The Diana tragedy

Print edition : September 06, 1997

As Princess Diana's tragic death is mourned, investigators examine the circumstances of the Paris car crash, and questions are raised about the role and values of the tabloid press.

AS the news raced round the world in the early hours of the Paris morning, it was received with profound shock and grief. Diana, the 36-year-old Princess of Wales and divorced wife of the heir to the British throne, was grievously injured in a car crash in a Paris expressway tunnel near the Eiffel Tower a little after midnight on August 30-31, and died in a hospital three hours later.

Diana's friend and companion, the Egyptian-born millionaire Emad Mohamed "Dodi" Fayed, 41, and the driver of the car died on the spot; the fourth person in the car, a bodyguard identified as Trevor Rees-Jones, who was in the front passenger seat, was seriously injured. The car had apparently rammed into the wall of the tunnel while speeding away from photographers who were pursuing it on motorcycles.

The police soon discovered that a combination of factors had contributed to the fatal denouement. The driver, identified as Henri Paul, was, it turned out, not a professional chauffeur, but a security officer at the Ritz hotel, where Diana and Fayed had dined that night. (The hotel is owned by Fayed's father Mohammed Al Fayed, who also owns the Harrods department store in London.) Dodi Fayed's regular driver had left the hotel earlier in another vehicle as a decoy to throw photographers off the trail of the couple. The car in which Diana and Fayed were riding from the hotel to Fayed's villa - a black Mercedes-Benz sedan - was an armoured vehicle; owing to their additinal weight, such vehicles are somewhat more difficult to manoeuvre, according to the car manufacturer.

Paul was driving at an estimated 192 kmph in a 48-kmph zone, with the papparazzi giving chase. And, crucially, he was drunk at the wheel: the level of alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident was 1.70 grams per litre of blood - more than three times the legally permitted limit; according to medical experts, such a level of alcohol could cause staggering and double vision and vastly increase the possibility of accidents.

A statement released by the Paris prosecutor's office said that the blood test of the driver was ordered to "know in what way (the driver) may have been hindered or influenced while driving, not only by the vehicles pursuing but also by any other circumstances." Paul evidently lost control of the vehocle, which struck one of the concrete pillars in the tunnel's central dividing line and hurtled into the concrete wall on the right. The tunnel, about 300 metres long, brick-lined and well-illuminated, is one of many that dot the main highway that follows the Seine river.

The car was reduced to a compressed mass of twisted metal and broken glass. A Mercedes-Benz official said that no car could have withstood such a devastating collision. "No vehicle in the world is built to withstand the dimensions of this accident," the official said. Prosecutors said that under the impact of the collision, the speedometer indicator had been jammed at 121 mph (192 kmph).

DIANA, who was seated in the back seat with Fayed, suffered chest and head injuries; she was extricated from the wreckage and taken to the Pitie Salpetriere hospital. Surgeons found massive internal bleeding from her heart arteries, but were unable to restore blood circulation, and pronounced her dead.

Dr. Bruno Riou, who headed the team of surgeons that treated her, said that emergency workers had immediately begun treatment on Diana at the crash site and had been able to revive her. "On her arrival at the Salpetriere hospital,'' he said, "she appeared to be in serious haemorrhagic shock, originating in her thorax, and soon aftrwards she had a cardiac arrest. Her chest cavity was urgently opened up, revealing a significant wound to her left ventricle. Despite a closure of the wound and an external and internal cardiac massage lasting two hours, no effective circulation could be re-established, and death was noted at 4 a.m."

According to witnesses, when Diana and Fayed left the Ritz hotel, seven photographers, who had been waiting at the hotel, took off in pursuit on two-wheelers. Witnesses at the accident site said they heard a long screech and a crash and saw photographers arrive on the scene. News agencies quoted witnesses as saying that some five photographers were taking close-up pictures of Diana trapped in the car minutes after the accident and that one of the photographers was beaten up by horrified witnesses.

