When will our legal system recover from Diana lunacy?


Last updated at 08:57 18 May 2007

At 7am on Sunday, August 31, 1997, I was standing outside Buckingham Palace with a gaggle of fellow reporters and photographers, notebook in hand, not knowing quite what to expect.

In the early hours of that morning, I'd heard an extraordinary news bulletin on the BBC World Service and I knew I'd be in for a busy week. But nothing had prepared me for the unforgettable scenes I witnessed in central London over the following few days.

The top headline on that bulletin, I vividly recall, was something about a miners' strike in Poland. I turned over in bed, thinking this was just the sort of story I needed to help me get to sleep.

But after a couple more headlines, the announcer exploded a bombshell - and sleep was out of the question for the rest of the night.

Without the slightest perceptible change in his tone of voice, he said the BBC had just received an unconfirmed report from AFP, the French news agency, that the Princess of Wales's holiday companion, Dodi Al Fayed, had been killed in a car crash in Paris. The Princess herself, who had been travelling with him, was said to have been seriously injured.


I sat bolt upright in bed and waited for more. But the bulletin just droned on about the Polish miners' strike and other matters of little interest or none, and I began to think I must have imagined the headline about the crash. It was only at the very end that the announcer repeated the still unsubstantiated report.

By the morning, of course, everything was confirmed. The Princess was dead - and there I stood with my notebook outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for something to happen.

For the first half-hour or so there were very few people about. This was Sunday morning, remember, and news of the Princess's death was spreading only slowly as the capital awoke from its lie-in.

I recall a passing motorist winding down his window and yelling with rage at the photographers in our group of pressmen: 'Look what you've done! Are you happy now?' (The received wisdom that morning was that the paparazzi were wholly to blame for the fatal crash.)

It occurred to me that if this was the general mood, I might well be lynched before the day was out. But it soon became clear that the news of Diana's death would take the nation in a very different way.

In ones and twos at first, but then in hundreds and thousands, ashen-faced people began to arrive with bunches of flowers, still wrapped in their cellophane, laying them in front of the palace railings. There were plenty of tears, but no anger - just silent, stunned grief.

Over the next few days, as I went back and forth between three royal palaces - Buckingham, Kensington and St James's - I found the atmosphere increasingly strange and oppressive. The whole of central London seemed to have taken on the feeling of a massive family funeral.

Strangers nodded courteously to each other, speaking in hushed voices if they spoke at all. Tens of thousands were happy to queue for six hours or more, without a murmur of complaint, to write a few banal words in the book of condolences at St James's: 'You were a dazzling star'; 'We won't see your like again'; 'God bless'.

During that week between her death and the funeral, everyone I interviewed was either sobbing or on the brink of tears - and after a day or two of this, I sometimes felt my own eyes pricking.

Though the great majority of us had never met the Princess, we'd all discussed her so many thousands of times - her faults, her virtues, her moods, her looks, her clothes - that for a few brief days it felt as if we had lost someone we all knew intimately.

Even hardened criminals seem to have been affected, since there was a marked dip in the capital's crime figures in that first week of September.


Looking back, I can see that this was the nearest thing I've experienced to mass hysteria. There's no getting away from it: for a few summer days ten years ago, millions of us went a little off our heads.

But no sooner had the Princess been buried than most of us who had never known her dried our eyes and recovered our senses - and London became its usual rude, noisy, crime-ridden self.

For a minority, however, the madness lives on - and how! I'm thinking not only of the two million-odd pages devoted to Diana on the internet. You'd expect to find crackpots there, in the natural home of the unhinged. But I never thought we'd find it right at the very heart of the British legal system.

Look, we all know - the sane among us, anyway - how the Princess of Wales died. The French police have conducted an exhaustive inquiry. Our own Lord Stevens, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has produced a report running to 18 lever-arch files, along with manuals, reports, photographs, CCTV and other exhibits.

Millions of pounds and euros have been spent on establishing the facts - and every investigation has come to the same conclusion: the Princess and Dodi Al Fayed were not abducted by aliens; they were not crushed by the Loch Ness monster; and, no, they were not murdered by special forces on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Their deaths were quite simply a tragic accident, caused because their chauffeur Henri Paul was driving too fast, under the influence of drink and drugs, as he tried to shake off pursuing photographers. End of story.

But still it goes on. Who would have believed, back in 1997, that the inquest into the Princess's death wouldn't even have begun, ten years on?

Who would have imagined that in 2007 the former eminent judge Lady Butler-Sloss - the third coroner to take on the case, and herself about to stand down because it's all too complicated - would be seriously considering summoning the Queen herself to give evidence about a preposterous theory dreamt up by Dodi's eccentric father Mohamed, the Egyptian owner of Harrods?


Perhaps we should be charitable about Mr Al Fayed. Whatever we may think of him - and my own views are as unprintable as his own foul-mouthed language - we should remember that he lost a son in the accident. So he may be forgiven for being a little unhinged.

I fail to see, however, why he should be entitled to go on wasting the courts' time, airing his crackpot idea that Prince Philip ordered the death of his son.

Yet with the help of his bulging wallet - and his flamboyant and overbearing QC, Michael Mansfield - he's been allowed to make a complete fool of our legal system, humiliating the less-than-impressive Lady Butler-Sloss and now threatening to bring yet more embarrassment upon our blameless and dutiful monarch.

Yes, I understand the thinking that unless every possibility is examined in court, conspiracy theorists will go on yapping for the rest of time about an 'Establishment cover-up'. But aren't they going to do that anyway when the inquest finally reaches its inevitable verdict, heaven knows when?

Even before it has properly begun, the hearing has become an undignified farce - nothing but a rich man's plaything. How idiotic it must look to the world, and how distressing for those who knew and loved the Princess that this unseemly spectacle is allowed to drag on.

Can nobody exercise a little common sense, telling Mr Al Fayed that he's had his day in court - and now he must stop wasting everyone's time?

Most of us recovered from our Diana madness in the second week of September, ten years ago. When will our judges and legal system recover from theirs?

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