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Joan Smith

Diana died in a car crash. End of story

Oh no, not an inquest. Conspiracy theorists and Diana obsessives - an interchangeable bunch, in my opinion - have doubtless already marked 6 January with green ink in their 2004 diaries, hoping for startling new insights into the car crash in Paris that killed the Princess of Wales six years ago. Was she murdered? Was she pregnant? Was it all a plot, orchestrated by the Duke of Edinburgh, to prevent his son's divorced wife bearing a Muslim love child? Does anyone really care?

Oops, sorry. Last week's announcement that inquests are to be held into the deaths of Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, was treated with high seriousness, as well as providing an opportunity to publish pictures of the late princess in a low-necked dress. There was a great deal of sober analysis of who might be called as witnesses, what they might reveal, and whether wilder theories about the accident would finally be laid to rest. Fat chance: the casual claim that "of course, Diana was murdered by the security services" falls easily from the lips of otherwise sensible people who would never dream of suggesting that the moon landings were faked or that Elvis is still alive.

Encouraged by this latest development, the rumour mill is already at work, adding new layers to the edifice of doubt, scepticism and downright lunacy that has been constructed over Diana's death. Conspiracy theorists have seized on the fact that the inquests will open the week before the Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, is expected to report, thus ensuring that headlines damaging to the Government will have to jostle for space with the testimony of Paul Burrell. It goes without saying that anything that gives the oleaginous Burrell another platform is bad news, but the inquests have actually been delayed by legal proceedings in France, which have only just concluded.

But why let the facts get in the way of the story? Burrell has already revealed the existence of a smoking letter, so to speak, in which the princess talked about her fear of being injured in a car crash after her brakes had been tampered with. Oddly, he did not mention it at the time of her accident - aren't people with what might be construed as evidence supposed to help the police with their inquiries? - and in any case that is not what happened in the Place d'Alma underpass in August 1997. (Perhaps the princess had been reading too many detective stories.) The cause of the accident was simple enough: Diana, Dodi and a bodyguard got into a car with a drunk driver who proceeded to drive recklessly through the centre of Paris. The events of that night had tragic consequences for the bereaved relatives, including Diana's sons and the family of the driver, Henri Paul, but there isn't much more to say about them.

Mohamed al-Fayed, who went to court again last week in an attempt to force an investigation into his son's death, can be forgiven for being obsessed. But Diana's demise had no constitutional significance and never even got near creating the critical mass of republican sentiment some observers predicted. It did damage the Royal Family, but a grieving nation learned to live with her successor (and predecessor) in Prince Charles's affections, Camilla Parker Bowles, in a remarkably short time. Everything else is projection, a process which was encouraged by Diana during her lifetime - disturbed people often try to draw others into their fantasies - and reached its zenith in the outbreak of mass hysteria that followed her death.

By now, had it not been for feuding palace staff and the "mystery" surrounding the crash - which isn't a mystery at all - the princess would almost certainly have faded in people's memories. And while it might be interesting for psychologists to speculate as to why gossip about her continues to exert such a grip on people's imaginations, it is impossible not to find it irritating. It was bad enough in the week of her funeral, when anyone who did not feel personally involved was characterised as unfeeling, but six years on? Diana was an under-occupied, unhappy woman whose habits - hanging out with pop stars, dress designers and the deracinated aristocracy of the super-rich - were a reflection of her inner restlessness. She died in an accident. End of story.