A decade to forget

by Stephen Tall on August 31, 2007

It’s 10 years since we woke up to the news Diana, Princess of Wales had died. I suspect that, apart from the dwindling necro-band of Daily Express readers, many of us are somewhat fatigued by the wall-to-wall media coverage of an event which, though located firmly in the past, seems still to have a visceral presence.

Last year, when speculating how Diana’s death might have been covered differently in an age of the Internet and blogging, I gave my own perspective:

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.

An alternative take is provided here by the comedian Eddie Izzard, who lost his own mother, aged six:

This diversity of perspective simply goes to prove that journalism’s lazy, glib and clichéd short-hand of assuming a nation will find itself united either by grief (at the death of a public figure) or joy (when a sporting team wins a trophy) is far from the truth. The complex swirl of human emotions cannot be so easily condensed and distilled into such neatly-labelled bottles.

It was a point made by a BBC documentary, The People’s Princess (1998), which filmed 68 hours of public reaction to Diana’s death in the immediate aftermath. The reporters, such as Adam Alexander, discovered, unsurprisingly, that “there were many motives for joining the crowd and a wide array of emotions at play”:

What was there was not simple. People wept, applauded and threw flowers at the hearse. But there were also people who took snapshots and enjoyed the day out, socialising in the pubs, arguing and expressing many different opinions.

“It was a fantastic weekend. I’d pay double to do it again. I’ve got history on tape,” said one woman. A drinker in a pub in Bedminster, a working class Bristol suburb, did not agree. “I didn’t expect to see it on in this pub,” he said, stabbing a finger towards the television screen in the corner. “I came here to get away from the f******* funeral.”

While many people evidently and genuinely wanted to pay their last respects, many others were tourists enjoying a great event, or were people who wanted to see and be part of a bit of history, or were just plain curious. …

One thing is certain. The way the media covered the event was far from representative. For a short while we forgot to question. Instead we latched on to a very one-dimensional reaction to the tragedy of Diana’s death.

We don’t live in a country where we all have to think and feel the same thing. So it’s surely about time we acknowledge the fact, as one viewer does in the film Even Diana Doesn’t Matter to Everybody.

It says much about the amazing pressure exerted on, and by, the media to conform to the settled view of the time that it took a year for the documentary – which after all was simply reflecting back to the public what the public had said to the film-makers – to be broadcast.

When Private Eye published its famous front cover pointing out the dual hypocrisy of the media and public, it provoked a storm of outrage, and the typically supine WH Smith banned it (while happily continuing to stock porn mags).

A decade on such a heavy-handed response seems bizarrely misplaced and reactionary.

Indeed the claustrophobic conformity which engulfed us is itself deeply ironic, given that the week of mourning following Diana’s death, has been hailed as a progressive catharsis, even by such a normally sane commentator as Andrew Marr: “we are a more relaxed and more emotionally healthy people than we used to be, and the ‘Diana moment,’ for all its weirdness and excess, marked this change.”

For myself, I think this week’s Economist gets much closer to the real truth:

With hindsight, the public seems to have lamented Diana as much because she was one of the royals as because she was estranged from them. At a distance, the masses look less insurrectionist than conservative—and were quickly salved when the queen walked amongst them. (Only a traditional people could have got quite so worked up about how high a flag flew over a palace.) Seeming to challenge the status quo, the moment ultimately reinforced it.

Maybe next year, and in the years to come, we can leave it simply to Diana’s family and friends to remember her; and the rest of us can let it go.