The Media, The Funeral and Diana
by Ben Edwards
On Sunday August 31st the day started early at 5:00 a.m. as I was to race that morning at 7:30 a.m. near Cambridge. It wasn't usual for me to turn on the radio at that early in the morning, but on that morning I did.
The news was announcing the death of somebody important, somebody royal.
I thought it must be the Queen Mother, as she is very old. No, the news man was informing the rest of Britain that Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed had died that morning in a car crash in Paris. Details were scarce, though it was mentioned that the paparazzi were involved in some sort of chase.
The next seven days in London was an extraordinary period of time. The whole of London and it seems the rest of the world went into a form of hibernation. Recriminations over the press, discussions about the royal family, funeral arrangements, the business of life and death and of course the mass hysterical grieving.
At home the discussion gravitated toward Princess Diana and her life and now death. I was asked if I would be going to the airport or to Kensington Palace, Diana's home. Would I be going to the funeral? I still carry a police press card for the unexpected. I had never followed the royals or Diana. At this point I felt that I would not be recording the events that were to follow that week.
Prime Minister Tony Blaire was interviewed, and he expressed his feelings that the funeral should be a state affair. This meant it was going to be enormous. Blair's words were that the funeral was what the general public wanted! From then on there was no turning back. This was going to be the biggest media event ever that the world had ever witnessed. The BBC had probably set up a plan of action realizing that this could be an enormous financial scoop to feed the news to all the networks worldwide. The news was now wholly devoted to the events that morning. Cameras had been set up at Balmoral where the royal family was taking its annual summer holiday. News teams were outside the hospital in Paris. Preparations were being made to televise through live coverage the coffin being transported back to England accompanied by Charles, the Prince of Wales, and the arrival of the coffin at the RAF Northolt near London. The press was mobilized like some huge army on the offensive ó in place and ready for any eventuality. As she was in life, Diana was the center of news in death.
The BBC had canceled all regular programs for Sunday, and we watched the Prince of Wales leave Balmoral in Scotland, arrive in Paris and visit the hospital where the Princess of Wales had been taken. We saw the coffin wheeled out of the hospital, the hearse leave for the airport in Paris and arrive in RAF Northolt. This was "real time" drama. Very solemn and very real. It couldn't get any better. The viewing figures for Sunday were the best ever and would be even better on the day of the funeral.
Throughout the week the entire network services on television and radio were devoted to tributes. If you could not get through to the radio stations with your tribute, you could fax your tribute and they would broadcast it and put it on the Internet. Life had really stopped as we know it.
By Wednesday I, too, had become bombarded. I felt that I really should do something to record the events of the week. Many alternatives scanned through my mind. All of them cliched. The floral tributes, the personnel messages. None of these seemed comfortable. So I decided to take the 4" x 5" camera and Polaroid land film down to Buckingham Palace and do portraits of the mourners arriving with flowers. I spent three hours asking bewildered mourners if they would mind having their portraits taken. The end results were pretty disappointing, and I wished I had not had bothered. But I recognized that I was under some sort of professional obligation to do something that week.
Thursday at lunch time, Focus, the German magazine, was on the phone asking if I was free to work for them on the Friday and Saturday to record the media recording the funeral in London. This did seem appropriate and I agreed.
Friday lunch time I was armed with the latest Nikon automatic camera and two zoom lens and a quantity of film. I set off for Buckingham Palace wondering what the next two days would reveal.
There was a plethora of media, television, stills, radio and print journalists from around the world. My metropolitan police press card seemed to give me good access. The ministry of information had erected raised stands for the photographers and camera crews. These were fixed positions and all the stands were taken. Be creative! I would not have wished a fixed position and was happy to take my chances being mobile which was much more of an interesting option.
Friday was a sunny warm, early September day, the sun was quite low and the light was good. One of my first visits was to a fixed position stand that was bristling with press photographers, claiming their positions, checking their equipment, chatting amongst themselves, chaining their ladders to anything that did not move. The guard at the entrance said I could enter and take a few pictures but I would have to be quick, as I did not have the relevant documentation.
My entrance to the stand raised no eyebrows. It was only when I started to take photographs of the other photographers that objections were raised. The photographers felt under threat; they felt the eye was being turned on them. The situation was reversed and they felt very uncomfortable. It is extraordinary after years of hounding and intruding into the lives of others that they had no idea how it felt to have the camera turned on themselves. It was as if they assumed an immunity from the public. After a few minutes I was requested to leave by the officials who were worried, as they put it, "for my safety."