French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said the police were questioning seven photographers (six of them French and one Macedonian) as part of a criminal investigation into the accident and had seized 20 rolls of film. The police also impounded two motorcycles and a scooter. The statement released by the prosecutor's office said that the police also carried out searches at the headquarters of several news agencies "to seize any photographs of the chase and of the accident... which could be used as evidence."

A lawyer for the Fayed family said he would file a suit for civil damages for invasion of privacy and hazardous action by the photographers. He claimed that a motorcycle had been seen zigzagging in front of Diana's car seconds before it crashed.

The prosecutor's office also said, in an apparent reference to the photographers, that an investigation showed that some people appeared not to have given assistance to the crash victims. France has a "Good Samaritan" law that makes it a crime not to help someone in danger. The prosecutor said he was planning to order a judicial probe into the accident but that charges would not be decided until the end of the probe. The prosecutor said the questioning of Rees-Jones, the sole survivor of the mishap, would be "very important".

DIANA'S death came as she was establishing a new public role for herself following her acrimonious separation and divorce from Prince Charles and her public rift with the royal family. She had also recently raised her political profile with a campaign for a worldwide ban on landmines.

The news of her death stunned the world, and, in Britain, grief soon turned into public mourning. A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said the Queen and Prince Philip were "deeply shocked and distressed". President Bill Clinton said he was "profoundly saddened".

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who was in the Philippines, issued a statement from Manila that said that "if it is proven that the press had a role in causing the accident, we need to give serious thought to these aggressive tendencies on the part of the media."

Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, expressed his family's grief and anger in a statement he issued from his Cape Town, South Africa, residence. "I always believed the press would kill her," he said. But, he said, he never imagined the press would have "a direct hand in her death, as seems to be the case." Every editor and proprietor who had commissioned intrusive photographs of Diana had "blood on his hands", Spencer said.

THE royal family was staying at its estate in Balmoral, Scotland, when news of Diana's death came. Prince Charles woke up his two sons, William, 15, the second in line to the throne, and Harry, 12, and broke the news. Later that day they attended church services with their father, the Queen and the Queen Mother.

On the evening of August 31, Charles, accompanied by Diana's sisters Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquo-dale, brought home from Paris Diana's simple wooden coffin wrapped in the royal standard. The coffin was taken from the plane by an Air Force honour guard and carried to a hearse, which headed for a private mortuary. The next day, Diana's body was moved to the Chapel Royal at St. James' Palace, the official home of Prince Charles, in central London.

Two thousand people jammed St. Paul's Cathedral for a memorial service at the site of the July 29, 1981, marriage that began Diana's legendary transformation.

Buckingham Palace announced that Diana's funeral service would take place on September 6 at Westminster Abbey. She will be buried at the Spencer family home at Althorp in Northants. A Downing Street spokesman said the funeral would be a state event but without the pomp and ceremony of a full state funeral. "It will be a public event involving the causes close to her heart to reflect her image as the people's princess," the spokesman said.

Fayed's body was brought to London and taken to the Regent's Park Mosque, where a 25-minute ceremony was held. A police motorcyclist and two police cars escorted the hearse carrying his black-draped coffin. About 50 mourners waited outside the mosque. Fayed was later buried at Brookwood cemetery, southwest of London.

IN Britain, the tragedy appeared to have caused a backlash against the "aggressive intrusion" of the private lives of celebrities by the tabloid press. When photographers appeared at Kensington Palace and outside Buckingham Palace on the night of August 31, some people shouted accusations at them, a sign of revulsion at the tactics of the paparazzi who had dogged her.

THE paparazzi began as an Italian phenomenon, pesty shutterbugs flitting through the streets of Rome on Vespa motor scooters endangering life and limb - their own and everyone else's. They were introduced to the rest of the world in Federico Fellini's classic l959 Italian film La Dolce Vita.

From Rome they spread out as celebrities caught the imagination of the world's press. Soon they became a bigger scourge to Hollywood and royal celebrities.

