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6 conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana debunked
It was a tragedy that shocked the world. On the night of 31st August 1997, a speeding Mercedes chased by the paparazzi and driven by a man over the drink-driving limit, lost control and crashed in a tunnel in Paris. Within the car sat 36-year-old Princess Diana, her boyfriend of a few months Dodi Al-Fayed, and his bodyguard. Out of every person in the car, the bodyguard was the only one to survive.
Grief gripped the British nation as the ‘people’s Princess’ was mourned up and down the country. An estimated 2.5 billion people tuned in to watch broadcasts of her funeral a week later on 6th September. Whilst many accepted the official verdict of events, there were others, most notably Dodi's father Mohamed Al-Fayed – the then owner of the London department store Harrods – who believed more sinister forces were at play.
He believed MI6, in collusion with the Royal Family, was to blame. Conspiracy theories surrounding this allegation exploded and the internet chatter grew so noisy that in 2004, the Met Police was forced to launch an inquiry into Diana's death. After several years, and at a cost of around £12.5 million, Operation Paget concluded the official verdict of events was correct and its investigation found no credible evidence to support the conspiracies.
Here, we take a look at six conspiracy theories debunked by the report:
1. Diana was pregnant and Dodi was about to propose
According to Mohamed Al-Fayed, MI6 had Diana and Dodi murdered on the order of the Royal Family (specifically Prince Philip) as she was pregnant with Dodi's child. The pair were also apparently about to announce their engagement, an event that Mohamed claimed was unpalatable to the Royal Family as they ‘could not accept that an Egyptian Muslim could eventually be the stepfather of the future King of England’. And so, MI6 and the ‘Establishment’ allegedly put a special operation into place to have Diana and Dodi killed.
However, post-mortem examinations of Diana’s body found no signs of pregnancy. Tests on her blood found at the scene showed no increase in levels of pregnancy hormones. Operation Paget also discovered witness evidence from close friends stating that in mid-August 1997, Diana was in her normal menstrual cycle and that contraception was being used.
As for the proposal, although Dodi had purchased a ring, no evidence exists that it had been presented to Diana by the time she died. Testimony by those close to her, including her butler and confidante Paul Burrell, also suggested marriage was the last thing on Diana’s mind. According to Lady Annabel Goldsmith, who spoke with Diana two days before her death, Diana declared, ‘I need marriage like a rash on my face’.
The inquest also pointed out that Diana had just ended a two-year relationship with another Muslim man, surgeon Hasnat Khan. They had even explored the idea of marriage, which hadn't caused alarm within the Royal Family and by all accounts, they’d even given it their blessing.
2. The driver was part of the conspiracy
If Mohamed Al-Fayed’s claims were to be believed, MI6 conducted a covert operation to have Diana’s car crash. Central to that claim is the theory that Henri Paul, the driver of the car, was an informant for the security services who may even have deliberately caused the crash. Paul was the head of security at the Ritz Hotel in Paris where Diana and Dodi were staying. Suspicious funds in Henri’s bank account, along with testimony from Richard Tomlinson - a former MI6 officer – suggested that Henri was on MI6’s payroll.
As for the alcohol level in Henri’s blood, conspiracy theorists have suggested the sample was taken from a suicide victim and not Henri. They believe Henri was sober that night.
Operation Paget confirmed eye-witness testimony that Henri had been drinking that night and numerous blood tests confirmed the elevated presence of alcohol in his system – said to be three times over the French legal limit.
As for his ties with MI6, the investigation concluded that Henri may have been a low-level informant for French secret services but found no evidence he was a hired gun for MI6. In fact, he was not meant to be working that night and Diana and Dodi’s plans had changed last minute, thus debunking any premeditated plot.
3. The paparazzi conspired
No criminal conspiracy was found by Paget regarding the actions of the paparazzi, despite allegations they were deliberately chasing the car to make it crash. Although their flashing cameras caused Henri to speed up, no ill intentions on behalf of the paparazzi could be established. The behaviour of the paparazzi was declared entirely normal for them.
4. The Mercedes had been tampered with
Some conspiracy theorists believe the seatbelts in the fateful car were faulty due to sabotage. However, it was well established that when ambulance services reached the crashed car neither Diana nor Dodi were wearing their seatbelts. Operation Paget confirmed that view and highlighted the fact that French investigators in 1998 declared all seatbelts in the car to be in proper working order.
5. Bright flashes and strange cars aided the accident
Several witnesses stated seeing bright flashes around Diana’s car before and after it entered the tunnel. There was also the presence of a white Fiat Uno that suspiciously followed the car into the tunnel and even left forensic evidence on the Mercedes before driving away. Conspiracy theorists have suggested the Fiat was driven by MI6 agents who blinded Henri with a bright flash, causing him to lose control of the vehicle.
Although witnesses did see bright flashes, they all saw different ones, from different angles, and at different times. Paget concluded there were many flashes that night caused by the paparazzi's cameras and headlights in general, but none were found to be overtly malicious.
As for the Fiat, although it did make a glancing contact with the Mercedes, it has never been identified. Paget concluded that no intelligence agency attempted to or had the opportunity to stage a collision in the tunnel.
