4. The Death of Princess Diana, and the Media

IN 1997, as I was completing the final draft of a public statement entitled 'The Dark Side of the Moon', the death of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was announced. The subsequent outpouring of public grief raised urgent questions regarding the role that the media had played.

Monitoring the BBC World Service Radio during the week following Diana's death (I was living in Lithuania at the time), I heard media professionals who had either completely lost their sense of reason, or had become even more manipulative than my statement indicated. The barrage of soap-opera reverential commentary, the incessant playing of what had become her death 'signature tune', the endless repetition of facts about Diana's life and death in place of world news, the manipulative montage of public interviews interwoven with Elton John's 'Good-bye England's Rose' suggested that indeed - in the words of The Washington Post - "the media are out of control". An editorial in the International Herald Tribune wrote about the "hysteria and hypocrisy of the London tabloid press" being "beyond description". But media reaction moved far beyond the British tabloid press, including in the New York Times, which devoted 40% of its general news space to Diana the day following her death; The Times (London) gave her 26 of 28 news pages. I have already described the role of the BBC; CNN and much of American television undoubtedly followed suite.

From 'The Dark Side of the Moon' (1997):

"If the events of the past week and public reaction reveal nothing else, they show beyond any doubt that the mass media have achieved a position in society which is fast approaching a critical mass. By which I mean that the media's overall impact - I have tried to cover some of the principal aspects in this statement - is nearing a point of no return, unless we are able to use these recent events as a seminal point to break the cycle. The chances of this happening are slim.

First, the mass media and many media professionals appear to have so much invested in their own personal power and influence, that they are unlikely - of their own volition - to break clear of their privileged position in society. The economic implications of a change in direction for the mass media would be enormous. Democratizing the media and its relationship to the public, as I have proposed, would mean that the public would loosen its reliance on the media. Since Diana's death, sales of British newspapers have skyrocketed, and the media have asked a Swedish paper mill to increase print deliveries, as they are running out of paper. The tabloid Sun, one of the papers which had published sensationalistic pictures of Diana and her companion Dodi Al Fayed, and whose headlines the day following her death read, "Goodnight our sweet Princess", increased its circulation by a million copies on the day after their death.

Second, and most important, there is the role of the public, and its - our - deep and complicitous relationship with the Popular Culture which finally killed Diana. As I have written, there is no doubt that although the public is deeply polarized in its attitude to TV and to the tabloid press, many, many people clearly derive a great deal of pleasure, and their own meaning from the Popular Culture. But the complex relationship between the public and Diana, Princess of Wales, and the relationship of the media to both, had clearly become highly symbiotic, and potentially very unhealthy and dangerous. The scale of the public reaction to Diana's death is completely out of proportion, and has few recent precedents as an example of mass behaviour fueled by the media.

I can understand the young Englishman who spoke movingly of being held by Princess Diana during a visit to the hospital where he was being treated, and who had come to her funeral to pay his own personal tribute. This is a personal reaction, coming from a personal experience. But the highly emotional mass reaction by thousands who had never met Diana, and whose only knowledge of her had been mediated to them by the screen and the printed page, is deeply worrying.

Many people might argue that the public reaction is a genuine one, and does not need manipulating. But the unprecedented public reaction to Diana's death (described by the media as "one of the biggest displays of communal grief ever seen in Britain") is a multi-faceted phenomenon, a complex fusion of something both genuine and induced.

Many mourners said that the depth of their own sadness had actually startled them. One was quoted as saying: "I was really upset and it surprised me. She was always in the papers and you took it for granted that she would be there... Before now, I don't think I really realized how much good she did do." Another woman who had never met or seen her, said she felt "a need to be close to my Diana one more time, to see her home, to let her know how much I will always love her".

An elementary school teacher attending the funeral said: "This is one of the most tragic things that has ever happened to me in my life. I remember so clearly watching her wedding, and she meant a lot to me because she was so human. She made errors and she had weaknesses every woman understands. It wasn't good enough to watch this [the funeral] on television. It's strange that we all feel this way - not that we knew her ourselves - but that we feel she's touched us all personally."

There is an underlying feeling that many people mourning Princess Diana were not only surprised at how deeply they had been affected, but that on some levels they did not understand why this should be. My point here is to highlight the subterranean way in which the mass media has played on public emotions.

The contact between Diana and the public has, for most people, been via images on the mass media - had the media not placed Diana on a pedestal, this mass reaction to her death would not be taking place. Perhaps more people would have paid attention to the death of Mother Teresa, who was all but ignored (CNN referred to Mother Teresa as "another notable and good woman who passed away"), as was the death of Dodi Al Fayed, who just a few days earlier had been ruthlessly hounded by journalists. The ultimate extension, had the media not persistently and cynically manipulated the image of Princess Diana - by turns adulating and reviling her - is that she would be alive today.

