What if…? How would we react to Diana’s death today?

by Stephen Tall on November 26, 2006

Here’s an interesting counterfactual to conjure with – how might the media coverage of Princess Diana’s death have been different in today’s ultra-connected world?

The question is prompted in my mind by a story in today’s Telegraph, ‘BBC had regrets over Diana coverage’:

Confidential BBC documents show that nearly half the population (44 per cent) felt alienated by the blanket media coverage of the Princess’s death and funeral, which they thought was excessive and over-emotional. …

A BBC debriefing paper on the coverage of the death of Diana, dated January 1998, stated: “One of the things that became clear about the death, and the immediate aftermath, was that there was a range of public reactions to the death. The BBC, perhaps, did not pick up quite quickly enough on these differences in reactions. We were not always precise enough in our use of language, especially when we started to use phrases such as ‘the mood of the nation’, ‘the grief of the public’. There was no single public mood, rather there was a variety of moods.”

The conclusions were based on audience research carried out in the months following the Princess’s death on August 31, 1997 and funeral service at Westminster Abbey.

I was one of those who felt utterly disenfranchised by the mawkish response of media coverage, and repulsed by the moralising mob-rule of those hell-bent on dictating to the Windsors what should be their emotional response to this family tragedy.

Pundits commenting with hindsight often seek to separate the ‘public mood’ into two distinct phases: first, in the immediate aftermath, stunned, grief-stricken hysteria; and, then, in retrospect, a certain shared embarrassment at our collective national breakdown. (A breakdown from which the execrable Express has yet to recover.)

The BBC’s research shows quite how inaccurate such glib, hand-sweeping generalisations can be.

No sentient being could have been unmoved by the cruel despatch of a glamorous young woman in her prime; nor by the sad prospect of two young boys destined to grow up with ever-fading memories of a loving mother.

And those of us with any empathetic sensibilities will have also appreciated quite what a mixture of conflicted emotions must have intermingled in the hearts and minds of Prince Charles, the Queen and Prince Phillip. To lose someone you love is hard enough; to lose someone you used to love can be even harder.

At such times, you need space and privacy for your family to try and make sense of it all. What you absolutely do not need is a baying press demanding you expose your guilty grief to the masses to satisfy some mediaeval pain-lust which has momentarily taken grip of a minority, and been projected in real-time onto the soul of the nation.

In the claustrophobic week which smothered us all between Diana’s death and her funeral there was scant space for such reflections. Media coverage was driven not by those, like me, who spared a thought or prayer for her and her family, and then moved on; but by those who queued to exhibit their ersatz anguish in full view, to assert their über-humanity, and show the rest of us how grief ought to be done.

Back to my question: how might media coverage of such a momentous news story differ in today’s Internet world?

Well, the 44 per cent of us who had no voice, and began to wonder if we were the only ones with any sense of perspective, would have soon realised how widely shared was our reaction. Blogs, Internet forums, newspaper websites – all would have reflected the spectrum of public opinion.

That, in turn, might have prompted the media to take a step back, to look with rather more cool analytical detachment at the varied response of the public, rather than assume an entire nation had lapsed into a self-absorbed stasis of group-think emotional incontinence.

The job of journalism is to make that which is complex accessible to the public: to simplify, but not over-simplify, recognising that society is rarely so obliging as to supply easy answers.

Update: Iain Dale has posted an alternative take here.