The Daily Telegraph - 26 August 2017
The worst news
Then editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore recalls how he and the rest of the media reacted to the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales
The Telegraph's coverage of the death of the Princess
'To understand fully the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago this Thursday, you need to know something you won’t read in the papers.
In the weeks leading up to her death, the media had been very unpleasant about her. She had been – to use a favourite tabloid word – "cavorting" with Dodi Fayed on a yacht for her holidays, while her young sons, Princes William and Harry, stayed with their grandmother, the Queen, in Balmoral. There had been much comment about the worthless playgirl life of the lonely divorcee, illustrated by semi-salacious pictures. Then she was killed in a car crash in a Paris underpass while being chased by photographers.
So the anger that often accompanies grief was directed at the media. Her brother, Earl Spencer, said at once that she had been killed by press pursuit. The tabloids wanted to try to direct public anger elsewhere. The easiest target was the Royal family itself.
I was the editor of The Daily Telegraph at the time. Diana’s actual death was – just – a Sunday paper story (she crashed at 12.23am and died at 4am), so the breaking news was not my responsibility. I was woken by telephone early that Sunday morning, however, at home in Sussex. I drove to the paper’s offices in Canary Wharf. There was no serious internet coverage in those days, so we had plenty of time, by newspaper standards, to prepare Monday’s edition. Our most immediate little problem was that the Saturday magazine was going to press with an article about Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall). This would not have been the right thing for the morning of Diana’s funeral. We were able to replace it just in time.
PM Tony Blair addresses the nation on the loss of the Princess, on the morning of her death, 31 August, 1997
The general approach of our coverage had been suggested to me by Margaret Thatcher, who conveyed a private message that morning: ‘Don’t forget, in everything you publish, that her boys will read and remember what you say.’
Our most heroic journalistic performer that day was the legendary WF Deedes. He knew Diana well, having travelled with her covering her campaign against landmines. Bill was one of the few journalists she trusted. He was 84 years old and had first joined the paper in 1937 (when The Morning Post, for whom he had been working, was taken over by The Telegraph), but there was no stopping him. He got up at 3am, broadcast repeatedly, wrote a superb 2,500-word memoir of her, and then began another thousand words for our special supplement. That afternoon, I found him typing away with tears coursing down his heavily lined face and splashing on to his shirt.
Diana’s body was flown back to RAF Northolt that night and was received by a visibly anguished Prince of Wales. Tony Blair was also there. Earlier that day, Mr Blair had chosen the right phrase to describe Diana – "the People’s Princess" – but his unprecedented presence at such a moment was a portent
of how he would use the week to aggrandise the office of
In our leading article the next morning, I reflected the prevailing mood. The motorcycle photographers in Paris, I wrote, ‘were only the outriders of a vast media cavalcade which treated her like an outlaw in the Wild West – wanted, dead or alive.’
Soon the anti-media feeling became too much for those most in the spotlight. It was time to blame somebody else. Tuesday’s Daily Mail led with an extraordinary headline: "Charles weeps bitter tears of guilt". It purported to disclose the Prince’s innermost feelings as he walked across the moors at Balmoral. The Sun of the same day reproached Prince Charles for not cuddling Princes William and Harry as he walked to Crathie church with them.
Mohamed Fayed, whose son had also been killed in the car crash, attacked the Royal family. He, too, may have been deflecting criticism: it was reported on the Monday that the chauffeur he employed in Paris had been drunk when he sped away from the Ritz, carrying Diana and Dodi towards the Place de l’Alma underpass.
The Royal family looks at the tributes left for Diana at the gates of Balmoral Castle, 5 September, 1997. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo.
By Wednesday, an odd alliance between left-wing anti-
monarchists and right-wing populists had emerged to embarrass the monarchy. As Boris Johnson, then a mere journalist, put it in The Daily Telegraph that morning: "Left-wingers saw how – like Mohamed Fayed with his store of unsavoury revelations – [Diana] might be a battering ram. She could be deployed against the weevilled edifice of the "establishment"."
The BBC and the tabloids alike made much of the fact that the royal standard was not flying at half-mast from Buckingham Palace, though they knew perfectly well that no flag, half-mast or otherwise, had ever flown from the palace when the Queen was not in residence (and that the royal standard never flies at half-mast anywhere).
People also began to attack the Queen for remaining at Balmoral. "Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?" asked The Sun, linking the two things. She should be with her people in London, it was claimed. The argument that she was best employed, until the funeral, helping comfort her young, bereaved grandsons in Highland peace was brushed aside. Back home in Sussex, Blanche, our cleaning lady, said to me, "Well, there are rules and regulations and they’ve got to be adhered to. After all, she is the Queen of the land." Sadly, such voices of sanity were little heard in Fleet Street.