Next I came across an old friend of mine from the photojournalist days. Keith is not your run-of-the-mill paparazzi, but a high quality documentary photographer, who has mainly worked for the color magazines on stories of social importance. Keith was working for Gamma, and while setting up his position he was very careful not to disclose his identity as Gamma did allegedly have one its photographers at the scene of the crash. What Keith was after was a one-position shot as other photographers from his agency were scattered along the route. In this respect, what I was attempting to do was fairly hit and miss as I had no accreditation except for my press card and was roving. I would have been terribly restricted to one location.
Keith's view on the whole affair was noncommittal. This summed up a lot of the feelings of the media, that while their bosses had requested this event was covered, it was really for the benefit of the media for the media that ultimately would make profit from the event.
At Westminster Palace I came across Arthur Edwards, chief royal photographer for the Sun newspaper and who had followed Diana around religiously for the last 25 years and who had built his career on her. This was also the man who had wished he had taken the clandestine photos of Diana in the gym. I approached until I was within a few feet, raised my camera and was stopped by the exclamation by Arthur, "Don't you ask before you take people pictures?" I did not argue but asked as he requested. I wanted his portrait though I did wonder how many times Arthur had asked Diana, or anybody else, before he raised his camera.
Next on the agenda was the BBC central command office to photograph David Dimberlby, one of the BBC key anchormen, inevitably being photographed for BBC publicity. His position for commentary was spectacular, looking down on the entrance to Westminster Cathedral. The BBC had all their resources at central command. In fact, if you wanted to hire any broadcasting equipment in England that week, it would have been impossible as it was all here in central London.
Yet again I was reminded of the media working for its own ends. If our prime minister had not declared this to be such an important occasion and of national interest, would this be such a media event?
By 5:00 in the afternoon, the Mall leading down to Buckingham palace was packed to capacity, and the diehards had claimed their plots and set up camp for the night. The media had predicted that millions would be pouring into London, and I suppose a lot of people had thought they would come on Friday and watch the funeral itself on television. It was getting too crowded, so I walked the two miles down to Kensington Palace and photographed the media photographing the thousands of mourners and the field of flowers that had grown to almost an acre. The scene was very solemn, hardly a noise, except for the muffled sound of the traffic passing. Even though nobody spoke, I felt as if I was being watched with accusing eyes.
Again a lot of the photographers gave me hostile looks and moved away, realizing they were the point of interest.
Around 11:00 I returned home for a bite to eat, change of clothes, a wash and three hours sleep before returning to Kensington Palace at 4:00 the next morning.
The taxi arrived on the dot, and the driver was worried that he would not be able to get through police lines. We made it. Candlelit vigils were all over the park below the palace. There was a man with a tame owl called Merlin. I realized this was going to be a good photo opportunity, so I brought this man to the attention of a German camera crew. They became very excited and ran over to get this spectacle on film. The man with the owl was saying he came down, as Merlin knew this was a special occasion.
The two mile walk back to Buckingham Palace was lined with people. The funeral itself was not very eventful. The cortege passed Buckingham Palace and everybody was wondering if the Queen would break with tradition and walk behind the coffin. She did not. The anchor women working behind me outside the palace was having a communication breakdown and was getting all the names wrong, cursing her crew and attempting to make this the most important event that has ever happened.
In Hyde Park a mile away, two gigantic video walls had been erected so that a quarter of a million people would be able to see the service live from the inside of Westminster Abbey. The scene was like a rock concert but without the noise.
The late Princess Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, used his speech, in some part, to pay homage to his sister though in a greater part to criticize the media for hounding his sister and also criticizing the royal family for not being very loving. The service finished, and coffin left by car for the long journey up to Northampton where Princess Diana would be finally laid to rest.
Focus, the German magazine, never ran the story as a few days later it was announced that the chauffeur driving the car was drunk, and the cause of the accident was moved away from the photographers. That's media.
Two days later I watched Elton John being interviewed, and he was asked the very common question of why he thought so many people mourned the passing of the Princess? His answer was one around her popularity. Acceptable, noncommittal.
Diana was made by the media, otherwise how would we have known about her?
In stark reality, The late Princess of Wales was a fairy tale story. A modern day fantasy. Born into a long-established and powerful English family, married into royalty at the young age of 19, courted by the world media, and courted the media herself. Virtually cut off and spurned by the royal family and by her husband, Charles, for an older less attractive women. Charity worker. Bulimic and open about it. This is what great fiction is made of. Yet, this is reality.
The world might have thought they were mourning Diana, though in reality they were mourning the passing of the dream. The glamour of the dream that they had learnt to depend on, as read in the papers daily. Diana's life was an ongoing soap opera, and we were distracted by this drama. Our mourning might well have been also for the lack of substance in lives today. Diana and the media offered this distraction. ï
Ben Edwards is a photographer based in England.