Met police chief examines Diana death scene

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To see a British policeman walking is a rare sight these days. To see the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, no less, investigating a road accident on foot was very encouraging. Never mind if the car crash happened in Paris. Never mind if it took place nearly seven years ago.

To see a British policeman walking is a rare sight these days. To see the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, no less, investigating a road accident on foot was very encouraging. Never mind if the car crash happened in Paris. Never mind if it took place nearly seven years ago.

Sir John Stevens will doubtless have noticed that all the cars in the French capital were driving on the wrong side of the road. Could this have had any bearing on the accident in August 1997? If so, why was it neglected in the 6,000 pages of the French investigation report?

The head of Scotland Yard angrily rejected all such unhelpful observations on his day trip to Paris yesterday. One television reporter asked Sir John if his visit to the site of the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, as part of the investigation for the British inquest opened earlier this year, was just a "giant photo opportunity". That was an "incredibly cynical" thing to say, Sir John said. The questioner obviously knew "nothing about how inquiries are conducted". He added: "I have learnt a great deal today. It is a central part of what we do. You have to go the scene and see what happened."

As a photo opportunity, the visit was also a great success. Sir John, the coroner Michael Burgess, three Scotland Yard detectives and Martine Monteil, the head of all Paris detectives, strolled for 20 minutes inside the dipping, turning underpass at the Place de L'Alma where Diana's armoured Mercedes span out of control.

The road was closed in both directions by 100 French policemen. Traffic jams of diverted cars stretched back for 1km or more. A hedge of 50 cameramen and reporters formed across the road 150 metres away to watch and film the shadows moving inside the short tunnel.

Sir John and Mr Burgess, in blue suits, and Mme Monteil, in a black jacket with white beading, consulted plans of the crash in which Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul died. They strode across the roadway one way and then the other way. They walked to the end of the tunnel and back again.

Small groups of onlookers formed, gawping from among the chestnut trees and beds of marigolds and wallflowers on the grassy knolls on either side of the road.

Sir John said afterwards that he had discovered two things. The underpass dipped more steeply and was much narrower than he had imagined from looking at pictures.

Did this mean that he was now leaning towards the official French view, recorded after two years of painstaking investigation, that M. Paul had lost control of the speeding Mercedes while under the influence of drink and drugs? Was he now able to dismiss any of the conspiracy theories, propagated by Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, and some newspapers and magazines?

"I don't dismiss anything," Sir John said. "I know from 43 years in this business that you go where the facts take you." Yes, Sir John told reporters, he would, if necessary, question Prince Charles. Yes, he would be speaking to MI5 and MI6.

The wisdom of the coroner's decision to order a new investigation is plain. Anything less would have encouraged a thousand dotty theories to thrive. The wisdom of Sir John's decision to go, in person, to Paris amid great media fanfare yesterday is less plain. Senior detectives and the coroner had already been to visit the tunnel more quietly.

How often does the Commissioner of the Met turn up at the scene of an accident? Even an accident as mediagenic as this one?

Senior Met officers say privately that they accept that the new investigation is a waste of time and money. They are persuaded that the French investigation uncovered all the significant facts that there were to uncover. They argue, however, that they must be seen to investigate thoroughly and, since Sir John is the nominal head of the investigation, it is important that he should be seen to investigate in person.

Sir John said he expected the investigation to last until the end of the year. He praised the "exemplary co-operation" that he and his team had received from the French police.

"There are a lot of conspiracy theories about how these three people came to die so tragically," he said. "Our job is to put a line under the theories, one way or another. We will make every effort to do that."

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