Breaking News: Princess Diana’s death in the pre-social media world

Everyone remembers where they were. A startling wake up call on a warm Sunday morning telling us that, while the lights were out, the most famous woman in the world had passed away.

Today we might receive a breaking news alert to our smartphones in the dead of night, wake to discover dozens of unread messages in a WhatsApp group, or check Twitter in case there was indeed something we had missed.

But to reflect on the time when Princess Diana died is to go back to a simpler time, despite being in living memory for most. The avalanche of digital media had yet to come crashing into our lives, burying us under an anxious blanket of constant communication, fear of missing out and an inexplicable desire to reply first to a total stranger’s unsolicited opinion. It was a time when most regular people were contactable only by a landline telephone.

On 31 August 1997, the BBC were still three months away from launching their round-the-clock rolling news service News 24, and BBC World was the only live channel the broadcaster had.

BBC Television Centre in west London was almost completely empty when, at 12.55am, Maxine Mawhinney sat down for another quiet shift as overnight reporter on the channel, with a single producer and director. At 12.58am, just as she was about to deliver the headlines on the hour, a wire flashed up on the office machine: “Diana injured in a car crash in Paris”. She remembers the moment well.

Maxine Mawhinney delivers the first report on Princess Diana’s car accident (YouTube)

“I turned around to my producer and said, ‘That’s quite interesting. Shall we mention that?’ and he said, ‘Yeah if you think you’ve got enough to say’. So the music is running, I do the headlines, and then I said ‘Just before we move on, we’re getting reports from Paris that Diana, Princess of Wales has been injured in a car crash.’ That’s all we had. Then in my ear the producer asked me to just keep going.”

With no mobile phones,…

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