Twenty years after her death, a Fairfax Media journalist remembers his contacts with Princess Diana

Twenty years ago: Princes William and Harry with their father Prince Charles walk among floral tributes in the wake.

Twenty years ago: Princes William and Harry with their father Prince Charles walk among floral tributes in the wake.

It’s the only time I’ve ever cried covering a story. The car drove up and out she got - and I started weeping.  

She was so radiant, I couldn’t hold back my tears. It was as though Marilyn Monroe had stepped into my path. In the same way, Princess Diana’s presence, right in front of me, was just as unworldly.

I still can’t explain it. I’m pretty hard-bitten and not a royalist but Princess Diana was such a big celebrity that she seemed almost unreal, almost god-like rather than human. Was it her beauty and innocent vulnerability – tragic vulnerability as it turned  out?  Who knows.

But when she came to a school near where I lived in Old South Wales, I, as a journalist, had to cover it. She got out in front of me, looked at the hacks (of whom I was the one with the wet eyes), smiled her coy smile and moved on.  

It was enough. I followed her round in a trance. I was included in her halo of celebrity.

And that was it. She came and she went, and we drudges were left back in our ordinary world – with the other hacks looking at my moist eyes and shaking their heads in disbelief.

And then I had contact with her again. On the night she died, my wife was the head of domestic news with the BBC. At about two o’clock in the morning exactly 20 years ago, the phone rang. The overnight editor said: “I’m going to tell you something and then I’ll put the phone down and let you think about it for 10 minutes.”

He said that there had been a car crash in Paris and Princess Diana had been injured. A man of Middle Eastern appearance had been killed.

I was dispatched to Kensington Palace, Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ home. I got there when it was still dark, probably about four o’clock.  

Young people were going home from a night out partying in clubs and they saw the TV lights and came over to learn the news. It was clear that she was an icon, particularly, as I recall, to gay men many of whom stopped and expressed their shock.

And gradually anger. The mood started to change as the dawn broke.

Flowers were brought and ordinary people took sides. Was she a victim of a bad marriage, perpetrated by an uncaring Royal Family? That was certainly a view. Or was she trouble from the start, a woman who had not done her duty? That, too, was a view.

By mid-morning, people were arguing with each other in front of me, as the sea of flowers built up to an ocean. Innocent Diana versus manipulative Diana was the divide.

By mid-morning, people were arguing with each other in front of me, as the sea of flowers built up to an ocean.

And over the coming days, the mood changed again. There was initially a feeling against what was seen as the coldness of the Royal Family – though nobody on the streets of London or anywhere else could actually know how the members of the Royal Family were feeling. But this was becoming soap opera – everybody felt entitled to interpret the motives and emotions of the Queen and Prince Charles, even with no knowledge whatsoever.

But that mood against the Royal Family softened. The authorities took control, by all accounts through the intervention of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

“She was the people’s princess and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever,” he said.

It was a masterstroke that contained and steered public emotion. It captured what people felt brilliantly and transformed the mood.

Everybody knows where they were when they heard of Princess Diana’s death. It united the world, and probably still does.  

And it probably still divides people as we argue over who was to blame. In my view: nobody.

Steve Evans is a journalist with Fairfax Media, based in Glen Innes