The moment Suffolk’s Michael Cole, former BBC royal reporter, found out ‘the terrible truth’ Diana was dead
- Credit: PA
Michael Cole, former BBC royal correspondent, was Director of Public Affairs at the Harrods Group of Companies when his boss’s eldest son, Dodi Al Fayed, and Diana, Princess of Wales, were killed in the Alma Tunnel in Paris 20 years ago in the early hours of 31 August, 1997.
It was an end-of-summer day of the sort I have always hated: muggy and overcast. I stayed close to our house in Suffolk in case the telephone rang. It didn’t. That was strange.
During that summer, 20 years ago, the phone hadn’t stopped ringing, ever since Diana, Princess of Wales, was first photographed on holiday with her sons at the home in St. Tropez of Mohamed Al Fayed and his family.
When a long-distance grainy photograph was published in a tabloid newspaper, purporting to show Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed embracing on the deck of a yacht, under the headline “The Kiss”, a media frenzy began that in some ways has never ended.
But on that last day of their third and final holiday together in the Mediterranean, there were no calls. I watched Match of the Day to the last goal and went to bed.
I switched out the light, but was not asleep when the phone finally rang, at 12.45am. A young Scottish reporter from The Sunday Times asked what I had to say about the car crash in Paris involving the Princess and Dodi. I said nothing. I put down the phone. I needed time to think.
As I swung my legs out of bed, the phone rang again. It was Clive Goodman, the “Royal Editor” of the now defunct News of the World.
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I knew Clive. He told me that though the Princess had only been injured, Dodi was dead.
I had known the Princess for 12 years, from the time I was the BBC Court correspondent.
I was a friend of her former stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, until Raine’s death last year. I had known Diana’s father, Earl “Johnnie” Spencer, and admired him. I knew Mohamed long before I worked for him and I had always got on well with the family and liked Dodi.
Dodi was besotted with the Princess and told me there would never be anyone else.
I had never seen Diana as happy as she was during that summer, full of fun and not averse to playing jokes on me, at one time pretending on the telephone to be Darryl Hannah after a story appeared that Dodi had been romancing the Hollywood actress. “I got you! I got you!” cried Diana, when I was taken in. That showed how seriously she was taking a silly story.
I telephoned Mohamed at his home in Surrey. He had heard the reports of Dodi’s death and said he was flying immediately to Paris. “Let us pray it is not so, Michael”, he said.
What could I do? I did what I had done for 27 years as a journalist. I made the calls. I telephoned the Ritz Hotel in Paris, the French police headquarters and the hospital to which the injured Princess had been taken. Quite properly, the hospital said they could only speak to a member of the family.
By strange chance, two days earlier, Raine Spencer had come into my office at Harrods and told me that she was going to Venice for the weekend. She wrote down the name and telephone number of the American woman with whom she would be staying. She had never before done such a thing. Had I had brought the piece of paper home with me? I had.
I rang the number and told Raine that Diana, who’d become completely reconciled with Raine and great friends with her, had been injured. First reports mentioned a broken arm. The Princess was said to be talking and had even walked to the ambulance. I gave Raine the hospital number.
Five minutes later, Raine called back. I was standing in the kitchen with my wife. “Diana is dead”, Raine told me, in a calm voice that hid her inner anguish. As shocking as it was that Dodi was dead, it seemed so much worse that Diana was no more. I sunk to my knees and wept. “We must carry on”, I heard Raine saying. “We have to. I must get back to London to help Mohamed and the family”.
The next hour and a half was surreal. The television continued to report that the Princess was injured. But I knew the terrible truth. It was only after the British Ambassador to Paris had confirmed that Diana had not survived that I was willing to respond to the clamouring media.
I showered, shaved, put on a suit and drove to London at 5am to face the most difficult week of my life.