As most of the world now knows, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris in the early hours of . This page shows highlights of how the British television and radio services covered the immediate news that Sunday, with particular emphasis on the BBC TV news coverage.
The news first broke on BBC1 around , and they interrupted their late film twice with a news report from Martyn Lewis. BBC2 also broadcast a short news bulletin, and displayed on-screen captions when BBC1 were broadcasting a newsflash. BBC2 closed down at the regular time.
When the time came for BBC1 to closedown, they didn’t. There was no national anthem as usual, an announcer revealed that BBC1 was staying up all night to bring us the latest news.
So for the first time ever, domestic BBC viewers were to see BBC World, the international 24 hour news channel that usually carries advertising.
And so the ‘rolling news’ started. Initial reports and information were sketchy, and Nik Gowing, who had the unfortunate position of anchor for the night, had to fill in whilst the same pictures of the tunnel and emergency vehicles were shown ad nauseum.
As Nik swapped between the various BBC correspondents who were on duty that night, he was severely handicapped by having to interview James Whitaker, the royal correspondent of the Daily Mirror, a more nauseating example of a media luvvie I have yet to see.
The same coverage continued for several hours, as no information was really available. Various wild reports were received, ranging from a multi-car pile up (there was only one car at the scene) to the car driving the wrong way in the tunnel (confusion as the French drive on the right and the car had flipped).
There were also reports that the Princess had been seen walking from the car (obviously false) and reports that the emergency services were still cutting victims from the wreckage (obviously false as the pictures on screen at the time showed that there was little else to do, and those pictures had been shown for at least the last hour).
To give the BBC credit, I heard the same reports on all the radio stations, and the BBC at least made the point that all of this was unconfirmed. While all this was going on, ITV were happily showing Carnal Knowledge, or The Good Sex Guide or some of their other rubbish which they use to fill the early hours.
What follows is an extract of the news at this point.
How events unfolded on screen and what was going on behind the scenes were entirely different. Aides at Manila airport with Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had briefed the press that Diana had died but placed an embargo on the news until an official announcement was made.
BBC correspondent Stephen Jessel hints that the news is bad.
Private Eye reports that the Press Association, who like everyone else in the media knew of this, broke the embargo by releasing the news as coming from ‘British sources’. The Press Association claimed a coup for being the first to release the news. They did not reveal that they were merely the first to break the embargo.
By this time, the BBC were broadcasting a single news programme on BBC1, BBC2, BBC World and BBC Prime.
Finally the news is confirmed by Buckingham Palace.
This was immediately followed by the first of many national anthems that day.
Radio coverage throughout the night had been very similar to the TV coverage, although not as intense depending on which station you listened to.
London’s News Direct 97.3 FM stayed with the Diana story most of the time, taking feeds from CNN. BBC Radio 5 Live also devoted significant amounts of time to it. Other commercial stations continued with their standard music programming, with news bulletins as normal.
Behind the scenes, IRN were preparing to break the news on most of the commercial stations throughout the UK. This extract is seven and a half minutes long, and includes the non-broadcast instructions to radio station staff and the news broadcast itself.
ITN are now on air on ITV, some three and a half hours after the BBC coverage started.
Channel 4 had switched to a documentary/biography of Princess Diana, and scenes of the 1981 royal wedding could be seen. Channel 5 were showing a cheap quiz show.
By , the BBC World night shift were continuing their coverage on all BBC channels, and Channel 4 had ended their documentary and were interspersing short news reports with The Art of Landscape and solemn music.
Channel 5 were starting their cartoons. I think they win the award for station least prepared for a major news story on a Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, ITN had ended their coverage as they had to hand over to GMTV, a station not famous for its serious news reporting.
By this time, BBC Radio had joined forces, with Radios 2, 3, 4, 5 Live and all BBC Local Radio stations taking the same programme from the Radio 4 Today studio.
BBC Radio 1 had switched to a light music mix, with frequent news announcements. The national anthem was played at least once an hour on all stations.
Radios 2 and 3 dropped out mid-morning, with Radio 4 and 5 Live staying together until after lunch. BBC Local Radio varied.
Meanwhile, all independent radio stations were taking the IRN special programme, which consisted of light instrumental music and ten minute announcements, with extended news bulletins on the hour and half-hour.
London’s Capital Radio (95.8 FM and Gold 1548) dropped out of the IRN coverage fairly quickly, partly due to the poor quality of their feed, which had sounded like a telephone payphone with beeps over the music. They broadcast a combined programme of light classical music with Howard Hughes announcing every ten minutes.
At , the BBC World coverage came to an end, and all of the BBC channels took a news programme from the domestic newsroom, with Martyn Lewis. At the interval, the following caption and announcement was shown.
Listen to how Martyn Lewis announced the news for the first time that day.
Channel 5 had finally realised that showing cartoons was not such an appropriate idea, and had changed to displaying their logo and solemn music.
Finally, Kirsty Young turned up to tell Channel 5 viewers what they had already gathered from the other four channels.
In the early hours, the BBC were quite happy to play this interview with eyewitness Michael Soloman sourced from CNN. For some reason they cut the part at the end where he says ‘Baba Booey!’.
As Private Eye reports, this is the catch phrase of American shock jock Howard Stern who encourages his listeners to phone CNN with bogus testimony of breaking news stories.
Well, we’ve taken you up past , and the news for the rest of the day was much the same. Channel 4 and 5 resumed normal programmes at around , whilst the BBC and ITV continued their blanket coverage for the rest of the day.
‘BBC Television from London’ continued on all BBC channels until , when BBC2 was allowed to show some sport.
The shock news came at . EastEnders had been cancelled.
The revised schedules listed here were announced at . The BBC1 schedule was later revised again, to bring the service from St Paul’s Cathedral, then to interrupt it with coverage of the coffin being brought back from Paris.
Diary of a Princess was shown twice that evening, whilst Beethoven's Piano Concerto was cancelled so that the service interrupted earlier could be shown in full.
BBC1 drew to a close, and handed over yet again to BBC World for news throughout the night. The national anthem was broadcast, but has been omitted from this clip.