Diana’s death: new myths for old
If you believe that this decade-long circus has all been Mr Al-Fayed’s fault, you’ll believe anything.
I spent the past few weeks under the happy illusion that I need never, ever write another bloody article about the life and/or death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This is it.
Instead of simply deciding, as most were expecting, that Diana and Dodi Fayed suffered accidental deaths in that Paris car crash, the inquest jurors in London returned surprise majority verdicts of unlawful killing. The jury ruled that they were unlawfully killed, not by any conspiracy involving the British royal family or secret services, but by the drunk, dangerous driving of Henri Paul, and by the paparazzi photographers who were pursuing them.
There has since been a lot of smug self-congratulation in the media and across the internet about how this inquest and its verdicts have finally dispelled ‘the myths and lies’ surrounding Diana’s death in 1997. Well, maybe. But if so, it has been at the expense of creating new myths and fantasies that could affect the future.
So I return to the tired old fray afresh, to try to deal with two of these new Diana myths. First, that the drawn-out debacle of inquiries and inquest over the past decade has all been the fault of Mohamed Al-Fayed, father of Dodi and owner of Harrods. And, second, that the inquest verdicts have finally drawn a welcome line under the Diana business, so that we can all get back to normal news.
The consensus is that this has all been Mohamed Al-Fayed’s fault, and that the dodgy Arab should now shut up or, better still, clear off altogether – ‘peddle his poison fruits elsewhere’, as one Daily Mail columnist suggested – and leave us sensible Brits alone. The notion that Al-Fayed has been solely to blame for the circus of conspiracy-mongering over the past decade seems as outrageous as any allegation that the multi-millionaire and his cronies have come up with.
Yes, he has ridden his grief and guilt over his son’s death to the point of irrationality. Yes, in pointing an accusatory finger at everybody from Prince Phillip downwards, he may well have been seeking to settle scores with a British establishment he feels has always snubbed him. But who seriously believes that one maverick businessman spending an estimated £15m could buy the British media and tie up the legal system for a decade?
The truth is that Al-Fayed got so far with his crackpot accusations only because the conspiracy theories went mainstream. Respectable media outlets (and not just the Daily Express) have run countless stories asking whether Diana was murdered and questioning the official version of the events. The British authorities themselves showed how seriously they were taking these allegations by setting up a multi-million pound inquiry under former Metropolitan Police Chief Lord Stevens, and then turning the multi-million pound inquest into a public inquiry, both with the stated aim of investigating all of the conspiracy theories.
When the London Evening Standard asked 4,000 people in 2003 ‘Do you think Diana was murdered?’ as many as 43 per cent answered ‘yes’. Are we now to believe that they had all been either bought or brainwashed by Mr Al-Fayed? Neither the media nor the authorities should be allowed to get away with pretending it was nothing to do with them.
The real question is not how did Al-Fayed fool everybody, but why were the conspiracy theories able to enter the mainstream of public opinion? After all, the facts of the case always appeared straightforward enough. Diana’s death was not like the assassination of John F Kennedy. Where everybody knew that was murder but disputed who had been behind it, here many were willing to imagine that a drink-driving accident had somehow been a political plot.
The key factor was not the personal money or wiles of Al-Fayed, but the widespread mistrust of the authorities in contemporary society. At a time when traditional political and moral consensuses have broken down, and people feel alienated from our distant ruling institutions and political class, many are less willing than ever to accept the official version of events. Indeed, for many it seems that any official statement can be interpreted as a lie, any denial dismissed as a cover-up. Rumour and gossip, especially if spread via the internet, are seen as more reliable than government propaganda. This mistrust is not confined to cranks or fringe characters, either – the educated middle classes have often been to the fore in questioning official statements over, say, the MMR vaccination.
Indeed the Diana decade shows how this mistrust has spread to within the establishment itself. In staging the inquiry and the inquest, it seemed almost as if the authorities were admitting that they were not sure if their own story was true. When Lord Justice Scott Baker, presiding over the inquest, said that the British ambassador in Paris had assured him that ‘to the best of his knowledge’ the security services did not murder the princess, it only gave these rumours the air of legitimacy. The law lord also admitted to snooping around MI6 files himself, presumably looking for cover-ups. The problem has been less a lack of certainty about events in that Paris tunnel than a lack of self-confidence and authority in the London corridors of power.
What is more, the ‘crazy’ fantasies about Diana being murdered by the royals or MI6 did not spring solely from Al-Fayed’s brain. They merely built upon the widespread notion that Diana had been some sort of ‘radical’ figure and a dangerous challenge to the establishment. Many a left-wing and liberal commentator indulged that ridiculous view of the princess after her spilt from Prince Charles, and particularly in the aftermath of her death.
