LONDON — The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, looms large in the latest — and last — season of “The Crown,” with the initial tranche of episodes depicting the weeks leading up to her car crash in Paris.
The Netflix series emphasizes how she was dangerously hounded by the paparazzi. It also suggests that the circumstances on that fateful August night in 1997 were at least partly the creation of her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, and his father, Mohamed al-Fayed, an Egyptian billionaire who owned the Harrods department store in London.
But how does all that align with what’s actually known about responsibility for the accident that killed the 36-year-old princess, her boyfriend and their driver — prompting convulsions of grief around the world?
Kelly Swaby, a historian at the University of Manchester, said she was glad “The Crown” didn’t “give rise to conspiracy theories — that was a fear of mine.” But some of its emphasis, she said, undermined historical fact.
French and British authorities conducted extensive investigations into Diana’s death. Here’s what they found — and how it compares to portrayals in “The Crown.”
The responsibility of the driver
Henri Paul, 41, was the deputy head of security for the Ritz hotel in Paris and the man behind the wheel of the Mercedes S280 that crashed into the 13th pillar in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. He died at the scene.
In “The Crown,” Paul is briefly shown at the bar of the Ritz. He is told “plans have changed” and that “Mr. Dodi needs you to drive.” He is tasked with taking the couple from the Ritz, which was owned by the Fayed family, to Dodi Fayed’s Paris apartment. When Paul gets up to leave the bar, the camera flicks to an empty cut-crystal glass and another that is half full.
“One slight pan angle to glasses on a bar doesn’t sufficiently show this is one of the most significant causes of her death,” Swaby said.
Paul had been off that night, leaving work around 7 p.m., and coming back around 10 p.m., when the couple unexpectedly decided to return to the Ritz for dinner. While they ate, Ritz bar receipts show Paul ordered two Ricards — anise liqueur with 45 percent alcohol content. He may not have known at that point that he would be enlisted to drive, and when he was, those who knew him told investigators, he may not have felt he was in a position to refuse.
Toxicological tests found Paul’s blood alcohol level to be about 3.5 times the legal limit in France. The tests also detected the presence of prescription drugs that can adversely interact with alcohol.
At the time of the crash, Paul had also been driving fast. A vehicle manufacturer carried out crash tests and concluded that the car was traveling at approximately 65 miles per hour, more than twice the speed limit.
In 1999, French investigating judges assigned sole responsibility to the driver, saying the combined influence of alcohol and medication “prevented him from keeping control of his vehicle when he was driving at high speed.”
John Stevens, the former head of the London Metropolitan Police and the lead on the force’s three-year investigation into her death, told LBC Radio last year that if Diana had police protection, “this would not have happened.” He said that police officers wouldn’t have let the couple get into the car, and if they had, they would have demanded seat belts.
The responsibility of the paparazzi
Parasitic paparazzi are a central theme of the sixth season of “The Crown.” The show depicts several dangerous encounters between photographers and the princess, and it shows people on motorcycles following her into the tunnel where she crashed.
The real-life Prince Harry is among those who hold the paparazzi responsible for his mother’s death. In his memoir, “Spare,” he writes that he had a driver take him through the tunnel at 65 miles an hour to experience it for himself — and concluded there was nothing inherently treacherous about it that should have led to a fatal crash, even with a drunk driver. “Unless paps had chased and blinded him,” Harry writes of the paparazzi. “Why were those paps not more roundly blamed? Why were they not in jail?”
After the accident, nine photographers and a photo agency motorcyclist were detained for questioning as witnesses and suspects. French officials later launched an investigation into whether the paparazzi contributed to the crash — and then failed to help the victims. But in 1999, a French state prosecutor and a pair of investigating judges determined there was no evidence to support criminal charges.
Judge Hervé Stéphan wrote: “It has to be said that some of the persons charged did indeed get to the tunnel very quickly, just after the accident had taken place, and that it appears that contrary to some of their statements, they did try to catch the Mercedes up, despite its speed. However, that excessive speed was not the consequence of criminally culpable behavior on the part of the photographers, but a result of the decision taken by the driver of the vehicle.”
While ruling out a breach of criminal law, the judges noted that the accident took place in the context of paparazzi behavior that raised moral and ethical questions.
A separate coroner’s inquest in Britain concluded in 2008 that Diana and Fayed had been unlawfully killed as a result of actions by both the driver and the paparazzi. But British courts had no jurisdiction over the events in France. The photographers could not be compelled to testify in that proceeding, and no charges could result from its findings.
Several countries, including Britain and the United States, have changed their paparazzi conduct laws since Diana’s death.
The responsibility of Dodi Fayed and his father
Why was Diana in Paris? Why did she go out that night? Why were the paparazzi in such hot pursuit? “The Crown” suggests that Dodi Fayed and his father, Mohamed al-Fayed, were largely responsible for that constellation of events.
The series portrays Dodi Fayed deploying a ruse to get her to Paris as part of his courtship efforts, when she really wanted to go home. It shows him repeatedly urging her go out in public, when she was more inclined to stay in and avoid intrusions. It also pegs Mohamed al-Fayed as the person who orchestrated photos of the couple on a yacht — photos that were published for huge sums of money and subsequently fueled the hunger of the paparazzi. The series suggests that it’s all part of Mohamed al-Fayed’s effort to be accepted in British society and get the British government to grant him a passport.
In real life, Dodi Fayed did get a diamond ring while in Paris from a collection called “Dis-moi oui” (“tell me yes”). That ring was ultimately found at his apartment. But in the pages and pages of testimony compiled by British police investigators, there is nothing to support that he lured Diana to the French capital under false pretenses, and it is not known whether he proposed to her.
As for the yacht photographs, the Italian photographer who took them, Mario Brenna, said in a recent interview with the New York Times that the suggestion that he was tipped off or hired by Mohamed al-Fayed was “absurd and completely invented.” Brenna claimed that he came upon the couple on the yacht as the result of “a great stroke of luck.”
For his part, Mohamed al-Fayed blamed the deaths of the princess and his son on a conspiracy — plotted by Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, and intelligence services — to prevent a Muslim from becoming stepfather to the future British king. He also claimed that Diana had been newly pregnant. The British police investigation determined that the allegations were without foundation. But the conspiracy theory continued to carry currency in some Muslim-majority countries long after the death of Diana.