Di another day

The reaction to Princess Diana's car-crash note shows a nation in thrall to conspiracy theories.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Stop the press: Princess Diana Was Paranoid! Why has the revelation that Diana wrote a note in 1996 claiming that someone was ‘planning an accident in my car…brake failure and serious head injury’ become such big news?

You don’t have to be part of the anti-Diana brigade – one of those old-style brown-nosing monarchists – to know that she was a few diamonds short of a tiara in the months before her death by car crash in Paris in August 1997.

As well as fretting over car-accident conspiracies, she regularly ripped up her carpets to check for listening devices, became convinced that her staff were working against her, and apparently would ‘explode with rage at any perceived insult’ (1). Earlier this year, one author described how, following the double whammy of her divorce from Prince Charles and the loss of her title Her Royal Highness in the mid-1990s, Diana felt ‘paranoid and cornered’ and started ‘behaving increasingly strangely’ (2).

Yet rather than being cited as further evidence of this ‘strange behaviour’, Di’s note about ‘they’ wanting to mess with her head (literally) has made headlines around the world, heightened demands for an inquiry into her death, and given conspiracy theorists a field day. The note was released by Diana’s oddball butler and self-styled ‘rock’ Paul Burrell, whose book A Royal Duty, published next week, is being serialised in the Daily Mirror. Burrell also reveals that Diana believed Charles had got the family nanny pregnant and thought she was being spied on by ‘The Firm’ (otherwise known as the Windsors) – but it is the crazy car-accident claims that have dominated the debate.

The global fuss over Diana’s note highlights the rising popularity of the conspiracy theory. In our anti-political age, we are forever on the lookout for the ‘cover up’ or behind-doors scandal, as a sign that those in authority have lied and led us astray. Ours is a cynical age, where the knee-jerk response is to assume that everything the authorities say is an untruth, likely concealing some dastardly conspiracy. In the absence of wider political beliefs and convictions, many simply distrust the powers-that-be and their motives, rather than challenging them or offering an alternative.

This is not a positively critical climate, but a cynical one, where we cast ourselves as poor little victims at the mercy of dark, unknowable forces. Seven years after she wrote it, Diana’s note – where she mentioned a car crash just months before dying in one! – has tapped into this contemporary mindset. We’re all paranoid princesses now.

There have long been lunatic claims about how Diana met her maker. Some writers, Diana fans, career conspiracy theorists and owners of Harrod’s have appeared unwilling, or unable, to accept that Diana, her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed and their driver Henri Paul simply died in a tragic accident, survived only by Diana’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. As Carol Midgley wrote in The Times (London): ‘An estimated 36,000 Diana conspiracy websites were set up after she died six years ago. Many survive.’ (3)

There have been stories about a mysterious flashing light that caused Henri Paul to crash, about his being injected with substances that made him drowsy, and about CCTV cameras in the Paris tunnel being turned inwards to film the tunnel walls on the night Diana died. The facts of the crash – that Henri Paul had been drinking, was driving too fast in a built-up area, and that the three occupants of the car who had neglected to put on their seatbelts all died – are clearly too dreary for the X-Files generation.

Yet now, six years later, conspiracy theories about Diana are no longer the preserve of green-ink websites and dodgy Channel 5 documentaries; they have moved into the mainstream. Since Burrell released Diana’s note, the front pages of the papers have read like the kind of cranky websites that rubbish the moon landing and still speculate about JFK and the grassy knoll.

In an article headlined ‘Questions that won’t go away’, the Daily Mail asked: ‘Why did the “drunk” driver have a healthy liver…? Was the princess pregnant…? Was there a mix-up at the morgue…? Why did the ambulance take so long…?’ (4) This is a classic conspiracy-theory tactic – asking questions (which usually can’t really be answered) rather than stating alternative facts, as a way of poking holes in the ‘official story’, which of course must be full of lies.

Likewise, the Sun’s ‘INVESTIGATION’ asks: ‘Was Princess Diana really murdered by secret agents? Was the car crash a carefully-arranged and sinister plan?’ Andy McNab – the ex-SAS man whom the Sun always calls upon for stories about the secret services (though with his blacked-out face he could easily be mistaken for one of the ‘dark forces’ Diana complained of) – writes: ‘All the ingredients are there to back up a plot to kill Princess Diana…. But the truth is that her death was the result of nothing more than a tragic car accident.’ (5) Like others, McNab and the Sun point out that Diana died accidentally, but not before asking scary questions and fleshing out the ‘ingredients’ of a possible plot. The conspiracy theorists, it seems, have taken over the asylum.

Some commentators claim that this frenzied response to Diana’s note shows that the late princess still has a hold on the emotions of the British public. ‘All of a sudden she was back with us’, wrote Melanie McDonagh in the London Evening Standard, claiming that the note reminded us all ‘of the sheer vulnerability of [Diana] in the period after her divorce’ (6).

Diana fans have always exaggerated the princess’s personal impact on New Britain. The outpouring of grief after her death – that some described as ‘a very British revolution’, after which nothing would ever be the same – may have had Diana as its focus, but it expressed shifts in British politics and society that had been building up for years. The number of visitors to the ‘Diana Temple’ at Althorp House has steadily declined, while recent attempts to drum up outrage over offences against Diana’s memory (such as over the comic writer who made a sexy X-Men-style character in Diana’s likeness) have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Diana’s car-crash note is everywhere, not because we all feel a lingering emotional attachment to Diana, but because it chimes perfectly with our cynical climate. The note has provided another pretext for an outpouring of conspiratorial speculation and cynicism-about-authority, which pass for public debate today. Before Diana’s note, it was David Kelly’s email. Kelly, the British weapons expert who had been fingered as the BBC’s source for its claims that the government ‘sexed up’ its evidence against Iraq, wrote of ‘dark forces playing games’ just hours before he committed suicide. Many still speculate whether Kelly was murdered, or at least have doubts about how he died.

This year, there have also been conspiracy theories about the dark forces behind the war in Iraq (oil men, apparently) and the dark forces behind the promotion of GM food (corporations). Diana’s concern about the dark forces plotting against her has been drank up by a society obsessed with cover-ups.

Such theories are not the product of critical political thinking, that might actually challenge the authorities and their actions. Rather they are the result of lazy speculation, driven by the once-geeky notion that the world is controlled by faceless evil people who poison our food and kill our princesses. It’s time we grew up and faced the facts: man did land on the moon, JFK was not killed by aliens, and Diana died because she didn’t put her seatbelt on.

(1) The truth about Di, Max Riddington, Daily Mail, 6 October 2003

The truth about Di, Max Riddington, Daily Mail, 6 October 2003

(3) ‘Diana and Elvis shot JFK’, Carol Midgley, The Times (London), 21 October 2003
(4) Questions that won’t go away, Sue Reid, Daily Mail, 21 October 2003

(5) ‘INVESTIGATION’, Sun, 22 October 2003

(6) ‘Diana’s pain was there for all to see’, London Evening Standard, 21 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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