Once upon a time, there might have been a strong argument for an inquest to be held into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The circumstances of her fatal car crash in Paris needed clarification. The father of her dead companion, Dodi Fayed, was convinced they had both been victims of a plot. Among the public at large, conspiracy theories abounded. There was a widespread feeling that crucial information had been deliberately concealed.
With the three-day questioning of the Princess's former butler, Paul Burrell, the inquest – held before a jury and in public – has probably reached the heights, and plumbed the depths, of what it could achieve. Mr Burrell has made a second career out of the royal confidences he shared. The substance of many of them has now, to put it mildly, been challenged.
More than 10 years have passed since Diana's death. It transpires that many witnesses were not questioned at the time. The testimony of others has been lost. The French authorities made known that they would not compel French witnesses to appear. Even now, despite the mass of detail being placed in the public domain, the actual evidence is partial and unsatisfactory.
The proceedings are, we have to concede, at times scandalous and at times entertaining in a tawdry way. Much dirty linen – royal and common – has been washed in public. Some new information has emerged, most recently the detail that the Princess's fears about a car crash were not passed to French investigators by British police after the accident, even though they possessed a note from her solicitor.
If the purpose of an inquest such as this is to determine when, where and how certain individuals died – which it is – then it is difficult to see how these proceedings justify the vast amount of time and money they have entailed. The mostly empty public gallery and marquee suggest that even the most sceptical members of the public understand this. The clamour to know more has subsided.
A decade is a very long time to wait for an inquest on a death that caused such social perturbation at the time. If it had been held when the memories of witnesses to the crash in the Pont d'Alma tunnel had been fresher, then maybe there would have been a point.
After ten years, though, memories are failing and minds are largely made up. The sceptics – and there remain plenty of them – believe what they believe; and there are still details that can be interpreted as suspicious. But these will not be cleared up by an inquest. The longer these proceedings last, the less relevant they seem. This inquest is a sideshow – an elaborate and expensive one, but a sideshow nevertheless.