Former Communist Party member and prominent feminist Bea Campbell wrote of Diana’s famous tell-all Panorama interview that, to the ‘chagrin of the establishment’, the princess had ‘joined the constituency of the rejected – the survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from the world war and pogroms, from Vietnam and the civil wars of South America and South Africa, from torture and child abuse’. Even during the inquest another leading feminist and Green wrote on the Guardian website that evidence about Diana’s belief that the queen was about to abdicate in favour of Prince William ‘remind[s] us again how much of her life was spent stirring up fairly radical ideas’. And of course Al-Fayed’s case at the inquest was pursued by Michael Mansfield QC, hero of many a left-wing legal battle over recent decades. The high-level fantasy that Diana the celebrity princess was really a radical thorn in the establishment’s side only gave credence to the conspiracy theories about her death.
In sum, Al-Fayed and his chequebook would never have stood a chance of keeping the Diana circus going were it not that others who should have known better, from royalists to radicals, were so receptive. Now they want us to believe that it had nothing to do with them, rather as some like to try to pretend that they were not caught up in the epidemic of mourning sickness after her death. Some of us with longer memories prefer to hold them to account for what they did and said in the past, not least as a lesson for the future.
Talk of the future brings us to the second new Diana myth: the idea that with the inquest verdict it is finally all over – ‘thank God’, as one editorial adds – and that we can return to ‘real’ news and politics again. Even if the wilder conspiracy theories have been proved groundless, there will still be some who believe them since, as argued above, they were based more on mistrust than evidence in the first place. But more importantly, the inquest itself could have wider consequences about which we should be rather less complacent.
To the shock of many, it was revealed in evidence that Diana’s mother had called her a whore. Some of us were more concerned about what this gossip and tittle-tattle revealed about the prostitution of the entire legal process. An inquest is supposed to be a forensic hearing to establish the causes of death. This one should have been straightforward since two mammoth inquiries – one French, one British – had already concluded that it really was a drink-driving accident. Instead, it became a reality circus where the judge was Lord Justice Scott Baker rather than Simon Cowell, and everybody from police chiefs to psychics was given a walk-on part and a chance to perform on a global stage.
Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell has been widely mocked for his desperate performance in the witness box, but he surely had a point when he tried in vain to argue that his diary and journal were ‘very private and very personal’ and did not have ‘any connection with the circumstances surrounding the princess’ death’. That could be said of about 90 per cent of what was laughably described as ‘evidence’ at this inquest. This degradation of the legal process looked like the death of the inquest as we know it, and could have further implications for the damaging erosion of the line between the public and private spheres in our society today.
The demand for new privacy laws could also return to the UK agenda after the verdict implicating the paparazzi in Diana’s death. Before the inquest began, law lords had already suggested that they expected the hearing to have implications for the future of media law. The bizarre idea that the paps were somehow guilty of killing her will become another stick with which to try to beat the free press into submission.
Nor, despite the rejection of the specific allegations about a plot against Diana, should we imagine that the public mood that fuels conspiracy theories has been challenged by the verdicts. In fact, the jury could be seen to have endorsed it. Their verdicts seem to share the conspiracy-mongers’ desire to find some meaning in a tragedy, and to find somebody to blame for it. In the confused world of today, where old certainties no longer appear to hold good, many seek simple explanations to make sense of things. Blaming the Duke of Edinburgh is one way to do that. Blaming the press is another.
The verdicts that the driver and paparazzi unlawfully killed Diana and Dodi reflect the fashionable cultural prejudice – endorsed by top-level medical and government authorities in Britain today – that there is really no such thing as an accident, and that somebody has to behind every tragic incident. It is only a short step from thrashing around for somebody/anybody to blame, to blaming everybody. Thus, some commentators have now concluded that we are all guilty of causing Diana’s death, since we all read the papers that printed the pictures taken by hounding her to her doom etc. We should expect a lot more of this escapist theorising and finger-pointing in response to future events.
I fear it seems unlikely we will ever be able entirely to close the lid on the Diana debate. But unlike many around that inquest, we might at least endeavour to ensure that we know what we are talking about.
Meanwhile, if we want a serious debate about the royals and the political establishment, we could stop gossiping about the sex life of a princess and take a lead from the people of Nepal, who vote this week on a new constitution that could abolish their monarchy. Now that would be worth getting heated about.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
Brendan O’Neill said the maddest claim at the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was that she was a ‘radical’. Earlier, he argued for the abolition of the People’s Monarchy and reviewed a book on the phenomenon of mass public mourning.Tessa Mayes argued that the paparazzi were not to blame for Diana’s death. Mick Hume believed investigating crackpot conspiracy theories are a waste of time and money. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.
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