In all the tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales since her death in Paris four
weeks ago, there is one aspect of her life that has been largely overlooked.
Despite Earl Spencer's references in his moving funeral address at Westminster
Abbey to the media's 'sneering' attempts to bring his sister down, the Princess
was, until the end, an astute student of her own press.
Specifically, the Princess, like 'the people' who worshipped her, was addicted
to the tabloid newspapers. One of her friends told me that each morning over
breakfast at Kensington Palace shewould read the Sun, the
Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and the Express, although
notnecessarily in that order. Only when she had digested this light
first course would she tackle the weightier and often far less apprising
reviews of her activities in the broad-sheets. Once, at a party, a male guest
to whom she wastalking noticed her staring at something over his
shoulder. It turned out to be a pile of newspapers. 'Would youlike me
to get them for you,' he asked. After a perusal of the newspapers the Princess
commented, 'Not a bad day for me.'
But the Princess's interest in 'the gutter press' was not confined simply to
the papers themselves. She was also on firstname terms with many of the
tabloid editors, and at one time or another had invited all of them to
Kensington Palace, including, two months before her death, those of the Sun
and the Mirror. What she confided at these private tete-a-tetes and
what she hoped toget in return is still ahighly sensitive
issue. Asone tabloid editor told me, 'I would be happy togo on
the record about my relationship with the Princess at some point in the future,
but now is not thetime or place. It is bound to be misinterpreted,'
Itis not difficult to see why. Following EarlSpencer's
decision to disinvite thetabloid editors to the Princess's funeral, and
his impassioned attack on what he described as their 'baffling' attempts to
negate all his sister's achievements, the people's emotions are still too raw,
their fuses too short. But in one respect at least it appears that neither the
Earl nor the people knew the Princess all that well. For while there is little
doubt she would have agreed with themajority of her brothers remarks--
particularly his line abouther being 'the most hunted person of the
modem age'-- the Princess was never'baffled' by the tabloids. On
thecontrary, allthe evidence suggests that she understood the
tabloids only too well, and following her separation and her subsequent divorce
from Prince Charles she had worked diligently to bring them 'on side'.
Richard Kay, the Daily Mail reporter she called on the night she died,
had long been a favoured confidant, of course. But what isn't so well-known is
chat the Princess was also in regular and close contact with the editors of the
red-top titles. As in Kay's case, the idea was to keep these assignations
Secret. The difference is that, unlike the dealings with Kay -- who was
famously photographed meeting her in a car in a Bayswater back alley-- that is
the way they have remained until now.
Who initiated the contacts, where did the meetings take place and what did
the Princess hope to get out of them? Those who, like Earl Spencer, despise the
tabloids for intruding on the privacy of public figures may be surprised at the
answer. For it appears that the Princess -- the most hunted woman of her age
-- was as much the wooer as the wooed. According to sources close to
Buckingham Palace, it was she who made the first approach when, at the
beginning of 1996, she surreptitiously invited the editors of the four main
tabloids -- the Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the
Express -- for lunch at Kensington Palace.
In mostcases just the Princess and her then press secretary, Jane
Atkinson, were present. But inthe case of one tabloid editor at
least,Prince William was also in attendance. 'She was incredibly open
and honest,' admitted the tabloid editor in question. 'I admit I was
surprised and asked her, "Is there a specific reason you're meeting me?"
She replied, "No. no. I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, get to
know you. And I think it would be quite useful for William to meet an
Although it seems incredible now, at the time it is not difficult to see why
the Princess would have opted for such a course. Prince William had already
been snappcd on the playing-fields of Eton and she knew that as he grew older
the paparazzi and the tabloids' own staff photographers would grow more
persistent. She had already observed how the royal family's regal approach to
media relations bad singularly failed to protect them and was determined to
forge a new working strategy both for herself and her son.