Lately, however, the paparazzi wars have escalated as the demand and financial rewards for intimate pictures of the rich and famous have grown beyond the bounds of decency. The camera-toting freelancers can - and do - earn as much as $1 million for the right set of photographs of celebrities. The "stalkerazzi", as they are sometimes called, practise their profitable pursuits with the kind of stealth and planning of a clandestine spy operation. The latest wrinkle on the paparazzi scene is the "video-razzi" - men who shoot video footage, sometimes from vans with blacked-out windows. They often try to provoke and taunt celebrities so they can get more aggressive reactions on film.

WHILE all of Britain's newspapers bore the brunt of the public's outrage, it was a particular practice of the tabloids - buying unauthorised photographs from the paparazzi - that came under the most intense scrutiny.

For some time, public officials and editors of some of Britain's so-called quality newspapers, or broadsheets, have been calling for a privacy law that would forbid the news media from intruding too aggressively into people's private lives. But France, where the accident took place, has one of the strictest privacy laws in Europe.

Even if Britain were to enact such a law, it would not prevent the sort of chase that probably led to Diana's death, said Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, who feels that the tabloids often go too far in invading people's privacy.

"I'm not sure that any privacy law would have operated here because it was in a public place and she was a public figure," Rusbridger said in an interview. "But you would hope that simple editorial judgment would be used about whether or not this was a private event - and a woman going out with a boyfriend for dinner is not by any conceivable stretch of the imagination a public occasion."

But, as Andrew Marr, Editor of The Independent - another broadsheet - pointed out, photographers lucky enough to snap an exclusive photograph of a celebrity in a private moment - embracing a new lover, eating dinner with someone other than their spouse, sunbathing in the nude - can expect a lucrative reward from an insatiable global marketplace.

Such photographers dogged Diana throughout her adult life, waiting by her car, following her down the street, taking wide-angle shots from secluded spots. They sold the pictures to the highest bidder.

"What happened in France happened not purely because the British tabloid newspapers spend a lot of money on their pictures," Marr said in an interview. "So do international magazines and newspapers around the world. A member of the paparazzi who's on form and gets the right shot is said to be able to make 3 to 4 million a year."

In fact, the photographer who took the first pictures of Diana and Dodi Fayed together several weeks ago reportedly sold them for well over $1 million around the world. And on August 31, several tabloid editors in Britain and the United States said that they had been offered pictures of the car just after the crash, with the mangled victims inside.

In Britain, the situation is compounded by the fierce circulation war among the tabloids, whose editors, cowed by the newspapers' aggressively unforgiving owners, go to extremes to produce exclusive stories and photographs. "The tabloid editors are under intense and constant pressure to deliver, and they all knew that Diana would sell papers," Marr said.

In the outpouring of anti-media anger that swept the nation, it was easy to forget that the news media's relationship with Diana was at times symbiotic rather than parasitic. Diana thrived on news coverage and sometimes courted reporters. She met regularly with her favourites, like Richard Kay from The Daily Mail, to give her side of the story of the day - often, statements attributed to "friends of Princess Diana" came directly from Diana herself.

She also knew the value of, for example, appearing in an alluring dress at a high-profile event when Prince Charles was appearing somewhere else.

"It's terrible that this happened," James Whitaker, who covered royalty for The Daily Mirror, told the BBC. "But there was an element of use of the paparazzi and photographers in general that Diana used enormously to her advantage. She knew exactly how to do it."

DIANA participated enthusiastically in a number of humanitarian causes - working for AIDS and cancer victims, helping children and the aged, and more recently, the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines. She visited the sick in hospices. She would often slip out at night, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, to do her rounds of hospitals.

At the same time, she was also one of the most glamorous women in the world. Designers vied with one another to get her to wear their creations, she was constantly in the fashion pages of magazines, and she was also very much part of the international jet set, flitting from holiday to holiday. It was perhaps this mixture of compassion and glamour, her star quality and her evident humanity which saved Diana from being just another attractive, rich woman, and transformed her into an international figure whose death has been mourned the world over.

At a meeting with presspersons on August 31, Prime Minister Tony Blair described Princess Diana in a phrase that, for many, will probably come to define her. "She was the people's princess," he said, "and that's how she will stay, how she will remain, in our hearts and in our memories forever."

New York Times Service and Thomas Abraham in London.

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