ToDiForDaily.com‘s Kinsey Schofield talks to legendary broadcaster Simon McCoy about his life as a 90s royal correspondent. He reflects on Princess Diana‘s relationship with the media, Prince William‘s big heart, and remembers the day that Diana died. The exemplary television presenter also admits what finally made him emotional.
Simon McCoy: The relationship between Diana and the media was always interesting. I remember there was a real tour of Zimbabwe and on the first evening, she held this amazing drinks reception for the media. We were all looking forward to this. In the afternoon, we were out filming, I was actually with her sister. We were just chatting about tours like this… now, I’d said… there was a time when we wouldn’t be following Diana around the world because it was a hugely expensive thing to do. That there would eventually be a loss of interest… oh my word, how wrong was I? But anyway, I’m in this reception that evening and I’m at the end of the garden with a couple of friends, including Richard Kay from the Daily Mail, and we were just having a drink. She arrived and we were all trying to keep out of it because she had these dignitaries to meet and everything and someone said, ‘She seems to be coming straight this way.’ And sure enough… it’s the most amazing image because with a beautiful evening, gem blue sky, and she’s walking down this fabulous lawn straight towards us. And she just came up to us and she said, ‘Simon, can I have a word?’ And pulled me aside and said, ‘I hear you may not be covering all these tours for much longer.’ I said, I said something that I will forever… I said… ‘There’s a limit to the number of babies you can go around hugging before we lose interest.’ And how wrong was I? But she said, ‘But why is it so expensive?’ And we then spent a long time as I explained… for television at the time… the cost of booking a satellite… sending pictures back by satellite… all the paraphernalia that makes television a very complicated medium… much easier to phone in a story to a newspaper… but she had no concept of the cost of that. And she was fascinated and she just said, ‘Well, what can I do to help?’ and I said… ‘There isn’t much!’
Kinsey Schofield: Hi Guys, Kinsey Schofield here and I am with… actually one of my favorite TV personalities over in the UK. Simon McCoy… you have an incredible resume. But you know what surprised me? And we’re gonna test the Wikipedia Authenticity here… I didn’t realize you were actually a royal correspondent for like six years. Is that true?
SM: It is true. There was a new network in 1989 here in the UK called Sky Television and I was their first royal correspondent because I had some dealings with Buckingham Palace in my previous place of work. When they heard that they said, ‘Right, it’s you!’ At the time that was a great gig because all it really involved was traveling the world with the Queen and seeing some fabulous places and not too much pressure. Then within sort of six months of me taking on this job in 1990 – all hell broke loose and suddenly the royals were front page news and top of every bulletin seven days a week throughout the next two, three years, so it wasn’t the quiet job I was expecting.
KS: That’s what I was thinking because when I was looking at the dates I thought, ‘Wow, this is I think when Windsor caught on fire…!’
SM: 1992! It was the year Charles and Diana’s marriage broke up… Andrew and Sarah‘s marriage broke up… it was what the Queen described as her ‘annus horribilis’ just after the fire and it was relentless. It was utterly relentless. And all of us following the royals, and the royals themselves, I think we were all exhausted through that whole period.
KS: I think that you were put on the desk a year later…?
SM: I was doing some… I started presenting at the same time. So, I stayed as a royal correspondent and I was doing some fill-in presenting and then it was actually in just the start of the end of 95 beginning of 96 that I became a full-time presenter… but I was still sort of doing the odd royal thing. I had ceased to be the royal correspondent when we all got that news from Paris. But because obviously, I’d worked and followed Diana for years around the world, I was instantly involved.
KS: I was going to ask you… but now it feels like an obvious yes… as a royal correspondent you did actually see Diana in real life, correct? She was near you?
SM: Oh my word. Yes! I mean, we used to travel the world with her and she was very clever whenever you went… there was a group that they used to call the royal ratpack. It used to be the same people who followed [Diana] around the world. You could be in any airport in the world and you’d see people you’ve been sitting next to the day before in London and she got to know us. And she wasn’t the only one to do this but at the beginning of a royal tour, she would always hold a drinks reception and meet us all and talk to us. And that was a smart move. And if you saw these reporters who used to spend their entire careers having a go at her and being rude to her turn to jelly in front of her. She’d walk into a room and you could just see these quivering, and it was mostly men at the time, standing there looking completely at a loss because secretly, everybody was in love with her, I think. But it was a smart move on her part. And it was her moment to talk to us utterly informally. And and it was very interesting, I think, for both sides to see how it all worked out.
KS: Because you didn’t pursue that role. Do you think that you kind of weren’t starstruck by them? Because it just, you know, this was a job to you?