As the Princess told Tina Brown, the editor of the New Yorker, over
lunch in Manhattan earlier this summer: 'I try to din into him all the time
about the media, the dangers, and how he must understand and handle them. I
think it's too late for the rest of the family, but William -- I think he has
it.' The Princess also confided in Ms Brown that it was her hope that William
would grow up to be as smart about handling the media 'as John Kennedy Junior',
and if he had been listening attentively during his mother's luncheon with the
tabloid editor he would have learned the first lesson well: bring them into
'She was very entertaining company,' said the anonymous editor. 'Her
conversation was laced with confessions and revelations. It was pretty
riveting stuff, but it was all on the understanding that you wouldn't pass them
on. After that we would be briefed regularly about what she was thinking and
what she was doing. It was a little bit like the lobby system. We would go to
her office with a story, they would tell her and she would give us a response
-- off the record, of course -- It was a strange relationship -- We were never
her friends, but we weren't the enemy either.'
This isn't to say, of course, that the Princess enjoyed the results of her
work. Unlike the people, she read the tabloids out of necessity, not love.
But she was wise enough to realise that they were the bane of her life, when it
came to the publication of paparazzi photographs, they tended to be far more
supportive of her public causes than the broadsheets. As another tabloid
editor, again speaking on the basis of anonymity, put it, the Princess
recognised her relationship with the tabloids was a two-way street and
exploited it to the best possible advantage: 'The quid pro quo was that in
return for access to her private office you would be broadly sympathetic to her
charity work, and by and large we were. What Earl Spencer doesn't seem to
appreciate is that the ones who caused her the greatest distress were the
editorialisers and sneerers an the broadsheets. We treated her trips to Angola
as great tabloid events. It was the think pieces afterwards that really got to
But isn't this recidivist account of the Princess's tabloid relations a little
bit suspect? After all, it was the tabloids which published the grainy
paparazzi shot of her and Dodi Fayed kissing on his father's boat, the
Jonikal, earlier this summer. And surely it was the tabloids' own staff
photographers and reporters who continued to make the Princess's and Dodi's
holiday in the South of France such hell, pestering them to the point where the
Princess had to plead with the tabloids to leave her alone.
Once again the Princess's public indignation may be less straightforward than
it first appeared. The first rights to 'the kiss' were bought by the Sunday
Mirror, but a number of tabloid editors point out that the second rights
were acquired by the Mail, and that in the following days the Mail
also bought up and published other paparazzi pictures of the holiday too.
Given her close relationship with Richard Kay, they say it is inconceivable
that this would have occurred without a nod and a wink from the Princess.
Moreover, one editor insists that when he approached her private office at
Kensington Palace, he was told that she was 'very relaxed' about the
'That was a euphemism meaning she was more than happy that they came out,' he
argued. 'And that's when we started to see her posing in her swimming costume.
Every day there was effectively another unofficial photograph on the
Jonikal. Given the resources of the Fayed family, if she hadn't wanted
to be seen we wouldn't have seen her. At one point we even offered to withdraw
our photographer, but were told this was unnecessary. There was a clear,
unstated co-operation there.'
This, it must be said, is not the view of those on the other side of the
tabloid fence. As one source close to Buckingham Palace put it, 'The tabloid
editor's account is extraordinarily self-serving.' But then the Princess had
long since dispensed with the services of a press secretary and was not above
admonishing editors if she was displeased. For instance, when Stuart Higgins
invited her to lunch at the Sun, the Princess let him know she knew
where his true loyalties lay, teasing him by saying, 'I hear you are a friend
of Camilla's.' Another editor recalls how he had called Kensington Palace to
tell them he was preparing a story on a speech the Princess had given during a
private visit to an eating disorder clinic when she suddenly came on the
telephone in person. 'She knew we had the story anyway and wanted to be sure
that what came out in the paper was going to be helpful to other bulimia
sufferers, so she briefed me for 40 minutes. She told me exactly what she had
been saying, what she had hoped to achieve and what her own suffering had been
in incredible detail. The understanding was that I would not quote her
directly but do it as reported speech.'
To the editor's surprise, when he arrived at his office the next morning, the
Princess had issued a statement via the Press Amociation deploring the report.
'I rang her immediately and congratulated her an a brilliant operation. It
amused me that the way it had been communicated to the rest of the media was
that she knew nothing about the story until it appeared in the paper, when she
was the one who had told me.'
