I’m an avid collector of old newspapers going right back to the one page news sheets of the late 17th century. Over the years, I’ve held on to contemporary newspapers when their front pages are massively compelling. Such was the case on the 31 August 1997 as I returned in a mini-cab from a night out clubbing in London to hear that Princess Diana had been involved in a serious car crash in Paris. Through the night I got hold of the tabloid papers as they printed updated editions every hour right up to the moment that her death was confirmed.
I’ve not shown these newspapers before because even two decades later – it seemed far too sensitive. But with a quarter of a century now gone by, I’m sharing them here for you to see. However, handling these newspapers and looking at the headlines still sends a chill down my spine.
The death of Al Fayed – but not Princess Diana
At 2am, the News of the World reported sensationally that Princess Diana’s “boyfriend” Dodi Al Fayed had been killed while Diana “suffered serious neck injuries”. The driver of their Mercedes had also been killed. The Prefect of Paris police confirmed that the accident had happened as Diana’s car was chased by press photographers on motorbikes.
The car was in such bad shape that the police thought it was miraculous that anybody survived. At that stage of the night, the ambulance crew attended to the “partly conscious” princess. The French radio station RTL reported that a photographer sat by the roadside nearby “distressed after seeing the serious condition of Princess Diana”. I reproduce that front page below.
By 3am, the Sunday Mirror was still of the view that while Dodi Al Fayed was dead, Princess Diana was “terribly hurt” but still alive. Al Fayed had been given a heart massage next to the car but could not be revived. The newspaper called its update on the situation an “emergency edition” – shown below.
The death of Princess Diana is announced
Then at 6am, the News of the World dropped its usual red-coloured banner and went entirely black on the front page in what it called a “shock issue” of the newspaper to announce that Princess Diana was dead. She had died at around 3am London time.
I was working at the BBC in the late 1990s as a news producer – what they called a ‘Senior Broadcast Journalist’. So, going into work I was confronted by a hive of activity as the BBC went into full rolling news mode. This, by the way, was still the early days of 24 hour news and the coverage was on the main BBC channels as it would only be in November 1997 that the 24-hour news channel was launched – on which I was an early producer.
One newspaper that shall remain nameless decided not to lead with the Diana story on the grounds, I assume, that they thought it was too tacky. Or maybe populist. Anyway, the prize for claiming the moral high ground for that pompous newspaper was unsold copies piled up in the supermarkets and newsagents.
DISCOVER: The awful coronation of King George IV
The death of Princess Diana in August 1997 left the country numbed but few of us anticipated the outpouring of very public grief from a sizeable part of the population. As with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, it revealed emotions around the monarchy that can bubble up to the surface in the event of such a tragedy.