A producer’s diary: The night the People’s Princess died

Matt White was a show business legend, from his days on Fleet Street after his stint in World War II in the Intelligence Service and later on The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He wrote about films and television and movie stars, many of whom were his friends. Matt was also a great mentor. Whenever I had a problem at The Australian, I would look for him at the local pub, The Evening Star, and ask for his advice over a beer or two.
When I decided to leave The Australian to become foreign editor at Channel Seven, I asked Matt what he thought about the move. “Well,” he said, “how many words do you write a week? You’re the literary editor and TV critic for The Australian, and write author interviews, book and tv reviews and profiles of famous celebrities.” I thought about it for a few seconds and said: “Probably about 3000 words in a normal week.” Matt replied: “How many words will you write when you go to television? You’ll write intros to news stories and voiceovers for packages and the morning foreign news list. You’ve got to keep writing every day, longer pieces.”
That made sense, so I thought about it and decided I’d keep a diary of my days in television. I started the diary in September 1983 and kept going until my last full-time journalism job in 2013, as a series producer for The Observer Effect, hosted by Ellen Fanning, working at Shine Australia and putting it to air with EP Paul Steindl on SBS. This blog began when I was working as supervising producer on Ten’s Meet the Press in 2011, but the diary still haunts me. I wrote a novel that was rejected by three publishers, mainly, I was told by those who read it, because it concentrated too much on television and not enough on the story. I’m still working on the third rewrite, but the diary notebooks are still there, and I decided to look up what I wrote in my diary on August 31, 1997. It was 20 years ago today when Princess Diana died in a car crash (photo above of Princess Diana: AAP; photo below of the car: AFP), and I was putting the Sunday Program to air. It all started on August 30 because I always worked from Saturday morning about 8am or so until Sunday afternoon when the show was finished, and the paper work and the political guest transcripts were completed.
Here’s an edited version of that day and a half, with some additions that weren’t in the notebook!
Saturday, Aug 30, 1997
“In early and I cut down the Stuart Diver piece with (gun editor) Ross Wilson and was finished by 2pm. Everything else was going well. The power piece was being cut by Cindy Kelly and it was finished by midnight after all the sound work by Cindy. I got the news feed in from Darwin at 10.30 to 11, thereby missing the end of the Swans game – which they managed to lose again (Editor’s note: Things have changed since then!). While waiting for Cindy to bring up the tape, I wrote a news story, and after that I got about 40 minutes sleep.”

Sunday, Aug 31, 1997
“Up at 5.10am, and as soon as the news editor Ross Chilvers was ready, he cut the Darwin package with Jim Waley’s voice on it. After a difficult night, I was just starting to relax in the control room at 9.30am (the show started at 9am), when Jim said on the floor via the IFB (Interrupted Feed Back): ‘Princess Diana’s been seriously injured in a car crash.’ We didn’t have any pictures from Paris yet (remember this was 20 years ago), and I was worried about how we were going to cover the story. All this occurred during (Nine’s political editor) Laurie Oakes’ interview with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Shane Stone, so I had to write a back announce for Jim, saying Princess Di and Dodi Fayed had been seriously injured in a car crash in Paris and we would bring viewers the latest details as soon as they came to hand. After the 13-minute interview, Shane Stone turned to Laurie and said: ‘I don’t think we’re going to be on page one tomorrow.’ I then sent a message to the Nine News executive producer of the day, Anthony Murdoch, asking if we could get a two-way with reporter Danny Blyde in London, who he just woke up. Jim had asked for a voiceover to write at the end of the next segment, but we still didn’t have any pix. Jim had to do a long live read, and he wasn’t happy we didn’t have any pictures from the scene. Ross had cut some Princess Di background, but that was all we had. At 10.55am, with only five minutes left in the show, Anthony let us know Dan was there, with Michael Usher on his way to Lausanne for a SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympic Games) meeting! It was a brief two way: not many details were coming out of Paris. We went over a bit due to the breaking news, driving the presentation director bananas. It was that kind of morning. I was stuffed and sure enough, Diana and Dodi were both pronounced dead by one pm Sydney time. I turned on ABC radio and the veteran newsreader, John Hall, presented the sad news for the first five minutes of the bulletin, and then said: ‘In domestic news, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone, told Nine News …’ I don’t remember what he said after that I was laughing so hard at John’s slip of the tongue, and I immediately called Laurie Oakes and said: ‘Did you hear what I just heard on the ABC? The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone?’ Laurie was laughing, too, and confirmed it.’ It was a laugh we needed after an emotional and very sad morning.”
I then wrote: “Wait till next week.” I was thinking how big the funeral would be for the People’s Princess on the following weekend. I wrote in the diary on Tuesday, September 2: “I had my work cut out for me this week with Princess Di’s funeral on Saturday night our time. It meant a ‘That was the night that was’ story, suggested by Jim, followed by an extended breakout written by me, and cut by Bruce Inglis, a former BBC producer, who covered Di’s last tour here. So we were okay on that one.”
The next Saturday Princess Di’s funeral was watched by 2 billion people around the world and all hands were on deck for the Sunday Program of September 7. We had to squeeze an obituary of Mother Teresa into the packed show. She died early on Saturday morning Australian time. The diary for Sunday, September 7 reads: “I didn’t get any sleep, but I knew that would happen anyway … It was a good show, a good week, and Father’s Day.” (My daughters used to call it half-jokingly Anti-Father’s Day because I was always working.)
Dear Diary: Thanks for the memories. Now a question I have to ask myself: Is it time to go through the diaries, and write a novel based on them, or make it a memoir? As another old mate, no longer with us, the wonderful journalist and author, Ian Moffitt, said to me when I asked about writing a novel: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

2 thoughts on “A producer’s diary: The night the People’s Princess died

  1. Another great piece (which I read on anti-Father’s Day after ringing my father). Yes a novel certainly. There’s plenty of room for an Aussie-noir. Politics, corruption, strange events in the outback after controversial legislation is passed in Parliament, local remote Greens leader is found ripped to shreds by a bulldozer, mysterious lights, dodgy local pollies and company executives. The hero a crusty, no nonsense journalist who can sniff out a story through kilo of roquefort. That’s you Tom, go for it.

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