This was not an isolated example of the Princess's use of subterfuge. In 1995
she was photographed by a News of the World photographer coming out of a
London hospital where she had been paying a secret late night visit to her then
boyfriend, the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. She was furious and, according to
sources close to the palace, quickly struck a deal to stop the real story from
coming out. In return for not exposing her romance, the Princess would give
the News of the World a 'world exclusive' about how she was secretly
visiting patients at the hospital late at night, so that they would not he
inconvenienced by the press. The story duly appeared in the News of the
World the following Sunday and was picked up by the rest of the media the
Another example was the time Will Carling arrived at the front gates of
Kensington Palace with rugby shirts for the young princes, only to find the
tabloids lying in wait for him. At the time this was a huge
embarrassment for Carling, who had every reason co believe that his visit had
been confidential. His wife, Julia, a public relations consultant, was also furious
and not long after began divorce proceedings. But what neither of them may
have realised at the time is that the Princess had actually tipped off the
tabloid photographers herself. She had already grown bored of Carling's
attentions and while he was left to flail in front of the flashguns, she used
the opportunity to slip out of the back entrance of the palace unnoticed.
Following the canonization of her memory since her death in Paris, it now
seems shocking to recall the Princess as she really was. But while she was
alive her adeptness at manipulating the media was widely recognised, as was the
fact that during the latter years of her 'loveless' marriage to Prince Charles
the tabloids had been one of her greatest weapons. Who can forget the
poignancy for instance, of that lone shot of her in front of the Taj Mahal and
the endless comment it sparked about the Princess's isolation and her
'unrequited love'? But she herself setup the famous photograph.
The truth is that the Princess had beencolluding in her own coverage
at least since March 1991. Her then friends say that at that time, when her
father died, she did not want Prince Charles to travel to the Earl's funeral
with her. His office was forced to reinstate a meeting in London at the last
moment, so that his behaviour would not look like lack of sympathy for her
bereavement. The friends believe, however, that such a lack of sympathy on the
Prince's part was just what she wanted to convey. Defenders of her behaviour
at this time say that it was proof of how desperate she had become; of what
Charles had driven her to. But the fact remains that she had now become
involved with the tabloids. As in all her subsequent dealings with the
tabloids, the aim was to paint herself in a more favourable light, and if that
meant painting others in a less favourable one, then so be it. As one tabloid
editor put it: 'Her relationship with us wasn't so much love-hate as, I'm going
to make it as positive as I can -- And if the shit hits the fan I'm going to
limit the damage. She was a great politician, a great spin doctor.'
If the Princess were still alive, she probably wouldn't quibble with that
analysis. After all at her lunch with Tina Brown she explained how she had
tried to persuade the royal family to hire a media professional to advise them
and hall even mentioned the name of Peter Mandelson, but it had all been to no
avail, 'They kept saying I was manipulative,' she told Brown. 'But what's the
alternative! To just sit there and have them make your image for you?'
One thing the Princess can never be accused of is having let others mould her
image for her. And while it may be a bit rich for Stuart Higgins to claim, as
he did in an editorial following her death that she 'liked the Sun', it
is equally misleading for her brother to pretend that the tabloids were intent
on bringing her down.
As Ross Benson, the Daily Express columnist and one of the few people
willing to speak openly about his meetings with the Princess, puts it, 'She
didn't distinguish between the tabloids and the broadsheets so much as between
those journalists who were sympathetic to her and those who were not. Of
course she resented the intrusions by the paparazzi, but she got on with the
tabloid staff photographers very well.'
In fact, listening to Benson's account of his dealings with the Princess --
who initiated various contacts with him, including lunch -- her admiration for
Mandelson makes more and more sense. 'Diana was a media brat,' concluded
Benson. 'If she was pleased with something you had written she would let you
know. But you learned a lot quicker if she was unhappy.' In other words, her
behaviour was no different from that of a very grand spin doctor. And her
intimate relationship with the tabloids should not be considered surprising.