As this row grew, preparations for the funeral went forward. Because Diana was only 36, no plans for her funeral existed. Pro-Diana hotheads now called for a state funeral; those who wished her forgotten wanted a private one. Obviously, neither would have been right. A special, more informal service was devised for Westminster Abbey. Prince Charles, to his credit, squashed security fears and insisted that the route for the
procession be doubled in length so that as many as possible could pay her tribute. An unseemly behind-the-scenes tussle for invitations began.
At this point, Lord Spencer stepped in. As Diana’s brother, he was no friend to the palace. He was angry, however, that Diana’s media pursuers had deflected criticism. He refocused on them by insisting that the tabloid editors be disinvited from the funeral. I rang him to get a quotation about this. With some relish, he said, "I’m grateful they all agreed it would be inappropriate for them to be present."
Crowds outside Buckingham Palace on 7 September, the day after the funeral. Credit: EMPICS Entertainment.
By that day – Thursday – the atmosphere in London had become definitely unpleasant. Television cameras sought out mourners leaving their cellophane-wrapped bunches of flowers outside Kensington Palace who wanted to condemn the Queen. Prince Charles and, separately, Tony Blair were worried, and privately urged her to come to London.
It was finally announced that the Queen would come south and broadcast. At Balmoral, the young Princes shyly emerged, for the first time, to be filmed inspecting the tributes of flowers left by the public there.
The following evening, the day before the funeral, the Queen addressed the nation from Buckingham Palace, "speaking as your Queen and as a grandmother". She paid full tribute to Diana. Very unusually, the broadcast was live. Its slightly improvised air made it powerful, but served as a reminder that the Royal family’s situation felt a little precarious. The Queen also gave orders that, when she left Buckingham Palace for the funeral, the Union flag should fly there at half-mast.
Looking at all this each day from an editorial point of view,
I tried to reconcile conflicting pressures. On the one hand, the Princess’s death was shocking and sad. She was much too young to die. She left two boys bereft. She had inspired and charmed millions, whose sense of loss was real. She had also suffered wrong in her unhappy marriage and at the hands of the royal set-up. On the other hand, she had herself behaved badly, and had started, in public, what was known as "the war of the Waleses".
Much worse, Diana was trying to affect the succession. She told me privately that Prince Charles did not really want the throne and would be much happier living in a lovely villa in Tuscany with Camilla Parker Bowles, painting watercolours. William should be King instead, she said.
To a monarchist, nothing is more dangerous than a dynastic dispute. I felt confident that most of our readers would agree. So it seemed essential, in that fraught week, to honour Diana, but not to advance her cause.
It was old Bill Deedes who helped me see that this "legitimist" position was best served if the monarchy did not seem stiff-necked. People loved Diana, he said, not despite the fact that she had behaved idiotically with people like Dodi Fayed, but partly because she had done so. Her untamed free spirit was a constant reproach to repressive authority. So, however much one might dislike feeling as if the nation were living inside the musical Evita, Mr Blair’s advice was right. By coming to London, and broadcasting so well, the Queen had finally brought a sense of reconciliation that, until then, had been sadly lacking.
The male members of Diana's family follow her coffin into Westminster Abbey for the funeral, 6 September, 1997
On that same Friday, the paper found itself with two other deaths to deal with – Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Jeffrey
Bernard, the famous drunken journalist. I was keen to run obituaries of the saint and the sinner one above the other, but there just wasn’t any room for poor Jeff. We illustrated Mother
Teresa’s obituary with photographs of her with Diana, who had been her friend.
For the funeral the next day, the Thames was glassy and the air of early September was fresh. My wife and I sat in the Abbey. Elton John sang, untruthfully, that the country would be "lost without [Diana’s] soul". Lord Spencer, in his eulogy, launched a brilliant, incendiary attack on the media and – in part, unfair – on the Royal family. After each of these performances, a noise arose like a great rush of autumn leaves. It took a moment to realise that it was the sound of the crowds outside clapping. The congregation within felt they should clap too.
The statue of the great Victorian prime minister, Gladstone, looked sternly down on us. I wondered what he would have thought of it all, but then reflected that he, too, had his brushes with royalty. He was known as "the People’s William".
Despite – because of? – its unusual character, the funeral worked. Not for nothing do people speak of laying a dead person "to rest". Diana needed this more than most. Perhaps the funeral helped her get it. It certainly calmed the country.
At that time, Sir Trevor McDonald used to select a different poem each week and present it to our readers on the comment pages. For the day of the funeral, he chose "Fear no more
the heat o’ the sun", from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. This is the penultimate stanza:
"Fear no more the lightning flash, /Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone; /Fear not slander, censure rash; /Thou hast finish’d joy and moan: /All lovers young, all lovers must/ Consign to thee, and come to dust."