Diana, Princess of Wales, had a complicated relationship with the press. As the spouse and later ex-wife of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, she was a magnet for the paparazzi, who earned upwards of £500,000 for each grainy snapshot. In 1993, Diana reportedly confronted a photographer who was waiting for her outside of a movie theater in London, yelling, “You make my life hell!”
But Diana also recognized the power of the press as a tool to transform public opinion. She had photographers on standby when she shook hands with AIDS patients in 1987 amid homophobic myths that the virus spread through casual touch. A decade later, Diana walked through a minefield in Angola to raise awareness of efforts to clear landmines around the world. “When she realized some photographers didn’t get the shot, she turned around and did it again,” the Associated Press recounted in 2022.
Diana’s oft-contentious, sometimes symbiotic dynamic with Britain’s tabloids reached its peak on August 31, 1997, when an early morning car chase with photographers eager to capture footage of her and her new beau, Dodi al-Fayed, took a fatal turn. The British public awoke to the news that the 36-year-old royal was dead, killed in a crash that also claimed the lives of Dodi and the couple’s driver. Prime Minister Tony Blair eulogized Diana as “the people’s princess,” and the outpouring of grief that followed underscored the accuracy of his assessment.
Diana “had such a compressed life,” says Arianne Chernock, a historian at Boston University. “The fact that she died in her 30s, with so much possibility, is part of her enduring mystique, … but it’s also that she wore so many different hats in that short life, and that we really saw this woman coming into her own in full public view.”
Twenty-six years after Diana’s death, the hit Netflix series “The Crown” is set to revisit the tragedy, examining the events that led to the fatal accident and reflecting on how it changed the lives of Elizabeth II and the royal family. Covering the years 1997 to 2005, the show’s sixth season will air in two parts, with the first four episodes debuting on November 16 and the remaining six on December 14. Ahead of the premiere, here’s what you need to know about the real history behind the final season of the acclaimed show.
How “The Crown” is addressing Diana’s death
Season five of “The Crown” focused on the dissolution of Charles and Diana’s marriage, highlighting the couple’s infidelity and their battle for the public’s affection following their separation in 1992—a period Elizabeth deemed an annus horribilis, or “horrible year.” The new season picks up in the summer of 1997, when Diana (played by Elizabeth Debicki) and her young sons join business tycoon Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw) on a vacation to southern France. During the trip, Diana grows close to Mohamed’s son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), embarking on a whirlwind romance with the 42-year-old film producer.
As Deadline reported last October, the show will depict the moments before Diana’s death, including the beginning of the paparazzi car chase, but not the accident itself. “The show might be big and noisy, but we’re not,” executive producer Suzanne Mackie told reporters in August. “We’re thoughtful people and we’re sensitive people. There were very careful, long conversations about how we were going to do it.”
However the showrunners portray Diana’s final days, their dramatization is sure to generate controversy—and, in fact, already has, with reports that Diana’s ghost would appear to Charles (played by Dominic West) and Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) after her death proving most divisive. In response to the criticism, series creator Peter Morgan told Variety that he “never imagined it as Diana’s ‘ghost’ in the traditional sense.” He added, “It was her continuing to live vividly in the minds of those she has left behind. Diana was unique, and I suppose that’s what inspired me to find a unique way of representing her. She deserved special treatment narratively.”
In these episodes, Morgan is revisiting the topic that brought him his first brush with critical acclaim. His 2006 Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Queen focused on Elizabeth’s muted response to Diana’s death. Starring Helen Mirren in the titular role, the movie earned accolades for humanizing the monarch as she guided her grandsons through an unimaginable tragedy.
Dodi and Diana
Exactly when Diana and Dodi first crossed paths is unclear, but a 1986 polo match in which he and Charles competed on different teams is a promising candidate. At the time, Diana was five years into her marriage with the prince. The relationship was an unhappy one; that year, both Charles and Diana engaged in extramarital affairs. Dodi, meanwhile, was embarking on a marriage of his own, wedding model Susanne Gregard. Their union lasted just eight months, and Dodi soon returned to his playboy ways, romancing high-profile actresses, models and celebrities. “He had the attitude that the woman he was with reflected on him,” longtime friend Michael White told Vanity Fair in 1997. As the magazine concluded, “Diana represented Dodi’s lifetime achievement.”
Dodi’s relationship with the princess also marked the pinnacle of his father’s ambitions. Mohamed, a self-made billionaire who got his start in the shipping industry, made a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s as an upstart businessman in his adoptive country of the United Kingdom. After the government repeatedly rejected his applications for citizenship, Mohamed sought to ingratiate himself with members of the upper echelons of British society. Among them were Diana’s father, who reportedly asked Mohamed to look after his family on his deathbed, and her stepmother, who served on the board of one of Mohamed’s most prestigious acquisitions, the department store Harrods.