SM: No, I think you’re always starstruck. I mean, what she had and I’ve, I’ve only had, I’ve known two other people who’ve got this capability, you can be in a room of 200 people, the biggest room in the world and you will immediately know someone has just walked in the room, you won’t be able to see it. But people’s reaction to that one person, Diana had it. Nelson Mandela had it and Bill Clinton had it. Those are the three people I think you were immediately aware, ‘Oh, my word… something rather special has just happened.’ So you never lose that. And actually, as a journalist, if you lose interest in people like that, you’re in the wrong job, I think.
KS: Oh, wow. I love that. Alright, so take me to because we’re coming up on the anniversary of her death. Are you… you know, do you jump out of bed because your phone goes off? How does this happen? How do you find out that this is going on?
SM: Well, to my eternal shame I slept through about eight phone calls. It was a Sunday morning. And, you know, if you were out on for a Saturday evening, Sunday mornings was the moment you weren’t expecting anything to happen. When eventually I was woken up, I had to go straight into the studio, I did a quick, quick interview in the studio. And then I then spent eight hours in an edit suite to produce a one-hour program that went out that night, just looking at her, you know, her life. And what we did in the space of eight hours, took the BBC I think 10 days to do. But the beauty of it was when you’re a royal correspondent, you can see pictures of her… you know, where it was, what it was, what everybody was doing. So it’s much easier to sit in an edit suite and tell a story when, when you know exactly what you’re talking about and who you’re talking about. And she didn’t give many speeches but I knew every one pretty well. So we were able to put a program together quite fast. And that, I suspect, was one of the most memorable days of my life because I was sitting in an edit suite just desperate to know what was going on in the outside world. But instead of which, I was just thinking about Diana, her life, and my experience with that.
KS: Did it feel like it can be true when it happens? Did it just feel like this can’t this… this can’t be happening?
SM: I think I think for a lot of us, certainly… it didn’t hit me until I was sitting outside Westminster Abbey on the day of the funeral. And you know what hit me… when I saw the coffin in front of me and I saw the flowers which just said ‘Mummy.’ And I saw William and Harry walking behind. And I started crying. And I suddenly realized that for a week… we’d had a whole week of the biggest story most of us will ever cover in our lifetimes… we working every hour God sends… and for the first time there was a moment where you sort of took stock… and it wasn’t until a funeral I think it really hit a lot of us. None of us wanted it to be true. History is a wonderful thing and gets rewritten a lot. I mean… a lot of people forget that at the time she was in a phase of not being the most popular person in the world… certainly in the UK because she’d given up on charity work she started a relationship with someone everybody thought, in the media at least, was unsuitable. So, she was battling against the system and was getting quite a rough time in the press and I think people forget that. At the time… we all have this saintly view of her… at the time it wasn’t like that.
KS: I wonder… Did people dislike Dodi because he was… I read a lot that it was about race but… I mean… this guy had a fiance when he met her. Somebody was wearing a ring on their finger and… he was this playboy and apparently… I’ve read he also did drugs. I mean… maybe not the best guy for somebody that we do think of so saintly?
SM: Yeah, Kinsey. Every time a member of the royal family has a relationship with anybody nonwhite… everything’s about race. And we’re seeing that at the moment. It wasn’t about race. It was actually about his father more than anything else. Dodi’s father Mohamed Al-Fayed, who used to own Harrods… which is the big department store in London… was a very controversial figure who, who was not liked, because he was he wasn’t part of the UK establishment… and he was… the way he made his money was controversial, to say the least. And they were flashy with their money. He was always flashy with his money. And so when his son started going out with Diana, Princess of Wales, he made the most of it. And he, when she died, he built this ridiculous shrine to her and Dodi and their love. In the staircase of Harrods, it was… I don’t know, I suppose the words ‘good’ and ‘taste’ didn’t come in the same sentence very often when you were talking about the Al-Fayeds.
KS: Tacky… I guess… is the word I was thinking.
SM: That’s the one word isn’t it? But they were influential. You didn’t ignore Mohamed Al-Fayed and in the business world here in the UK, he was a big name. So you had that often uncomfortable, you know, look at what’s going on now… that relationship between the royal family and money is a difficult one. And I think part of the draw of Dodi Al-Fayed to Diana was… he was the guy who had a yacht, who could give her the life that very few other than royals could give her. So, it worked for them. And we’ll never know exactly what was going on with that relationship. I mean, lots of rumors about where it was headed but she certainly knew that it wasn’t the most approved of relationship in this country and that may have been the spur to her because there was a bit of that nature in her of, you know, kicking the system. Well, that’s an understatement, given what she’d done to it. But yeah…
KS: I do love that about her. That is one of my favorite… you know, I think that’s what draws me to her is her rebellious spirit. But I also have always felt like Dodi was just her way of trying to hurt Dr. Khan. And she felt like he would inevitably come back or pursue her out of jealousy, which is, you know, I think what was happening towards the end, I read somewhere that he was trying to call her the night she died to tell her to come home. And if that’s true, how heartbreaking…
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