6. Diana’s medics were in on it
One of the biggest claims is that Diana did not die on impact and that her treatment at the scene of the crash was deliberately delayed to prevent her from surviving. Diana was treated at the scene for an extended period before she was eventually moved to the hospital. She wasn't even taken to the nearest one when she was finally moved.
Conspiracy theorists believe this combination of events suggests the doctors treating her were in collusion with security services to ensure Diana died that night.
French emergency care is different from that in the UK. In France, treatment at the scene is prioritised before moving the patient to the hospital whereas in the UK that is reversed.
Paget concluded, ‘To believe that the medical treatment given to the Princess of Wales formed part of a wider conspiracy, it would have to be accepted that several experienced independent French medical specialists of some distinction were part of a predetermined collaboration and deliberately acted in breach of medical ethics. The evidence is that every effort was made to save her life’.
As for the hospital that Diana was eventually taken to, it was the nearest one equipped to deal with her injuries.
Operation Paget: The official inquiry into the death of Princess Diana
Although countless historical events have been a magnet for conspiracy theories, the death of Princess Diana is a rare example of one where outlandish accusations of secret plots were taken seriously enough to warrant an official investigation by the authorities. This was Operation Paget.
The background to the investigation
In January 2004, the royal coroner Michael Burgess made headlines when he opened and immediately adjourned the inquests into the deaths of Diana and Dodi.
‘I’m aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad but relatively straightforward road traffic accident in Paris,’ he said. ‘I have asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner [Sir John Stevens] to make inquiries. The results of these inquiries will help me to decide whether such matters will fall within the scope of the investigation carried out at the inquests.’
Mohamed Al-Fayed welcomed the announcement, saying, ‘At last I hope we can see the light.’ A few months later, Sir John Stevens made a dramatic visit to the site of the crash in Paris, vowing that ‘every single aspect of conspiracy theories and the like will be looked at by my team and the coroner’.
Undertaking Operation Paget
Codenamed Operation Paget, the investigation placed intense pressure on the team of 14 Metropolitan Police officers tasked with untangling the details of the crash. This required carrying out painstaking interviews with over 300 people, including senior royals and many of Diana’s closest friends and confidantes. Detectives also sifted through sensitive medical records, even working out Diana’s menstrual cycles as part of the investigation into whether the princess had been pregnant.
Due to concerns that the detectives would be followed by reporters and their phones tapped, their base of operations was moved from Scotland Yard to a discreet office in Putney which was carefully monitored to ensure access and communications were secure. Even the views from the window were carefully assessed to stop anyone from spying on the detectives as they worked.
In the words of Detective Inspector Jane Scotchbrook, the only woman working full-time on the team, ‘We had concerns that people would be wanting to know what we were finding out and the security around it was all so tight. I found it quite isolating. You just didn't want anyone to find out anything about you.’
Such was the hyper-vigilance around the possibility of leaks, that detectives were even reluctant to have phone conversations with friends and family.
‘Gosh, the lengths we went to,’ Scotchbrook recounted to the Telegraph years later. ‘I don’t know if when we started we knew how big or wide-reaching an inquiry that was going to be. But it was. We looked into absolutely everything. We were living and breathing this thing.’
Running to almost 900 pages, the gargantuan Operation Paget report was published in December 2006.
Far from seeking to downplay the dramatic conspiracy allegations, it laid them out in black and white – that ‘the Security Services of the United Kingdom covertly obtained the information concerning pregnancy and engagement’ of Diana, and that ‘acting at the behest of HRH Prince Philip’ they had carried out the murders of the princess and Dodi because the Royal Family ‘could not accept that an Egyptian Muslim could eventually be the stepfather of the future King of England.’
The report delved into every aspect of that tragic August evening and its aftermath, from the precise actions of the paparazzi (and whether they might have been a part of the conspiracy) to which vehicles were present in the vicinity of the crash and the embalming of Diana’s body.
In the end, the report definitively and painstakingly dismissed the theories regarding foul play. Writing in a separate overview document, Sir John Stevens stated that, based ‘on all the evidence available at this time, there was no conspiracy to murder any of the occupants of the car. This was a tragic accident.’
Diana was not pregnant, was not engaged, and was not even ‘about to get engaged’. The report also emphasised how the couple’s plans had changed without warning on the night of the crash, which would surely have derailed any carefully planned assassination plot. As Sir John Stevens underscored in his overview statement, Diana and Dodi had left the Ritz earlier that evening and had not planned to return.
‘The Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed had planned to dine at a well-known Paris restaurant and at about 9.40pm they were being driven there,’ Sir John wrote. ‘It was because of the attention of the paparazzi during this journey that Dodi Al-Fayed instructed his chauffeur to drive instead to the Ritz Hotel.’ This would of course be where the fateful drive would commence a little later on – a starting point no conspirators would have been able to plan for.
After Operation Paget
The publication of the report – described by Mohamed Al-Fayed as ‘garbage’ – paved the way for the inquest into Diana’s death, which finally commenced at London’s High Court in October 2007.
The inquest, which included testimonies by key figures such as Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell, and the head of intelligence for MI6, was carried out in front of a jury who were told that they had to decide whether the crash had been planned in advance.
In April 2008, they delivered their verdict – namely, that Diana and Dodi were unlawfully killed due to the gross negligence of their driver, Henri Paul, and the actions of the paparazzi.