Why She Was Never Really “Shy Di”: The Queen’s Former Press Secretary Remembers Princess Diana
As one of Queen Elizabeth II’s press secretaries, Dickie Arbiter was the right-hand man of the British royal family from 1988 through 2002—smack-dab in the middle of the Diana days, where the newly minted Windsor transformed from (so-called) “Shy Di” to the “People’s Princess.”
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of her death, as well as the upcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary Diana and the Paparazzi, Arbiter (who’s now a royal commentator for the BBC and ITV) sat down with Vogue to discuss his fondest memories of the late, great Princess Diana, whom he served as a trusted advisor, as well as the next generation of royals.
She gave me a 50th birthday party. Straight out of the blue, she said, “I want to give you a 50th birthday lunch, and you can invite 20 people.” She had it in her dining room at Kensington Palace. She had party poppers, she had helium balloons, and ended it with a birthday cake.
It looked like one of those Brick cell phones—because everywhere I went, I had a mobile phone and it would ring at the most inopportune moment. The cake had inscribed on it, “You’re never alone when Dickie’s got his phone.”
I’ve read that Princess Diana had a wicked sense or humor. Can you tell me any more of her jokes?
She used to have a Jaguar XJ6, which was very much a British car. All these cars were leased, not purchased. After three years, it was changed for a Mercedes-Benz.
I said to her, “As a British Princess, you could’ve got a British car.” Her immediate reaction was, “Well, I have a German husband, so why can’t I have a German car?” Which, if you actually look back on the history of the royal family, the background is very much German heritage, as well as Scottish.
A few weeks later, I fell into the pits again. I said, “How’s the car doing?” and she said, “Well, at least it’s more reliable than a German husband.”
You knew Diana from her first days with the royal family up until her tragic death. How’d she change during that time?
I first met her about three or four days before the wedding. She just turned 20. People used to call her “Shy Di,” because she kept her head down when she talked to you. But there was nothing shy about her. What she was conscious of was her height—5 foot 10. She used to keep her head down when talking to people to not make them feel uncomfortable and to talk to them at their own level.
She was incredibly good, really, from the word “go.”
Once she went to visit a residential home for the blind. There was a lady and a gentleman sitting in the entrance hall, both partially sighted. She stopped to talk to them. He had tears welling up in his eyes, and she said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I can’t see you.”
She immediately squatted down, took his hand, and put it on her face, because blind people are able to sense through touch.
She had this capacity to instinctively react. You can’t teach anybody to do that.
Where were you when you found out Diana had died?
I was at home. I had a phone call from CNN, who asked me about the crash in Paris. I replied that I didn’t know anything about the crash. I switched on my TV set and I saw everything unfold.
I had word at 3:15 a.m. that she had passed away. Within 25 minutes, I was in the office behind my desk, dusting off the files and getting the press aspects rolling. I swung into action.
Swung into action?
One of my responsibilities was managing major ceremonial occasions—funerals, state visits, whatever ceremonial occasion might arise. I was aware that, while we didn’t have a plan for Diana, there were plans for other members of the royal family. One of them was going to be used. [Editor’s note: They eventually used the funeral plan for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.]
I phoned Windsor Castle, knowing it had a flag when the queen wasn’t in residence, and suggested they lower it to half-mast. I phoned Sandringham and suggested that they do the same thing. I phoned the Palace of Holyroodhouse to lower the Scottish flag to half-mast. That took me a while to get through, because, obviously, at half-past four in the morning, people are still in bed.
There was such a big controversy over whether or not the flag should be half-mast at Buckingham Palace.
In British constitutional rule, the monarch never dies. King is dead, long live the queen. The queen is dead, long live the king. So the flag never goes to half-mast. Traditionally, the only flag that ever flew from Buckingham Palace was the Royal Standard, and when the sovereign was in residence, it flew. When she was no longer in residence, it came down.
