Twenty years ago today on Aug. 31, 1997, my then-editor asked me to go to Kensington Palace in London, Princess Diana’s home, to survey the scenes of the crowds mourning.
It was a beautiful, sunny, warm Sunday and still early, around 11 a.m., and so people were still waking to news of her death, and—if they lived in London, and felt moved to—going to the palace and laying flowers there. They were also consoling each other, holding each other, crying softly. It was an astonishing scene.
You may recall how vast that field of flowers and balloons and stuffed toy animals became over the next week. But that morning, in the early stages of what would become a jolting week of displays of public grief and anti-royal feeling, there were just tears and people holding one another.
At the time, I worked for Britain’s weekly LGBT newspaper, the Pink Paper, and my editor had asked me and the photographer if we could find a same-sex couple to photograph that morning. As a journalist, and despite what you may hear from President Trump and his journalist-despising ilk, you try in difficult situations like this to approach your job with tact, empathy, and sensitivity.
Talking to the bereaved is the hardest thing you sometimes have to do. If you have been bereaved yourself, you know the terrain of that feeling and so you proceed with caution.
The crowds grieving Princess Diana did not know her personally, but part of her command and magic was that they felt that they did.
The feeling, widely dismissed by haughty critics at the time, was that Britain was in the grips of a collective madness, and that the emotional, empathic world Diana represented had supplanted the traditional British stiff upper lip. The country went into two types of shock that week—one at her death, and the loss of such a charismatic and connecting human being; the other side at the display of this mass emotion.
And I still had to find a gay couple grieving. Well, it was 1997 and sexual identity and fashion weren’t as publicly fluid as they are now. Gingerly, after a few mis-starts, I found a male couple and asked them as quietly and politely as possible to pose against the palace gates. They agreed. Then someone asked what we were doing. One of the couple said they were being photographed for a newspaper.
Which was when the questioner turned around and said to me and the photographer, “You killed her.”
I hadn’t. We hadn’t. But the pursuit by the paparazzi into the Alma tunnel in Paris, and the more general pursuit of Diana throughout her life by the press, had already solidified in the public mind. The remark may have been absurd as personally leveled at me, but its wider accusation rang with an uncomfortable validity about the media’s modus operandi around reporting and pursuing Diana.
The sales of the tabloids would have suggested that the public had had an insatiable appetite for salacious stories about the royals, Prince Charles and Diana at the head of that soap opera, but her death threw a muffling blanket over that. What had seemed once spicy was now sullied.
Public hostility that week was also leveled at the royal family itself, whom the public saw as little more than torturers, who had led Diana into a loveless marriage with the sole aim of using her as a breeding vessel. Inside this gilded prison she was cheated on and treated appallingly, and now the queen and the family were staying in Scotland at Balmoral rather than returning to London. In death, the royals were seen as affording her the same lack of respect as they did in life.
There were some murmurings of assent around my accuser that morning outside the palace. But then someone pointed out, “He’s from the Pink Paper. He’s OK.” And then, after taking the picture, it was back to tears and the strange peace of that sunny morning, and the next six days before the funeral.
Anyone in London at the time will remember the singular scenes of that week. The day before Diana’s funeral, I walked down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace. There were people camping out, fires lit on the pavement, and a general sense that this was indeed a remembrance of a person beloved by the public on their terms.
The scene felt like a very British revolution was in the works, although the speech she was forced to deliver the day before the funeral and with the vicissitudes of time and emotion afterward, helped the queen and the royal family hold on. The reputations of Prince Charles and his now-wife Camilla have fluctuated from thorny acceptance and now, it seems, back to a kind of negative-tinged apathy.
Blame and Responsibility
The public’s relationship with the media has fluctuated too. The behavior of the paparazzi is still a bugbear, though markedly less so. Princes William and Harry quite naturally distrust the press with a particularly acute passion, as a result of what happened to their mother. They have sought to regulate and control how they own lives are captured by the media.
The British media was rocked by the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking, and the American media is facing a concerted attack on its credibility and connection to the public by a president who fiercely dislikes criticism and an interrogation of his business and political life. Indeed, he dislikes it so much, and so personally, he is seeking to delegitimize the media and the work of many good and honest journalists.
Trump’s anti-media campaign is entirely malign, while the truth about the journalists I have known in the last quarter century has been that they are hard-working and committed to telling the truth. And yes, when the media gets it wrong, it should say so and examine why.
For sure, I have not worked in tabloids and I have never gone through someone’s garbage bins. But a free press cannot be entirely fragrant, and a few examples of poor reporting or illegal methods shouldn’t disqualify the principle of a free press and the sterling and fair-minded work of the majority of journalists who strive to get the story right.
It is worth noting that those who profess to hate the media often use it the most. The most publicity-seeking individuals often enter into a perilous dance with the media, which over time can become utterly toxic as it did with Princess Diana, and as it has done with Donald Trump.
You might choose to see Princess Diana’s death as a tragic accident, and you might see President Trump as the best or worst of presidents. But 20 years on from her death, and in a different set of circumstances, the media is today facing another onslaught about what it does, and how it does it. If it felt merited with Diana, and simply another example of politicking when it comes to President Trump (who seems to revel in positive coverage), the residual effects on the media of both are a sense of siege and an intense care about what and how one reports stories.
Today, the modern royals are extremely cosseted, with intense control in place about what access reporters have to them. President Trump too assiduously avoids rigorous questioning by journalists. Despite this cordon sanitaire the royals and Trump command considerable column inches; both have used social media to bypass the media entirely to reach their fans.
Both the royals and Trump seek to control what is known about them, and what can be asked of them. They are public figures, who insist on stridently curating what is known and not known about them.
The media throws itself into the gap of what is not known, attempting to find out. That is the tension of news and the object of scoops—from Trump’s Russian ties to child care scandals to celebrity affairs to royal intrigues.
If you consider that the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death rings with the worst of what journalism means, then look at the work of the journalists in Houston this week who have both reported and helped those who they have encountered, sometimes in life-endangering contexts. Many journalists this week have not only acted responsibly and sensitively, but also civic-mindedly and heroically.
The perilous dance that Diana knew too well continues now not just for public figures and celebrities, but also journalists and anyone with a social media account and presence.
Today, “You killed her” can be tweeted to millions, rather than simply blurted amid tears and a rustling sea of flowers.