Watching BBC’s excellent documentary about Diana ( Diana, 7 Days) brought back many memories of that astonishing week following her death in the car crash in the tunnel in Paris. No one has ever completely understood the collective psychic numbing of the UK that took place after her death. Armchair analysts are still trying to sort out exactly why we – and I include myself amongst the possessed – were so affected.
I found myself on one of the 7 days prior to her funeral waking up very early and making my way to Buckingham Palace to find hundreds, maybe a thousand even, mourners bearing bouquets. After paying my respects and a walking along the crowd-lined Mall to St. James Palace, I started to make my way back to my office. To my great surprise there was the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. I thought that it was quite daring of him to be on his own given the hostility toward him and his newspapers, especially The Sun. Many blamed the tabloids and their paparazzi photographers for hounding Diana, and before it was revealed that her driver had been drinking excessively, even accused the media of causing the crash.
No one else seemed to recognise Murdoch so I decided to approach him myself and see if I could get some quotes for an online story. I got his attention by introducing myself as the director of the Freedom Forum Centre in London that was created by his old arch-rival Allen J. Neuharth, the founder of USA Today and former chairman of the board of the Gannett newspaper chain. It worked. He stopped to chat. I asked him how he and his papers had been coping with so much public outcry against his newspapers and him personally for the relentless, intrusive coverage of Diana. Was he at all apologetic about it and did he think that his papers had been too aggressive in covering her? Murdoch didn’t hesitate in replying. He gestured and said sarcastically something to the effect of ” if we told them how Diana and Dodie had earlier called The Sun to question why they weren’t getting more news coverage, then they’d realise what publicity seekers they were.” Murdoch said the public is all caught up in “feeling everyone’s pain” – a reference to one of then President Bill Clinton’s patented sayings about how he ” could feel peoples’ pain.” With that, Murdoch was off.
The one thing that I do know from my personal involvement in an event that featured Diana is that she was, as it was often reported, ferociously competitive with Charles after the break-up of their marriage and insistent upon getting her side of the story told to the media. I was at that time( 1996) the vice-president of the American Association of Correspondents in London. I was neither a correspondent nor an employee of an American news organisation then but I was London Bureau Chief of the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) We had been invited to join the AACL and attended faithfully the high-profile lunches with top newsmakers in the UK. The president, Larry Ingrassia, then a London-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, had arranged for Prince Charles to be one of our featured speakers.
Not long after our lunch with Prince Charles, Larry received a letter from Princess Diana’s office, expressing her interest in attending one of our lunches and meeting the international press and media members of our Association. She said that she wouldn’t want to make any formal remarks but would look forward to informal conversations.
It quickly became one of the hottest tickets for any AACL event, and journalists in the news organisations, tried desperately to get into the lunch. There was even news coverage of her arriving and departing. But inside there were no cameras.
She didn’t disappoint. Before lunch, Princess Diana circulated amongst small groups and chatted informally with celebrity-struck reporters and bureau chiefs. She was as charismatic and strikingly attractive up close as she was in photographs. But she was taller and had sharper features in real life.
But those of us who were privileged to sit at her table for several hours ( I sat next to her) will never forget the candid conversations and replies to what were often uncomfortably direct questions posed to her. One reporter asked her how she would feel when Charles remarries? A television bureau producer pressed her on why she continued to enrol William and Harry in boarding schools when she’d been so critical of that established practise. We were meeting with Diana not long after her controversial BBC ” there were three of us in this marriage” interview that became a major international news story. I asked her why she hadn’t advised the Palace about what she intended to do. She said somewhat icily that they would have tried to kill it. When asked about why she wasn’t doing more work with some of her charities, she said that she’d been discouraged from doing so because ” they think that I’m thick.” She used that expression several times.
On the day of her state funeral, I joined the thousands of mourners in Hyde Park who lined the road to pay their final respects as her hearse drove by. Then in an unforgettable eerie silence we all went our separate ways.