Cristina Odone on the Princess of the Press

Diana was obsessed with the media - just like he who crowned her Queen of Hearts

Where were you when you first heard of Princess Diana's death? It was five years ago, but who can forget the strange limbo we lived through that morning - when the news of a car crash filled the papers but no one yet knew whether the princess had survived? Passers-by were talking in hushed tones; on the telly, there was non-stop coverage, increasingly funereal; then the new Prime Minister delivered an emotional speech about the Queen of Hearts and the first pilgrims made their way to her palace.

Five years on, Diana's legacy seems as mixed as Tony Blair's. Indeed, more than a Queen of Hearts, she strikes one as a new Labour icon, the Blairites' royal ancestress. She was, like the man who crowned her "queen", a mould-breaker brave enough to destroy the establishment, but not wise enough to create a new utopia (or, at least, to improve the lives of those around her). Yet both had won overwhelming sympathy and support. Diana was just as capable as Blair of great displays of compassion for the down-and-out, which alternated with reckless arrogance; of humility alternating with exhibitionism; of dodgy associations and worthy friends.

And both the People's Prime Minister and the People's Princess shared an obsession with the media: "What are they saying?" became more important than "What can I do?" You can picture Blair over breakfast with Cherie, probing the papers, slamming down the Mail and its latest lambasting of some policy, spluttering at the Guardian's jibes about cosying up to business. In the head of steam he works up over the unfairness of such calumnies, his real objectives are in danger of disappearing.

As for Diana, the one time I met her, she impressed me with her knowledge of the press. Lord Rothermere, who sat between us, had just asked me whom I "rated" among the editors of Fleet Street. The Princess's chirpy voice immediately piped up: "Well, Dacre is doing a very good job with the Mail. And Jonathan Holborow is not bad at the Mail on Sunday. I never read the Guardian, so I don't know about Rusbridger, but what do you make of that woman Pollard at the Express . . . ?" She knew them all by name, had an opinion on their record. I came away that day with the impression that the Princess could not emancipate herself from the Fleet Street pack.

Today, I wonder if the Prime Minister can?

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Show trial: the left in the dock