According to an unauthorized biography of Mohamed, the entrepreneur went out of his way to befriend Diana, whose turbulent personal life, from her marital separation in 1992 to her tell-all interview with the BBC in 1995, provided nonstop tabloid fodder. “Fayed felt genuine sympathy for the isolated woman, who he could see was made almost frantic by her predicament,” writes biographer Tom Bower. “She was a natural target for the generosity which a tycoon could offer.”
The summer of 1997 found Diana, by now officially divorced, coming to terms with her failed marriage. “Diana was starting a new life,” biographer Judy Wade told People. “She had said, ‘I’m spreading my wings.’ She was being quite positive about her divorce.” While the situation with Charles had improved, Diana’s love life was far from settled. She’d recently split from heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, a man she nicknamed “Mr. Wonderful” and may have hoped to marry, and she was in need of a distraction. When Mohamed invited her, 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry to join his family on a vacation in St.-Tropez that July, Diana readily accepted. It was during this period of “jet skiing, swimming, sunshine and lavish hospitality,” in the words of the Guardian, that the princess formed a new connection with Dodi.
Max Clifford, a public relations expert and friend of the Fayed family, later told the Washington Post that despite their cultural differences, Diana and Dodi “shared an attitude toward the establishment and the royal family, a distaste for what Diana would call ‘the Firm,’ the people who surround the royals.” The Post also reported that the pair “were not inclined toward intellectual matters; they relished a joint visit to a clairvoyant.”
The extent to which Mohamed pushed his son to pursue Diana is the subject of debate. But royal historian Sally Bedell Smith told Vanity Fair that Mohamed “engineered the romance with Dodi. And Dodi basically did whatever his father told him to do,” even breaking off his relationship with (and perhaps even engagement to) model Kelly Fisher to focus his attention on the princess.
“If it was love, it also would have been the sweetest revenge,” the Post reported in September 1997. “The British royal family that Diana believed had treated her so shabbily would have had to watch as she brought a garishly wealthy Arab family into the heart of aristocracy. And the British establishment that had snootily dismissed [Mohamed’s] pleas for acceptance would then have had to honor him as patriarch of Di’s new family.”
Diana’s deadly car crash
In August, William and Harry joined their father and grandparents at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Separated from her boys, Diana reunited with Dodi on his family’s yacht, where paparazzi captured photos of them kissing, sparking a media frenzy over the princess’s latest love interest. On August 30, Diana and Dodi left Sardinia and flew to Paris, where Dodi picked up what may have been a diamond engagement ring. Whether Dodi planned on proposing, let alone if Diana would have said yes, remains unclear, with friends of the couple offering conflicting opinions on the seriousness of their relationship.
Photographers followed Diana relentlessly throughout her time in Paris, preventing the princess and Dodi from enjoying dinner at the Chez Benoit bistro. The couple relocated to the restaurant at the Paris Ritz (one of Mohamed’s properties), hoping its security team could keep the paparazzi in check, but moved to a private suite after continuing to attract unwanted attention. Planning to end the night at Dodi’s apartment, they came up with a plan to trick the press into following two decoy vehicles departing from the front of the hotel. Around 12:20 a.m., Diana and Dodi climbed into the back seat of a black Mercedes driven by Henri Paul, acting head of security at the Ritz. Dodi’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, rode in the front passenger seat.
Several photographers undeterred by the car switch ruse hopped onto motorcycles and started chasing the Mercedes, prompting Paul to drive erratically, at more than double the speed limit of 30 miles per hour. As the Guardian reported on the day after the crash, Paul’s “attempts to outmaneuver the photographers failed. They, after all, were old hands at car chasing, and he was not.” Paul’s blood alcohol level was also three times as high as the legal limit for driving in France.
A few minutes into the car chase, Paul lost control of the Mercedes, striking a white Fiat Uno and swerving into the left lane of the Pont de l’Alma underpass, where his vehicle collided with the 13th pillar supporting the roof. Dodi and Paul died instantly, but Diana and Rees-Jones survived the initial impact. (The bodyguard spent more than a month in the hospital but eventually recovered from his injuries.)
“Four people, two of them were apparently dead, no reaction, no breathing,” Frederic Mailliez, a medic who was one of the first people on the scene, later told France 24. “And the two others, on the right side, were living but in severe condition. … The female passenger, the young lady, was on her knees on the floor of the Mercedes. She had her head down, she had difficulty [breathing]. She needed quick assistance.”