The charitable works that Diana undertook have been blown entirely out of proportion by the mass media, and undoubtedly this has played a central role in the near deification of the young woman. Another mourner, a young man, said he had come to London to grieve for Diana, because "there was no-one else doing this kind of work, was there?". While the work Princess Diana did for AIDS and cancer victims, and the victims of land-mines was, without question, very meaningful, many other people - including countless volunteer (or poorly paid) social workers around the world - are also involved in important charitable works; the major difference is that, in 99 cases out of 100, they are ignored by the mass media.

The highly selective and centralized focus by the media on one famous individual to the exclusion of so many others, is one of the more dangerous and undemocratic aspects of the contemporary mass media. Eliminating the role of 'ordinary people' and daily struggle, and placing the emphasis on celebrity, is the antithesis of collectivity and genuine pluralism.

There are claims that Popular Culture, media role models - e.g., the recent soap-opera series in Ireland which motivated a public debate (for the first time) on the issue of abortion - and Diana's charity work, have their positive aspects. But there are many alternative ways of communicating these important issues and needs to the public, with much less long-term cost to society and to the individuals living in it.

Unless we have more intense and ongoing public debate about the future role of the mass media - in public places, in the classrooms, in the home and work place - I believe that many people are going to find it difficult to distance themselves from the grip of the mass media in the years ahead.

A columnist for the British newspaper, The Times, has written that the voracious appetite for news, and for pictures of the rich and famous, is "a global narcotic beyond the ability of any one country to police". I propose that "policing" is not the answer - but that debate, critical knowledge, and alternative forms of communication are.

This raises the issue of the role of the education system. In response to the media's treatment of Princess Diana, an American professor of communication studies wrote a brief article to the press, under the headline, 'Why We Need Paparazzi', in which he stated: "To hold the media responsible for this highly symbolic yet isolated incident is to misunderstand the absolute necessity for vigorous journalism, even media scandals, in democracies... Let us hope that the hysteria about the media's role in the accident fades in the discussions that will follow. What must never be forgotten is the indispensable requirement of a free and vigorous press in the Western world's delicate system of checks and balances on social power."

The media professor continues by claiming that "media visibility" holds in check the power of celebrities - presidents, movie stars, members of royal families - and concludes: "Some revision of the rules regulating invasion of celebrities' privacy may be appropriate, but the visibility and accountability that the news media guarantee are fundamental to democracy."

In the coming months, we will probably be reading and hearing more statements like this from educators, rising to protect the mass media from criticism.

To have a media teacher describe critical reaction to the media's behaviour as "hysteria", and his hope that it "fades in the discussions that will follow", offers a glimpse into the highly controlled world of mainstream media education. It is a worrying omen of what is possibly being said to pull media students into line - ensuring that they do not take the 'wrong meaning' from events surrounding the death of Princess Diana.

As I have described elsewhere, mainstream education has constantly played up the 'pleasures' to be derived from Popular Culture, and downplayed (or marginalized) criticism of the mass-media. Were the situation otherwise, we would not have witnessed the events of the past week. People would have mourned Diana Spencer on a different scale, and in a way which would have focused on the role of the mass media, as well as on their own role - the role of all of us - in these events.

Many media educators and professionals are likely to use the mass reaction to Diana Spencer's death as a justification for marginalizing criticism of the Popular Culture - by saying that recent events have brought people together in a shared and communal experience of grief. "We have become a more emotional, less deferential, more plural people," said the editor of the British newspaper, The Independent. But the mass reaction we have witnessed is not genuine pluralism, or 'people power' - it is the result of an intense and utterly disproportional focusing on one individual. This is more, not less deferential, and is only pluralistic in numbers.

It also needs to be pointed out that the mass audiovisual media have been as silent as the House of Windsor regarding their own role in these events. I have monitored the BBC World Service for a week, and while I cannot claim to have listened to everything, I certainly have not heard a word from the commentators about the work of TV and radio in manipulating the [public perception of the] role of Princess Diana. Whilst the print media has undeniably been central in these tragic events, at least they are confronting their own role, for better or worse - in startling contrast to the silence from the MAVM.

I would like to conclude by quoting from a journalist in The International Herald Tribune: "...The point is what the tremendous groundswell tells us about our societies, that something crucial is missing. The calculating, manipulating way public life is organized may be democratic but it isn't satisfying because it is too cold ... what is felt lacking, what is achingly sought now ... is pulsing, tender humanity, goodness for its own sake ... now the multitudes have given a simple answer to the complex feelings of emptiness still left when physical needs and needs for distraction and entertainment have been slaked out but the core of public life is chilled, with no evident purpose but to sustain itself ..."

The point of my statement has been to indicate that the role of the contemporary mass media has become central in displacing people's needs and energies from the collective and compassionate (from a more contemplative use of space and time), to something completely the opposite.

What is happening today in the relationship between the public and the media, abetted by the education system, has alarming prospects for the already fragile future of democracy on this planet. I sincerely hope that a reading of this statement, in conjunction with a reflection on the events of the past week, and with input from many others, will help to bring about a broad debate on the need for change." (September, 1997)

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© Peter Watkins 2016