Stuart Kuttner, the News of the World’s well-connected managing editor, stood in his office doorway, stony-faced. I watched him from the other side of the thinly populated newsroom of the world’s biggest-selling English-speaking newspaper. It was after midnight on Sunday, August 31, 1997. I cannot remember exactly what time but I know now that it must have been just after 3am.
I was Chief Production Editor, the most senior hack on the denuded floor. ‘Well?’ my features screamed at him. ‘Imagine the worst thing possible,’ he shouted in reply to my unasked question. Like all the NoW department heads, I had engaged in many budgetary tussles with Stuart, whose primary function was to serve as editor Phil Hall’s chancellor and lightning conductor. But, we knew his contacts were impeccable. And the paper’s best journalists were on the story, including Clive Goodman, later to enter the public spotlight for other reasons.
The story was the biggest one I’ve ever had anything to do with in 40 years of journalism. It was, of course, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. At that time on a Sunday morning on a national Sunday newspaper, only a skeleton editorial production staff were on the floor. When news of the crash in a Paris underpass hit the wires I started phoning around the journalists and NoW newspaper artists I knew lived in London, not too far from our HQ in Wapping. I asked them to come back in and sent cabs to pick them up.
Leighton Bowen, our sports production editor, had just finished wrapping up the multiple editions required for our football coverage. He dived straight in to our news section and began helping artists bang out edition after edition tracing the tragedy: first Diana was ‘injured’, then ‘critical’. Then ‘dead’. A tiny staff of sub-editors and revise subs kept the pages as correct and tidy as possible.
The culmination was our 8am spread and black-panelled ‘Diana dead’ front page. Mike Davey our Production and Systems Editor, and a brilliant sub in his own right, was using his wizardry to keep the editions going out to cities and regions with the correct football coverage for each — a fiendishly difficult task.
I and other key production journalists stayed on the case for 24 hours. Editor Phil Hall and others were back on the floor negotiating with company executives for extra paper, printing staff and trucks so we could carry on printing and distributing.
It was a tragedy whose public impact I was to investigate years later, as a PhD depth psychology student. And it was a newspaper story that, for me, surpassed all others, including wars and political scandals.