First responders arrived in the tunnel around 12:40 a.m. As rescuers removed Diana from the wreckage, police documented the scene and confiscated the paparazzi’s cameras and cellphones. Though Diana went into cardiac arrest, firefighters managed to resuscitate her before moving her to a hospital. Despite doctors’ best efforts, Diana was declared dead at 4 a.m. Newspapers around the world rushed to inform readers of the tragedy, publishing variations of the headline “Diana dead” in stark bold text on their front pages.
The aftermath of Diana’s death
The sudden, violent death of a beloved royal prompted an “unprecedented outpouring of emotion from many British subjects,” says Chernock. Struggling to come to terms with the news, the royal family underestimated “how hungry people were for some leadership in that moment,” she adds. It was Blair, the Labor Party prime minister, who provided the leadership the public needed, delivering a moving tribute to Diana on the morning of her death.
“How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways—with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy?” Blair asked. “With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.” The prime minister said, “She was the people’s princess, and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories forever.”
Elizabeth’s public response to her ex-daughter-in-law’s death arrived belatedly, on September 5. Addressing the nation live, Elizabeth spoke to her subjects as both “your queen and as a grandmother,” eulogizing Diana as “an exceptional and gifted human being … [who] never lost her capacity to smile and laugh.” Alluding to the public outcry over the royal family’s failure to speak out sooner, the queen emphasized that she, Charles and Prince Philip had spent the past few days “trying to help William and Harry come to terms with the devastating loss.”
The day after Elizabeth’s speech, the royal family laid Diana to rest with a funeral watched by some 2.5 billion television viewers around the world. Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, described his sister as “the most hunted person of the modern age” and pledged to protect her sons from suffering similar fates. As the princess’s coffin passed Elizabeth, the queen bowed her head, breaking from protocol with a gesture that helped redeem her earlier silence in the eyes of the grieving public.
Diana’s life and death radically changed both the British press and the royal family, including the country’s new king. “If you look at the way Charles tries to engage with the public now, he has taken real cues from Diana, and I think he would acknowledge that, in terms of trying to connect with people, to be human and relatable,” says Chernock. Harry has followed in his mother’s footsteps, too, setting boundaries with the paparazzi and even stepping back from royal duties to shield his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, from invasive public scrutiny.
In the immediate aftermath of the fatal crash, a Gallup poll found that 43 percent of British respondents assigned “extreme” blame for the accident to the paparazzi. Another 33 percent attributed the crash to the driver. Both then and now, the shocking tragedy spawned an array of conspiracy theories, with some observers suggesting the princess was murdered by the royal family or the British government in retaliation for speaking out against the establishment. Mohamed believed as much, claiming that his son and Diana had been killed by “people who did not want [them] to be together.”
An official inquest found otherwise, concluding in 2008 that Diana, Dodi and Paul had been unlawfully killed by Paul’s reckless driving and the paparazzi who chased them into the tunnel. No one faced criminal charges for the deaths, but three photographers were convicted in 2006 of invading the couple’s privacy by taking photos of the wreckage, and the court ordered them to pay symbolic damages to Mohamed.
“People accepted that what happened to Diana was wrong and, as a consequence, new notions of privacy which had been historically alien to us were applied,” Mark Stephens, a media law specialist at the firm Howard Kennedy, told Time in 2017. Prior to the princess’s death, privacy laws “did not exist, except in exceptional circumstances,” he said. “Privacy only existed in places like a doctor’s surgery, a confessional, a marital bed or the death bed.”
After the tragedy, however, a revised code of ethics issued by the Press Complaints Commission placed stringent limits on acceptable paparazzi photography, protecting the privacy of school-age children (including William and Harry) and barring the use of long-lens cameras to take photos of individuals in private places without their consent. Though “an unseemly culture of media invasiveness still exists” in the U.K., Time noted that “the battle lines have been redrawn,” with the royal family asserting its right to privacy by cutting off photographers’ access or threatening to take legal action against the press.
“There’s something so singular about Diana, so we tend to just really focus on [her as a] person,” says Chernock. But Diana was far from the first “royal wronged woman,” as the historian calls her. From Anne Boleyn, the spurned Tudor queen beheaded on Henry VIII’s orders, to Caroline of Brunswick, who fought back when her husband, George IV, tried to divorce her in 1820, British history is filled with the stories of women whose mistreatment by men elicited powerful responses from the public. “Some of the strong emotions that Diana tapped into, and that we continue to feel in thinking through her life and death, we’ve seen in different forms at other moments,” Chernock says.
Ultimately, Chernock explains, Diana “really was the people’s princess,” an individual who drew on the “soft power of the royal family to channel emotion, love, support, connection and humanitarianism, and it’s that dimension of her role that came to the fore after her death.” The historian adds, “People have always used Diana to explore their own grievances and anxieties, and we see that on display in 1997 and the months that followed.”