Leading Article: 'Conspiracies' and national icons

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IT SEEMS that Diana, Princess of Wales is destined, sadly, to be as much the conspiracy theorists' princess as she was the people's. We should not be surprised about this. The conspiracy theories about the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe all show how persistent this kind of speculation can be when an iconic figure dies unexpectedly. As the interminable investigations into the accident that killed Diana roll on towards the first anniversary of her death, the conspiracy talk can be expected to intensify.

In the case of Diana there is one person who seems determined to stimulate the theorists' fertile imaginations. Mohamed Al Fayed has consistently raised questions about the circumstances of her death. His tenacity makes many observes feel queasy, for it appears to form just another stage in Mr Fayed's long battle with the establishment. Any weapon will do, it seems, even the death of his beloved son. But his theories would not get very far if they were not presented in a rather uncritical manner by parts of the media. The reasons for this, are not hard to find. "Putting Diana's face on the front" has always sold newspapers and magazines, even after her death. The claims and theories about her death, no matter how wild or fanciful, still attract readers and viewers. The grotesque documentary and studio discussion on ITV the other night will have attracted a respectable audience.

Those who defend these travesties argue that they satisfy a public demand. But do people really want the story of the life and death of Diana to be distorted by the ceaseless flow of speculation? There will, of course, always be a fringe prepared to believe that Buckingham Palace or Tony Blair or, perhaps, aliens ordered her execution. But the vast majority of people have by now come to terms with the - accidental - circumstances of her death. They have entertained the theories about flashguns and carbon monoxide only to dismiss them. They know that Diana's driver had taken nearly three times the permitted level of alcohol. He was not qualified as a chauffeur and the car crashed at 90 to 100mph. It would have been impossible for any would-be assassin to know the movements of Diana's party that night. Who could possibly have planned to ram the Mercedes at that time? With a Fiat Uno? The main imponderable about the Paris car crash is whether Diana would still be alive today if she had worn her seat belt.

It would be easy to dismiss the theories as just so much froth, journalistic junk food, pointless but harmless. But conspiracy theories are dangerous. They grow and grow until the gossip upon which they are built is passed off as truth. The shot from the grassy knoll that allegedly killed President Kennedy and the white Fiat Uno that supposedly hit Diana's car are already half-way to being accepted as facts. One has only to think of the Communist conspiracy that gave us the McCarthy era or the Nazis' so-called "international Jewish conspiracy" to know how they can matter.

Conspiracy theories are sometimes dangerous, mostly pernicious and always morbid. They should be treated as such at all times.