The Diana legacy: How the People’s Princess left her mark

Princess Diana visits an Angolan minefield in 1997. Picture: PA
Princess Diana visits an Angolan minefield in 1997. Picture: PA
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TODAY marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Here, Stephen McGinty assesses how the impact of a truly remarkable woman is still being felt

DIANA will return to public consciousness later this year, not that she has ever really gone away, and the person who will have reanimated the late Princess of Wales is a Scot. Douglas Rae, the former journalist, presenter of Magpie and producer of the Oscar-winning movie Mrs Brown is the force behind Ecosse Films which has recently finished shooting Diana (formerly called Caught in Flight) in which Naomi Watts, the Australian actress, stars as the tragic princess in a movie detailing the final weeks of her life. It is unlikely to receive a Royal Gala Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen

However, Diana: The Movie may yet find a lucrative audience among cinemagoers for whom she remains a fascinating 20th century icon, even today, on the 15th anniversary of her death. For many, before the Twin Towers came tumbling down four years later, the death of Diana was their ‘JFK’ moment. People still remember the early- morning phone calls from friends or waking to find their parents stunned in front of the TV set. (I had my feet up on the newsdesk of The Sunday Times in London and was watching Heat starring Robert De Niro on SKY when the first terse PA report dropped about a car crash in Paris.)

Yet while we all remember the doe-eyed princess with the steely media mind, the image of her alone on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal, or confessing to Martin Bashir that there were “three of us” in her marriage to Prince Charles, the question worth asking 15 years on is what has been her legacy? Clearly, the most obvious answer stands before us: one clutching the hand of his wife in a rural cottage in Anglesey, the other his crown jewels in a Las Vegas hotel suite.

The transformation of Prince William and Prince Harry from the young teenagers who walked in their dark suits down the Mall and behind their mother’s coffin in 1997 to the talented pilots and military officers they are today is a testament to their father and their remaining family. Earl Spencer, the Princess’s brother, spoke at the funeral and urged for them to be given the space to grow into the men their mother would dearly wish them to be.

Prince William grew up hating the tabloid Press and photographers whose pursuit of his mother’s car in Paris he blamed for her death, so it is ironic that they now face finally being tamed by the Leveson Inquiry. The first tug of the thread which led to the whole affair unravelling began when Prince William’s phone was hacked, although it was a journalist, ITN’s Tom Bradby, who suggested reporting it to the police.

But what of the various charities that Princess Diana supported and what has been her legacy? As a working royal she was associated with almost 100 charities, but after her divorce she reduced that figure to a core of just six: Centrepoint, the homeless charity, the English National Ballet, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, The Royal Marsden Hospital, the Leprosy Mission and the National Aids Trust.

Few would disagree with the idea that it was Diana who helped lift the stigma once associated with AIDS victims. By visiting hospitals and hospices and being photographed holding the hands of AIDS sufferers, she helped change public perceptions about how the disease can be transmitted and lifted the status of sufferers from that of modern-day lepers. Today the development of new anti-viral drugs has drastically cut the number of people who die of AIDS in Britain. But, as Robert McKay, National Director of Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland, said: “Princess Diana’s commitment to AIDS work, including holding the hands of someone who was clearly dying in a hospital in 1987, in effect gave permission to a huge number of people to care about the issue. It’s difficult to remember just how shocking AIDS was in the 1980s, and just how scared and ignorant people were of it. Princess Diana didn’t just meet the victims of AIDS; she embraced them in defiance of widespread public stigma and discrimination around the illness, and for that we are eternally grateful.”

The Poor, as the Bible said, will always be with us, as, it seems, will be the homeless, particularly the young homeless of London for whom Diana had a particular fondness. Today the Centrepoint charity, to which Diana brought her young sons to remind them how fortunate they were, is still in operation, assisting as best they can those young people who live on the streets.

“Thanks to Princess Diana’s work with Centrepoint, people are not only more aware of our charity but the issue of youth homelessness,” said Centrepoint chief executive, Seyi Obakin. “As patron she showed just how many young people need help, vital support continued by Prince William who has followed in her footsteps. Youth homelessness remains a serious problem for society. Research commissioned by Centrepoint has revealed that there are 80,000 aged 16-24 each year, and that number is likely to continue rising. With youth unemployment at record high levels, young people now face even greater challenges in leaving youth homelessness behind.”

It wasn’t just at home, though, where Princess Diana made her presence felt. The image of her in white shirt, beige trousers and brown leather loafers wearing a plastic vizor and metal bomb proof breast plate while standing in a minefield in Angola did more to highlight the issue of landmines than any previous campaign. MAG, the Mines Advisory Group, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but last year The Halo Trust, the Scots charity with whom Diana worked, lost their contract to clear mines from Cambodia.

In the wake of her death much was done to build on her legacy and between 1999 and 2009 there had been a 28 per cent drop in casualties as well as the signing of a number of important international treaties against the use of landmines. However, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 opened up fresh fields of conflict and last year 77,500 casualties were recorded by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in what the organisation described as a “very conservative” figure.

As Sheree Bailey of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines said in a recent interview: “Once the treaty came into force people kind of ticked the box: ‘That’s done, we move to the next cause’. But on the issue of assisting the victims and disability in general in these countries there’s just nothing in so many places.” Today despite the fact that 156 countries have banned the use of landmines, it is still estimated that 11 people each day are killed or injured by them.

Following her death, friends of Diana said she was drawn to outcasts as that is how she frequently felt: lonely and unappreciated by ‘The Firm’ as she referred to the Royal Family. As a result she was keen to refract some of the spotlight onto their dark and ignored corner with a consequence that can still be seen today. So did Princess Diana leave a legacy beyond the responsibility to produce “an heir and a spare”? Well, the woman responsible for her reincarnation on the big screen certainly thinks so.

As Watts said during the first week of filming: “I’m excited and honoured to be playing the role of a truly remarkable woman who had a positive and profound impact in so many ways.”