When Naomi Watts took on the role of Princess Diana for the biopic ‘Diana’ she would no doubt have been aware of the controversial nature of the role. But she may not have anticipated the full extent of the backlash the film faced on its release in the autumn of 2013. Even sixteen years after the fatal accident in the Alma Tunnel Diana’s final days remain a controversial and bitter topic. A fact that was reflected in the stinging reviews the movie received. Epithets such as ‘car crash cinema’ and ‘opportunistic bilge’ were representative of the critical mauling. It is certainly romanticized and, at least for the critics, a poor effort as cinema. But its perceived failings were clearly also a reminder of how sensitive a topic Princess Diana remains. More distressing for those who knew the real woman, the sixteenth anniversary of her death also saw the emergence of a new twist on the long standing conspiracy theories. It was not, however, caused by internet chatter or the claims of usually less than credible investigators and authors. It was in fact Scotland Yard which announced it was “scoping” new information in a file from Royal Military Police officers. The file included allegations by a former SAS soldier who claimed to know who “arranged Princess Diana’s death and that it had been covered up.” Which is attention grabbing but a long way from having evidence of wrongdoing and a police spokesman also reminded that in 2008 an inquest jury came to a verdict of “unlawful killing, grossly negligent driving of the following vehicles and of the Mercedes [in which the couple were travelling].”
The Royal Family’s position needed no reiteration but a spokeswoman did emphasize there would be no comment on the new information. A spokesman for Dodi al-Fayed’s father, Mohamed al-Fayed, said he had no specific comment to make, but that he would be “interested in seeing the outcome,” adding that he trusted the police would investigate the information “with vigour.” The weight of the new evidence was a matter of speculation but it was a newsworthy development and the national media, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, did its job when they reported it. The Telegraph played down the significance, calling on the opinion of former royal bodyguard Ken Wharfe: “The police have to look at it because of the level of the crime alleged. But if this was an allegation of a tinpot burglary a decade earlier, you would be lucky if a traffic warden would have looked at it.” The Daily Express, which has given editorial space to the conspiracy theories in the past, and The Daily Mail highlighted a different perspective. Both drew attention to the feelings of relatives of chauffeur Henri Paul, whom all previous investigations concluded was guilty of reckless driving and the direct cause of the fatal accident. In 2007 Henri Paul’s mother had said during the inquest under Lord Justice Scott Baker that she believed “there was a plot to kill the Princess that terrible night in August 1997. We know in our hearts that our son was murdered and we still live with the hope that one day the truth will be known.”
It is fair to remember that the events of August 31, 1997, are not just about the loss suffered by the Royal Family. Unfortunately there is little if any common ground between the three bereaved families. But does the new evidence justify serious consideration? It is at the least intriguing as it came to light through another court case, the second court martial in July 2013 of Danny Nightingale, a former SAS sniper who was convicted of possessing an illegal firearm. The allegations emerged via the testimony of one of his colleagues named only as ‘Soldier N’ who was also accused of keeping illegal weapons. But is ‘Soldier N’ a credible source? The court was told not in a letter from his parents-in-law dated from 2011. They had written about his erratic and disturbing behaviour which they said included threats to his estranged wife and children, claims that Princess Diana had been murdered by the SAS and that during his time in the SAS he had gone on “killing sprees”. All of which puts the new evidence in a more sober light.
The claims made by ‘Soldier N’ about Princess Diana were, for some, a revelation from inside the SAS, but actually came to light via a third party as the sort of thing an unreliable person would say. ‘Soldier N’s’ mental condition was clearly an issue the court had been asked to take into consideration. Nonetheless his credibility was not entirely undermined and some of his testimony was said to have helped the prosecution case against Sergeant Nightingale. Former SAS officers and police representatives strove to highlight the implausibility of ‘Soldier N’s’ claims regarding Princess Diana. Some went further suggesting that the whole episode was a publicity stunt or a money-making scheme timed to coincide with the sixteenth anniversary of Diana’s death. All in vain as a new strand to the conspiracy theories had emerged, soon made all the more exciting by reports that ‘Soldier N’ had fled the UK in fear of his safety. However, dismissing those who believe in foul play as merely opportunistic would be wrong. The deaths of public figures have often given rise to conspiracy theories and there are still many people who genuinely believe Diana and Dodi al-Fayed were murdered, just as there are millions who believe the ‘9/11’ attack on the Twin Towers was an inside government job. Conspiracy theories are all the more seductive as governments are known to lie on occasion.
Writing in The Daily Mail TV presenter and journalist Sue Reid laid out the conspiracy theorist stall: “However unlikely they may seem at first glance, I am convinced there is something in ‘Soldier N’s’ claims. Ever since Diana’s death at the age of thirty-six, I have investigated forensically the events that led up to the crash and what happened afterwards. I have spoken to eye-witnesses, French and British intelligence officers, SAS soldiers and to friends of Diana and Dodi . . . Crucially, my investigations show that the paparazzi who supposedly hounded Diana to her death were not even in the Pont d’Alma tunnel at the time of the car crash. “They also reveal how a high-powered black motorbike – which did not belong to any of the paparazzi – shot past Diana’s Mercedes in the tunnel . . . In addition my inquiries unearthed the existence of a shadowy SAS unit that answers to MI6, as well as the names of two MI6 officers who were linked by a number of sources to Diana’s death.” A view passionately held, but there is little if anything in the conspiracy theory larder or the new evidence that is actually new. The theme has always been that the ‘establishment’ did away with Princess Diana and her Muslim lover for a variety of nefarious reasons. Several investigations, culminating with the inquest under Lord Justice Scott Baker in 2008, concluded otherwise.
But with the sheer volume of material that has accrued over the years there is a plenty to build conspiracy theories around. There is also what amounts to an unofficial body of claimed evidence that is cited as being where the real proof will be found. The conspiracy theories will most likely continue indefinitely. Alongside the apparent need to believe in foul play amongst the great and the good, exists the prospect of financial gain for those who can find a seductive new angle – the tale can be retold and resold. Even though ‘Soldier N’s’ tale will almost certainly never lead to any tangible evidence in support of a conspiracy theory, that itself has never yielded any substantive evidence, the layers of belief accumulate of their own volition. From this perspective ‘Diana’ the movie, which is after all only a romantic drama about a much-loved public figure, is noteworthy not because it deserves the opprobrium heaped upon it. Its significance lies in what it portends for the future. Inevitably popular culture will return to the seam and the big screen will someday soon add to the edifice with ‘Diana the Conspiracy’.