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I covered Princess Diana’s death in the UK in 1997. Here’s what it was like

"I once stood behind her and I saw the world from her point of view, which has always haunted me."
Princess Diana in Bristol
Diana, Princess of Wales in 1983. Len Trievnor / Getty Images

People across the world can recall exactly where, when and how they learned Princess Diana of Wales died, including British journalist Samira Ahmed, who worked at the BBC in 1997 and continues to today, hosting a weekly show called “Newswatch.” Ahmed was one of many reporters on the front lines of telling the story as it unfolded.

Twenty-five years later, Ahmed told TODAY she remembers the events of Aug. 31, 1997 vividly — and the feeling of pushing through the shock to get to tell the true story.

At the time, Ahmed was working the night shifts as a BBC reporter based in London as an on-camera reporter. After about two hours of sleep, she received an urgent phone call from the station’s head of news.

"'We need you to work, Samira, there’s been a death in the Royal Family,'" she said of the call, subsequently asking if Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Philip had died. “And she said, ‘No, it’s Diana’ and paused and that’s how I found out. So, of course, it was a huge shock.” 

The car carrying Diana and her beau Dodi Al Fayed crashed into a concrete pillar in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris at approximately 12:20 a.m. Fayed and driver Henri Paul were declared dead at the scene, while Diana was rushed to the hospital, where she later died of injuries sustained during the crash. Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was the sole survivor.

“I think if I’d stopped to think too much about her dying, it would have been quite emotional."

SAMIRA AHMED

Because Ahmed was scheduled to work another nightshift the following day, she didn’t immediately come into the newsroom. 

Rather, she stayed glued to her TV throughout the day, then picked up reporting the story’s latest when she came back to work in the evening.

When the news broke, journalists were working in real time to verify facts and amass new details, as billions watched around the world. 

For Ahmed and likely others, the unexpected loss of such a beloved figure made it difficult to separate fact from feeling.

“I think if I’d stopped to think too much about her dying, it would have been quite emotional,” she said. 

Although the event sent shockwaves across the world, Ahmed said the atmosphere in the newsroom at the time of Diana’s death was actually rather calm and collected. 

“It wasn’t chaos. There was real shock. I would say there was professionalism,” Ahmed said, adding that there was a sense of “pulling together in a time of crisis.”

However, the BBC journalist remembered she had one recurring thought that inhabited her: Someone has to wake young Prince William, then 15, and Prince Harry, then 12, and tell them the news. At the time, Diana’s two children were in Balmoral, the castle in Scotland where the Windsors spend summers and holidays.

“When those boys were asleep, that would be the last moment when they thought that their mother was alive,” she said. “And then once they were told, their whole lives would change.”

As a journalist reporting first hand, Ahmed said she was aware of the royal family as being just that — a family. What was a groundbreaking public event was also a personal tragedy.  

“Everyone in Britain, including all the journalists at the BBC, we completely got what a wretched personal tragedy it was, as well as her being a national figure,” she explained.

Following a 12-hour shift the day Diana died, Ahmed was asked to present on BBC World TV Breakfast after the scheduled anchor had “fallen ill,” as she said. For the program, Ahmed recalled interviewing international figures worldwide, including in India and South Africa, all sharing stories about Diana’s impact.

“She had this big global presence,” she said of Diana. “Her work on landmines as well as her work on AIDS. And so I got a real sense of how much she meant to the world, not focused just on what she meant in Britain.”

As people traveled to London to pay their respects to the late Diana, Ahmed said she realized the impact the princess had — particularly on young women of color. Ahmed recalled an interview with a young, Black British woman laying flowers at Kensington garden. 

 “She said it felt so strange and it seemed so unfair that the nicest one or the best one went first,” Ahmed said. “And I remember that phrase: the best one. (Diana) was one of us. And she didn’t fit in.”

 

In memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was killed in an automobile accident in Paris, France on August 31, 1997.
LONDON - SEPTEMBER 1997: Prince William, Prince of Wales, with his sons Princes William and Harry looking at floral tributes left at Kensington Palace following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in September, 1997. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage) Anwar Hussein / WireImage

After her death, the BBC reporter remembered her own brush with Diana. Ahmed once stood behind the royal at an event, and gained a new appreciation for the media onslaught Diana dealt with on a daily basis.  

The BBC reporter remembered one memory where she stepped into Diana’s shoes for just a moment, standing behind her amid paparazzi.

“I saw the world from her point of view, which has always haunted me. I was standing behind and it was dark, so I couldn’t quite see what she was walking out into. I just found her pausing and then walking out towards the car, and all the flashing lights went off on all the cameras. And I was blinded,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that she must face that every time she went anywhere.” 

“I couldn’t believe that she must face that every time she went anywhere.”

Samira Ahmed

She said this was a “momentary glimpse” of what Diana faced daily. “I found it quite sobering to think and then when she died … she was killed by the pursuit of the press,” she said. Witnesses say the Mercedes Benz was chased by paparazzi on motorcycles into the Parisian tunnel.

Harry, in the BBC documentary “Diana, 7 Days,” emphasized his own belief that the photographers were to blame for the crash. “Those people that caused the accident, instead of helping, were taking photographs of her dying,” he said.

Looking back, Ahmed scrutinizes the entire lead-up to the crash, including photos of Diana's time on a yacht in the Mediterranean with Fayed. “I’d say as a female journalist, I watched the hounding of Diana over the weeks leading up to her death with a growing sense of dread that I could not put my finger on,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed described the persistent following as an “extreme hysteria” building towards “something bad.” Like Harry, Ahmed believes that “hounding of the press” ultimately caused Diana’s death. 

However, the photographers and press weren’t the only ones to blame, according to Ahmed. A more critical conversation was sparked around blame at editors for buying the personal photos and also surrounding the public interest — as people who blamed the press continued to purchase the magazines and newspapers.

As a journalist, Ahmed reckons with how the press covered Diana’s life and death, and boundaries of privacy and safety that were crossed in pursuit of a “story.”

For example, in a famous BBC interview Diana had with Martin Bashir, which had 23 million eyes glued to British television screens in 1995, the former princess dished details on her marriage to Charles and her husband’s affair. But a 2021 inquest showed Bashir used deceitful means in the form of faking documents to convince Diana to go on the record. 

Bashir left the BBC after the inquest. Speaking to the Sunday Times, Bashir said, “I never wanted to harm Diana in any way and I don’t believe we did."

Ahmed said of the matter, “It’s so obviously unethical. It’s not like we need hindsight to tell us this is not how we should have behaved."

Twenty-five years later, Ahmed wonders how Diana would have handled life today, and as she moved through her 40s, 50s and 60s. “I think that’s my big sadness. I think she would have grown into such an interesting, mature public figure and she would have used her voice with strength and maturity,” Ahmed said.

In Ahmed’s words, Diana is remembered as strong, genuine, authentic and instinctive, but she doesn’t envy the former royal for “what she (had) to put up with: the press, the fame.”