That was the dilemma. I was aware that the flagpole was bare. Quite frankly, there were so many other issues that were being dealt with at Balmoral. The biggest one, of course, was the queen, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles ensuring that William and Harry were okay. So, it was a decision that was taken rather late in the day. Probably a bit too late, but, nevertheless, it was a decision that was taken. The flag did, eventually, fly at half-mast in the fashion of the day of the funeral.
The queen got a lot of criticism that she didn’t come to Buckingham Palace right away.
I thought she did absolutely right. The first time, in her own way, she put family duty before public duty.
Now, quite frankly, if she’d come back to London, what would she have done? Stayed in Buckingham Palace and that’s it. Instead, she chose to remain at Balmoral. Her and Prince Philip—they felt that William and Harry needed them more than tens of thousands of mourners milling around Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace. Because they remained at Balmoral, because they were there for their grandchildren, as was their father . . . it’s the reason why William and Harry, when they came back to London with their father on Thursday, were able to walk around Kensington Gardens, looking at the floral tributes, talking to mourners, and maintain an absolute first-class composure.
Media are always looking for a story. The story, as far as they were concerned, was “heartless queen, up at Balmoral, not caring about the people down in London.” Not for a moment thinking about two young boys who’d lost their mother in tragic circumstances.
Another controversy is whether or not Prince Harry and Prince William should have walked behind Diana’s coffin at such a young age. Even now, there are headlines that Prince Philip “forced” them to do so.
There was no force behind it. There was a tradition, in royal circles, that male members of the family walk behind the gun carriage. There was, at the beginning of the week, a reluctance by William and Harry to do it. Prince Philip said, “Up to you guys, but if I walk, will you walk?” They felt a bit of comfort in the fact that their grandfather was prepared to walk with them, and that’s why they did it.
Look, we could look into all sorts of controversies and look for all sorts of negatives. Yes, Prince Harry did say, in an interview, “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that.” He’s absolutely right. But, he is no ordinary child. That’s what you’ve got to look at.
What was Diana like as a mother?
Diana was a brilliant mother. She was absolutely terrific. She gave them, what we call, “the high streets”—the movie house, the hamburger joint, book shop, the department store. She took them around to see homeless people, addicts, down-and-outs.
Having said that, Charles was an exceptionally good father. He gave them the countryside. He gave them compassion, too. They’ve learned from both their mother and their father.
Diana was hounded by the press, and Prince Harry and William have spoken out about how gross these intrusions were. What was your experience with that?
One of the greatest violations was when she went on a visit to Egypt. Diana loved to swim every day. A couple of the photographers actually booked rooms in an office building overlooking the ambassador’s residence, and took long shots with telephoto lenses of her swimming. Now, that is tantamount to invasion of privacy.
Then, on other occasions, when William and Harry had their sports day—they used to have them at a private club—the media would put their stepladders up against the wall and take photographs over the wall. Before the press regulation came in about photographing children, they did anything and everything to get photographs.
Do you think the press has gotten any better now?
The trouble is, we live in a day and age of the mobile phone. Everybody’s got a mobile phone, every mobile phone’s got a camera, so everybody has turned into a paparazzi.
We have a press regulation in the United Kingdom, which states you cannot photograph children, under the age of 16, without consent of the parents or guardians. But, on occasions, paparazzi have tried to photograph Prince George and Princess Charlotte out in public areas. They claim since they’re in public areas, they’re fair game. But they’re not.
There was the picture taken, albeit from a thousand meters away, of the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless. The fact that a photographer was able to get her topless, from a thousand yards away, shows the sort of equipment that they use. Fortunately, for Prince William, France has privacy laws. It’s on those laws that he’s taken the photographer to court. It’s making the point that both William and Harry will not be messed around with by the media.
What do you think Diana’s legacy is?
Diana’s legacy is William and Harry. They’re carrying on her work while developing their own interests, as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Source: vogue com
Tags: Mobile Phone, Photographer, William and Harry, Media, Diana Legacy, United Kingdom, Everybody, Photograph, Prince George, Equipment