What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

November 26, 2006

What if...? How would we react to Diana's death today?

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.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was amazed that pop music radio stations at the time seemed able only to play classical dirges after her death. They didn't understand that not all of the population felt the need to change their routines in the aftermath, nor that anyone wanting to hear slow, sombre music would be able to move the dial on the radio.

While it may be possible the station staff were so distraught that they felt physically unable to play their normal playlist, it appeared more likely they were doing what they thought their listeners wanted; certainly in my case they were wrong.

Anonymous said...

If it happened today, I doubt I'd be blogging about it.

Princess Diana was just a celebrity when she died. As important as Posh 'n Becks to my life. It was all tittle-tattle and Hello-style coverage.

So, yes, the coverage was bloody annoying, but I just got away from it (and hired a lot of videotapes).

I got a bit angry when someone didn't deliver a service I expected "out of respect to Princess Diana". I suggested that Princess Diana didn't pay their bills, and I did. But really couldn't be bothered to pursue it.

Manfarang said...

I remember how the BBC World Service radio misreported the story in its initial reports, saying Diana was injured and expected to pull through.I think this was deliberate because the Queen had to be informed of the death first.
Ten years later-no longer any BBC World Service radio broadcasts!

Praguetory said...

I can't help but feel that rather than a misjudgment there was something of an agenda in the media response. It felt to me like a concerted outburst aimed at British restraint and the Royals in particular. From the hysteria to the "people's queen" moniker the press seemed determined to credit Diana with changing the UK in a certain way. Namely, transforming us into a touchy feely/on the psychiatrist's sofa society. I found it depressing. I better stop there, before this rant gets any more shrill.

The jabberwock said...

Pragetory, British restraint (formerly known as "stiff upper-lip") is great for breeding people to build and run an Empire, but absolutely disastrous for the emotional wellbeing of those individuals themselves: it breeds a nation of emotional cripples.

For all her faults, Diana Princess of Wales was everything 'The Firm' was not: vibrantly alive, demonstrative, fun-loving, compassionate. Also, as someone who in her own childhood and adult life knew emotional pain, she could empathise with those who were hurting.

What most people instinctively realised was that she was the one who was wronged - several times over. (1) Charles, who himself had never known unconditional love and therefore couldn't give it ("whatever love is"), married a girl who desperately needed just that, when he didn't truly love her and had no intention of abandoning his affections for Camilla. (2) Faced with a wife who was emotionally damaged and needed professional help, instead of getting the best help available Charles retreated into increasing solitude to escape a 'problem' he didn't have the ability to deal with himself. (3) Which eventually led to his adultery with Camilla. If he had deliberately sought to destroy his wife's self-esteem, he couldn't have done a better job.

Her Majesty's dedication to fulfilling the vows she made at her Coronation is admirable and has brought her the respect and affection of many people in Britain and abroad, myself included. However, the damage to her children, whose legitimate emotional needs must all too frequently have been sacrificed on the altar of 'duty', has been amply demonstrated in their inability to build and maintain lasting marriages.

Anonymous said...

I certainly don't mind other people expressing their feelings as emphatically as they wish. But I never understood - still don't - the hysteria surrounding Diana in general. I never found her beautiful (though I can understand that many people would), never found her antics endearing either (and I am the opposite of a stick-in-the-mud).
In fact (I am going to be brutal here, and I am sorry), I always found her facial expressions highly unnerving because of the apparent stupidity and the very transparent manipulativeness they seem to reveal.

Still, I wold have never taken the time to "bash" her, like I am doing here, if it weren't for the flood of inexplicably gushing fluff about her.
(I recall a particularly annoying description of her gaze: "Her eyes seemed to plead: 'Please, don't hurt me'"... /rolls eyes/)

And of course, there was the ubiquitous WE in most reports about the effect of her public persona: 'WE were attracted...', 'WE were moved...', etc.

Well, this individual wasn't attracted to, or moved by, Diana of Wales. And I am sure there were millions of other people around the world who were puzzled by her public (mediatic) success. So it's a great relief to be able to write about it, as trite as it may be (and most certainly is ;)). Thank you for the opportunity to do so.

redtown said...

The "queen of hearts" remains the poster girl of superficial culture and narcissistic celebrities who go emoting about everything and nothing of substance.  But who was she really?

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death).

For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill.  From a BPD perspective, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, she brought her multiple issues into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless in dealing with the.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.

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