the firm belief that just about anything concerning the death of the Princess of Wales is of massive interest to the public.

Inside Court 73, at the Royal Courts of Justice, and particularly under the roof of the specially built annexe catering for the courtroom overspill, the reality is very different. The few non-members of the media who bothered to turn up in person to hear how Diana and Dodi met their deaths in a Paris underpass 10 years ago, found themselves outnumbered by the six women and five male members of the jury.

In the annexe, the 150 metal-framed blue seats carefully laid out in anticipation of the stampede for tickets remain a daily testament to some rather over-optimistic planning. Here, the banks of hi-tech digital TV screens brought in to relay the live proceedings from the court are being played to audiences of fewer than 20. The truth is that while the outside broadcast vans are parked bumper to bumper in the Strand, and the teams of reporters, royal correspondents and colour writers fill the press benches, the public is only conspicuous by its absence.

Ten years ago, the country was gripped by Diana-mania. Millions turned out in London or switched on their televisions to watch the funeral procession. Since then, a week has barely gone by without a middle-market or red-top paper making some reference to Diana and Dodi or the conspiracy surrounding their deaths. Papers such as the Daily Express have often cleared the front page to publish trivial revelations.

No wonder Mohamed Al Fayed's lawyers felt confident enough, earlier this year, to recommend to the previous coroner, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss, that such was the anticipated public interest in the inquests that she should consider moving them to the more capacious Central Hall, in Westminster.

The disparity between the media coverage and public attendance is difficult to fathom. Even among the pack of royal correspondents, dedicated to following the twists and turns of the Diana saga, nobody has a credible explanation. One reporter, who covered the Paul Burrell trial and the recent Prince of Wales "Chinese waxworks" privacy case, says that he is still surprised by the low public turnout. "The odd thing is that the coverage of the inquest is actually boosting newspaper sales. So it's not as if the public has lost interest. They are just not bothering to turn up in any numbers."

The court team that is responsible for planning the inquest accommodation and seating is equally baffled. "What we have done is to make sure that there is enough capacity for serving the public demand on the busiest day," says Richard Bailey, the inquiry's press officer. "I can't comment on why the public so far may, or may not, have attended in large numbers."

In contrast to the empty public seats, the press benches are packed. In the media suite, bums fill most of the 150 seats reserved for the army of domestic and foreign reporters who have flocked to the Royal Courts of Justice to catch every nuance, cough and spit in the development of conspiracy theories surrounding the couple's death.

One hundred and thirty journalists from at least 15 countries, including the US, Japan, Canada and Poland, are accredited to the inquest. On most days, journalists outnumber the public by more than three to one. The media is served by the Judicial Communications Office, based at the Royal Courts of Justice, which has responsibility for organising the inquests and supporting the journalists. One of the undoubted success stories is the court's website. The photographs and video evidence are published here on the same day that the exhibits are shown to the jury, and usually in plenty time for picture editors to use the images for the fronts and two-page spreads that cover the new developments.

Earlier this month, the inquests switched location to Paris, and the media circus duly followed. This time, it was the turn of the French public to stay away. On a warm autumn morning in the Place Vendôme in central Paris, 40 or 50 photographers, film crews and reporters gathered outside the Ritz hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of the coach carrying the jury, coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker, and lawyers that comprised the travelling court. The last time such large numbers of the media waited in anticipation outside this hotel, events turned to tragedy.

As the jury bus pulled into the square in front of the gathered media, there were echoes of the pandemonium of 10 years ago. Photographers waited for their moment to snap the legal team, while reporters tried to follow the coach on foot as the jury retraced Diana and Dodi's last journey. The French media and public looked on in bewilderment.

Thimothée Boutry, assigned to cover the story for Le Parisien, said that very few French people are interested in the Diana inquest. "We can't understand what can be achieved by going over these events again so long after the crash. It must be something peculiar to the British."