Princes Di’s Funeral: Coming Together in Crisis

6:56 pm Feature Stories


By Dawn Shurmaitis

The Monday after millions watched a somber farewell to Princess Diana, ABC News Chairman Roone Arledge circulated a memo to news employees that marked the unofficial end to round-the-clock coverage. It read, simply: “Congratulations and great job.”

“Our hallmark is special events coverage,” Arledge said later. “By far, the best was coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral. We make a concerted effort to be on top of these stories when they happen.”

The week-long reporting of the death of a princess required the efforts of more than 200 ABC personnel culled, within hours, from television and radio bureaus in London, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. “It was unprecedented,” says London Bureau Chief Rex Granum, whose office served as home base. “It was huge.” On the day of the funeral alone, ABC broadcast nine hours of live coverage. The total, unbudgeted, cost to the network? $3.6 million.

“Almost everyone in the news division can say they worked on this story,” says Marc Burstein, executive producer, special events, which quickly organized the first ABC live broadcast. “It was a demonstration of ABC News at its best.”

Special reports are nothing out of the ordinary in the news division. Practice drills, which resemble fire drills, map the decision process for breaking news scenarios. The national assignment desk, by all accounts, is responsible to spread the word via the must-call list. On August 30, shortly after the 7:30 p.m. ET crash, those words were: “Princess Diana has been in an accident. Dodi Fayed is dead. Come in.”

“You create momentum by responding quickly. Momentum carries your reputation,” says Bob Murphy, senior VP, hard news, who put the control room on full alert after answering a page on a pay phone. A skeleton crew of editors and engineers was already in place, with reserves on the way. A producer team readied for the next Concorde to London and Paris.

No matter where they worked, or what time they arrived, ABC News staffers were preparing for the biggest story of many a career. Like most overseas employees, London chief engineer Grahame Hadden was in bed when he got word from Granum. “He said `Dodi’s dead, and Di is in critical condition in Paris.’ I still didn’t catch on. I didn’t know who the hell Dodi was.”

Hadden was back at the bureau by 2 a.m. Sunday, London time (which was 9 p.m. New York time), joining Granum, Assignment Manager Mark Foley and Weekend Assignment Editor Jonathan Wachtel. Dozens of staffers soon followed. “It was very gratifying. Each and every person rose to the absolute maximum of his or her ability to come together and make this work,” recalls Granum, who quickly chartered a plane to send correspondent Jim Wooten and producer Clark Bentson to Paris.

Diana’s death was a catalytic event in Britian, and the world. But it took Wooten a while to warm to the story. “I didn’t get it at first. Frankly, I never paid that much attention to her,” Wooten says. “I had no idea her death would have such resonance.” The realization came, surprisingly, from Wooten’s own daughter. “I went into her room to say good-bye on my way to Paris. She had a friend staying with her, and I told them that there had been an accident and that Diana may be dying. They both were extremely upset. They were moved. They, and many more millions.”

SUBHED: “She is dead.”

For the longest time, few knew where Diana was or what condition she was in. “When someone is famous and there is a news black-out, chances are the news is quite grave,” says anchorman Kevin Newman, the first anchor to arrive in New York Saturday night. Correspondent Beth Nissen and Producer Bob Ruff hustled to package and air the first reports. By the time Buckingham Palace released an official statement announcing Diana’s death, ABC News had already been on the air for more than two hours with live break-in coverage. Within seconds, special events began selecting still photos, graphics, clip reels, soundbites and obits for what became a special report. “Good Morning America Sunday” and “This Week” both changed their programs. Everyone chipped in. “We had people who did jobs they hadn’t done for 10 years,” says Murphy.

The next day, Peter Jennings was guest anchor for “World News Sunday.” And, for the first time ever, ABC brought together Jennings, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer as hosts for the two-hour primetime special “Princess Diana: A Royal Tragedy.” By the end of the show, the London and Paris bureaus were fully staffed, and Jennings was headed to London. “It was still an unfolding story,” says editorial producer Nancy Gabriner, who joined Jennings on the Concorde to prepare for coverage to come.

In the week before the funeral, the number of people working in London quadrupled. From hotel rooms across the street, 10 NewsOne staffers and 16 ABC affiliates provided around-the-clock coverage for ABC stations. Carrying garment bags in one hand and reporter notebooks in another, additional staffers went directly from the airport to Kensington Palace, where well-wishers and mourners lined up. Correspondent Aaron Brown stood in line for six hours to prepare a late-week report for “World News Tonight” on the ever-growing outpouring of emotion for Diana.

The broadcasts adjusted for the time difference between London and New York/Washington. In a hastily-assembled studio location across from Westminster Abbey the day before the funeral, Walters pre-taped two-thirds of “20/20” before getting a few hours sleep. Peter Jennings aired an 11:30 p.m. live broadcast of “World News Tonight.” Still later, at 4:30 a.m., Ted Koppel anchored a live “Nightline” and updated it for West Coast affiliates at 7:30 a.m. At 9 a.m. Saturday, London time, Jennings and Walters buckled down for nine consecutive hours of live broadcasting.

Diana’s death touched millions world-wide. Roger Goodman, executive director, special projects, was determined to visually make that point when selecting shots for “Princess Diana: A Final Farewell.” ABC was the only major network to use cameras on sites outside London. Goodman, who juggled 20 cameras, culled shots from Hong Kong, Toronto, Atlanta, a children’s hospital Diana had visited and the home of a land mine victim in Bosnia. Goodman was particular and creative, down to the shot of a candle during Elton John’s singing of “Candle in the Wind.” Goodman decided to fade to a black-and-white photo of Diana. “I waited for the emotional shot.”

SUBHED: Out of the frying pan

The two dozen directors, producers, camera people and technicians who started Friday worked through the night, not emerging until ABC News was off the air Saturday afternoon. Everyone was weary, or jet-lagged, or just plain burned out.

Consider this: Diana died early Sunday — in Paris. Mother Teresa died Friday — in India. Diana’s funeral was held Saturday — in London. Mother Teresa’s service was the following Saturday — in India. To cover, London engineer Hadden pulled people and equipment from wherever he could: editing packs from Montserrat, staff from New York and Washington, D.C., satellite dishes from Moscow. “It was a nightmare, logistically. We had an office full of totally exhausted people,” says Hadden of employees who worked between 121 and 148 hours that week. “You got caught up in it. It was ‘What’s next?’ ”

“I was involved in the royal wedding, the Reagan-Gorbachav summit and the 50th anniversary of D-Day,” Hadden recalls. “This was the biggest overseas news event we ever covered.”

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