Unexpected phone calls in the dead of night rarely bear good news, and for BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond, the one that came on 31 August 1997 was no exception.
Bond was with her family at their holiday home in South Devon when the call came at 12.50am to say Princess Diana had been involved in a car accident.
Having been at a drinks party, Bond was unable to drive and had to find a taxi firm willing to take her the 250 miles into London. They set off at 2.15am.
The 67-year-old remembers: “At first the reports were that a blonde woman had got out the back of the car and walked away. For a moment it didn’t seem absolutely essential that I got back to London. I thought maybe I’d stay on holiday with my little girl and my husband but it very soon became obvious that I had to go.”
As Bond’s taxi made its way at high speed to the capital, both her phone and pager were going off as she listened to the radio and got to grips with the story.
At around 3am Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters in Manila he had heard the princess had been injured and said it would be “doubly tragic” if it emerged the crash was “in part caused by the persistent hounding of the princess and her privacy by photographers.”
In fact Cook had learned of the Princess’s death, but had placed an embargo on the news until an official announcement was made.
Bond, who was still in the back of a taxi at that point, said: “So we knew she was dead but we still hadn’t had it confirmed officially. I knew what was going on, listening to the tone on the radio and knowing that they now knew she was dead and couldn’t say it. The tone became much more serious and I knew why.”
Diana was declared dead in Paris at 4am local time, having received two hours of open heart massage and an injection of adrenalin. At 4.41am BST the Press Association issued a newsflash stating the Princess had died, citing British sources. By 5.25am Buckingham Palace had publicly confirmed the death.
Bond reached the studios in London at around 6am, quickly threw on a black jacket and began broadcasting live with Martyn Lewis at around 6.30am. Having been wrenched from her family in the middle of the night, she was forced to hit the ground running.
She said: “I broadcast all day, all week really. It was a very fast moving story, very dramatic. Unlike the expected death of the Queen Mother, which in itself was extremely challenging, it was a fast-moving news story so it was quite easy to keep talking, talking, and talking. And of course I’d had long extensive conversations with Diana during the previous two years and taken notes. I had used the information as background for myself but never broadcast verbatim what she’d told me.
“So I sent a message to my producer and told him to go to my locker and get these certain notebooks out and so I was able to use that stuff too. I had a lot of background and I knew her quite well so I had a lot to talk about. News kept coming in, planes being sent and Charles going over there, there was a lot to report on.”
Like most broadcasters, the BBC has regular rehearsals for the death of a VIP, and though unpleasant, Bond concedes: “It was very useful that we all knew the template that we were aiming for, we knew the structure and we knew the tone and we had rehearsed… we had actually rehearsed Diana’s death before, because we rehearse all of them. Obviously not in those dramatic circumstances. It’s very helpful when you have a band of senior correspondents who know what they are trying to achieve.”
However, there was an emotional toll for Bond, who found the experience exhausting and traumatic for her own personal reasons too.
She said: “Our little girl was only seven and I’d been away so much and on so many tours away from home, I’d said to her: ‘You’ve got your mum now for the next two weeks,’ and then I disappeared in the middle of the night.
“It was distressing for her and for me. Halfway through the week, unbelievably we all thought the story was quietening down and I asked: ‘Can I nip back and say hello to my daughter and also pick up my car?’ and they said ‘Yes, take Wednesday.’ I did come back for less than 24 hours. But it was awful, my head was absolutely in London. I was very conflicted. It was a horrible mother-correspondent conflict.”
For Bond, who worked for 14 years as the BBC’s royal correspondent and had become adept at “being ripped out of my life and sent somewhere else”, Diana’s death was the biggest event she had ever covered.
And though she did not betray her emotions during her marathon broadcasts, she admits: “I was sad. As a journalist you just get on with it when you’re broadcasting. I wouldn’t break down and cry anyway. I’m not claiming I was a personal friend, but I’d had one-to-ones with her I liked her.
“In the privacy of my own home, when I got back I remember feeling very sad.”