Newsreader Martyn Lewis recalls the day he broke the news of Princess Diana’s death

20 years after the 'People's Princess' died, the BBC news anchor recalls the "adrenalin and nerves" that filled the unscripted live broadcast

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BBC newsreader Sir Martyn Lewis was the man who broke the news of Diana, Princess of Wales’s death on 31 August 1997. Here, he recalls the events of that day

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I was shaken awake at 1am by my daughter saying that the newscaster’s PA was on the phone and that she wanted to speak to me urgently. She told me the Princess of Wales had been injured in a very bad accident in Paris and I had to go on air with two bulletins. A taxi was on its way so I threw on a suit and tie. I lived about eight minutes from Television Centre which is probably why I was asked to do it. After the bulletin the editor said, “look why don’t you go home get your head down and we’ll start a live programme at 7am?”.

My head hit the pillow for 40 minutes before my daughter was shaking me away again saying there was a phone call for me. I knew instantly what it had to be. I dashed in again and it was a very strange feeling in the news room because it was very early Sunday morning and staff were still being roused from their slumbers. 

We went on the air with very little information, desperate to find out more. Every few minutes there’d be the calm voice of the producer in my ear saying who I needed to interview next. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done in that it was a six-and-half-hour stint, which we just couldn’t plan at all. There was no script for the first few hours, we had to fly by the seat of our pants. In a peculiar way it wasn’t like a news programme, it was like imparting the news of bereavement to the British family. There was a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie for all the newscasters hanging up in the wardrobe at the BBC for occasions like this.  

Newscasters have to develop an emotional cocoon and I was used to not letting myself be affected by the enormity of stories I read. Yet I have to confess that there was a moment I lost it for a brief few seconds. I felt myself start to go when repeating the words Tony Blair spoke about her; “She was the people’s princess and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.” I had to rapidly get myself together for my next interviewee. 

When I came off air at 1:30pm I still felt full of adrenalin and nerves. The atmosphere in the news room was calm although as I left I saw some secretaries had clearly been sobbing.

I had met Diana on several occasions and had the most delightful chat. She was a really warm, generous person. I remember her sitting next to me at a fundraising dinner and her first remark being, “I’ve been married for seven years and I’ve only now just realised what it means to be a member of the royal family.” 

At home I stayed up and watched right through, I couldn’t possibly sleep. A few days later, still unable to sleep, I walked through the flowers of Kensington Palace at 2 am and felt the enormity of the way Diana touched so many people in Britain who felt they knew her personally.

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As told To Kasia Delgado