It was when the two boys passed before me at the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall that I finally felt the lump in my throat. I was a 25-year–old reporter for The Sunday Telegraph and in only my second month on the paper, I was covering Princess Diana’s funeral.
By Ciaran Byrne
The boys, Harry in particularly, cut pathetic figures. Heads bowed, no doubt scared, they slowly trudged with their father Prince Charles behind a gun carriage, bearing their mother’s coffin.
Despite being watched by the vast crowds on London’s streets, and on TV by two billion people, they looked alone. Bereft.
“They’re not crying,” said one journalist. “They seem to be in a trance,” said another.
FFS, I thought, journalists can be such complete shits sometimes.
The decision to march Diana’s sons through London in front of heaving crowds and a global TV audience had seemed cruel and utterly bonkers.
But then nothing that week made any sense.
Mercifully, the boys didn’t have to contend with social media: in 1997, there was no tweeting, no Facebook Live, no trolling. The ability to send texts was about the height of mobile phone tech. In the pre-smartphone age you had to experience things with our own eyes.
Mine stayed glued to the two princes as they passed before me on their march to Westminster Abbey. Cameras clicked, men, women and children sobbed. Some people seemed to be keening.
For some journalists, it had been a difficult week after paparazzi who followed Diana’s every move were blamed for causing the crash in Paris in which she and her companion Dodi al-Fayed died.
“You killed her,” was a common cry thrown at photographic colleagues and journalists as we attempted to interview mourners.
As the nation grieved, hostility towards hacks and snappers reached a crescendo. Some people threw food and spat at us.
Of course, good old hypocrisy meant newspapers sold millions of copies as people binged on this Fleet Street mother and father of all stories, which lurched from one incredible twist to the next.
Much of the coverage centred on the bizarre response of the Royal Family to Diana’s passing. Buckingham Palace refused to fly flags at half-mast and the family stayed silent for days.
Every morning, they awoke to another flaying in a national newspaper and, if the subsequent film ‘The Queen’ is to be believed, only the intervention of newbie Prime Minister Tony Blair averted a constitutional crisis.
Few stories require the 24/7 deployment of a media outlet’s entire resources – but for my employer, the publisher of the establishment Daily and Sunday Telegraph, this Royal tragedy required EVERYONE.
At a planning meeting in the Telegraph’s 14th floor Canary Wharf newsroom, editor Dominic Lawson (whose wife Rosa Monckton was a close friend of Diana’s) addressed the troops. “Smart attire for all staff and black ties will be worn by all male reporters,” he commanded.
I didn’t own a black tie and ended up shelling out £37 in an Austin Reed shop in the Canary Wharf complex. Thank God for expenses, I thought.
I’ll not deny it, people were excited. Momentous events are what journalists live for.
Some of the Telegraph team were dispatched to the four corners of Britain, so they could travel back into London with families attending the funeral. Others slept out all night with ‘pavement campers’ to gauge the public mood.
Sure, there was a mixture of anger and sadness.
But there was also a dark pool of viscreal emotion that surged and swirled around this unprecedented celebrity death. That seemed a new thing for Britain – and was a gamechanger in how media have come to prioritise celebrity coverage over more substantial stories. It sells better.
Diana’s funeral took place on Saturday, September 6th. Luckily for me, I had been given a Newspaper Society press pass for a fixed-point gallery media position. Essentially, I had an official ticket.
I took my seat at 9am. The funeral service began shortly after 11. The Queen arrived. Foreign leaders traipsed in. So did Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, Mariah Carey and Pavarotti. Elton John played Candle in The Wind. Earl Spencer spoke angrily, rebuking the Royals for their treatment of Diana. Jaw dropping stuff.
Outside, people thunderously clapped the Earl’s words and afterwards Diana was taken by road to Althorp, her family home in Northamptonshire, and final resting place.
I joined the Telegraph reporting team at a pub near Scotland Yard. We journalists ordered a round of drinks. Then many more. We were all knackered, coming down off a weird high, still computing the remarkable events of the week, speculating on their longer-term impact. As journalists used to do, we reflected together on our own small roles in covering the story.
Outside, the crowds dispersed and London went about its usual business. The next day, when I made it to the newsagents, all of the newspapers, including my own, were sold out.
That epic week in which Diana died was perhaps a high-water mark for British print circulations before they embarked on a decade of steep decline.
As usual, the satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ summed things up perfectly as it depicted the vast crowds outside Buckingham Palace.
“The newspapers are a disgrace,” said a spectator. “I know, I can’t get a copy anywhere,” said a second speech bubble.