Saturday, 5 August 2017

Diana's death: why the media got it wrong

The text that follows is taken from my memoir, 'Is Anything Happening?', published by Biteback, and available from them half price between now and the end of August. Click here for this unbeatable offer. 

It was the start of one of the weirdest weeks in my professional life – and, I think, one of the weirdest weeks in modern British history. At one point, we seriously began to wonder whether the British royal family could survive what seemed like a vast wave of public hostility, sweeping tsunami-like towards Buckingham Palace. I began to ask myself if I understood anything at all about the country I lived in ...

I remember three remarks made to me about Diana’s death by three different interviewees in the hours and days that followed. The first was the journalist and political historian Anthony Howard. At some point on that Sunday morning, I asked him what he thought her death would mean for the royal family. ‘I know this might not be a popular thing to say,’ he replied, ‘but it’s the best thing that could have happened for them. She represented a huge problem following her divorce from Prince Charles, and now she’s gone.’

The second was the novelist Linda Grant, when I asked her to explain why Diana had attained such an extraordinary level of adulation. She replied: 'Even though she was a princess, she represented something that every woman in Britain could identify with. She was a mother of young children who had struggled with bulimia and post-natal depression. She had been trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her husband had been unfaithful to her. She didn’t get on with her in-laws, and she fell in love with someone she shouldn’t have. So she became a clothes horse on which a great many women could pin their own unhappiness.'

The third was the Scottish political theorist and republican Tom Nairn, who said in response to the public reaction to Diana’s death: ‘The people of Britain have this week elected their first president. The trouble is she’s already dead.’

... There has been a great deal of debate over the years about whether the media over-reported – and misrepresented – the public reaction to Diana’s death. My own belief, in retrospect, is that we did, but for understandable reasons. It was not because somehow the media were in awe of royalty (although large sections of them were certainly in awe of Diana), but because they were genuinely taken aback by the vast piles of flowers that were left outside Kensington Palace and the rising tide of anger among some exceedingly vociferous Di-admirers and Charles-haters.

On the Tuesday after her death, I went to Kensington Palace myself to talk to some of the people who had gathered there. I was so shocked by the vehemence of the anti-royal family sentiments that I advised my editors not to broadcast them. They were unlikely to be typical, I said; I was worried that I may have just found the angriest and most vocal people in the crowd, attracted by the sight of a BBC microphone. But by the following day, those same sentiments that I had heard, but not broadcast, were on several newspapers’ front pages. Not for the first time, or the last, my judgement had been less than perfect.

... The media had been madly in love with Diana, and the reason was obvious: she was the best guarantee of reader interest in decades. Put a picture of Di on the front page and you sold more papers. It was as simple as that. (The Daily Express thinks it is still true, twenty years later.) So there was a natural tendency to exaggerate the reaction to her death, which in turn fed back into public sentiment. It was a perfect emotional feedback loop, increasing in intensity with every passing day.

Second, TV cameras love crowds, again for a very simple reason: you can see them and film them, and they look suitably dramatic. What the cameras don’t see, and therefore don’t show, is all the people who have stayed at home and gone about their everyday business dry-eyed. It is the same with mass demonstrations: no matter how big the crowd – for example, the estimated 750,000 to a million people who protested against the imminent invasion of Iraq in February 2003 – there will always be many more people who did not bother to leave home. But you will not see them on the TV news.

So yes, I do think we got it wrong at the time of Diana’s death, but I do not think it was a deliberate conspiracy. I know there were anxious debates, especially at the BBC World Service, about how much time to devote to the story. I argued, and I still think I was right, that there was immense international interest both in her and in the British royal family and it would have been crazy not to have reflected that. The same applied when Michael Jackson died in 2009 – some public figures really do have a global reach, even if they are not world leaders or Nobel Prize-winners.

I finally realised that we had probably overdone the Diana story on the first anniversary of her death. It passed virtually unnoticed. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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