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Death of a Princess

Print edition : Sep 06, 1997



ROYALTY in Britain is a watered-down institution that has long outlived its time. Yet its pomp and circumstance and the spell that its brighter, more vivid elements have, from time to time, been able to cast on the British people and round the world have long served to conceal this truth. Perhaps it retains at its best - through the sobriety, public dignity and uncontroversiality of Queen Elizabeth II and of the Queen Mother - the semblance of an institutional political function. But there can be no question that thanks to its dull and stuffy ways, the mediocrity, peccadilloes, vapidity and wasteful lifestyles of many of its members and the widespread public resentment caused by the considerable financial burden of supporting the House of Windsor, its standing among the people of the United Kingdom is quite low.

Diana Francis Spencer, barely 20 when she married a 32-year old heir to the British throne in July 1981, had a dual role vis-a-vis the institution. First she, her beauty, the fairy tale wedding of July 1981 and her continually winning ways with the British people seemed to breathe new life into the institution, or at least into its public face. Then she became, as Mike Marqusee points out in an accompanying article, a force the House of Windsor "could not control", an adversarial force.

There can be no question where public sympathy lay through the protracted time of marital troubles for the royal couple, through the separation and divorce, and through the sometimes bitter public wrangling that occurred after December 1992 (when the British Prime Minister officially announced in the House of Commons the final separation between Prince Charles and Princess Diana). In fact, public opinion in Britain may take a long time to forgive the House of Windsor - and especially Diana's former husband, the future King, and his demonised mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles - for what it tended to see as monstrous injustice and injury inflicted on a beautiful "people's princess" (to cite an expression used, with political forethought, by Prime Minister Tony Blair).

A POTENT player in all this has been the British media, its truly awful, mass-circulating tabloids, joined not infrequently by sections of the so-called quality press, which managed to combine sanctimoniousness towards the institution of British monarchy with the pursuit of a circulation-boosting prurience and "royal soap opera". Bad money tends to drive the good out of circulation and the print media in the United Kingdom, more than almost anywhere else, illustrates the application of Gresham's law to the arena of journalism. For example, Rupert Murdoch's The Sun, with a daily circulation of 3.8 million, recently paid an undisclosed sum for publishing "world exclusive" titillating paparazzi photographs of Diana and Dodi Fayed swimming off the coast of Sardinia. The Sun, The Mirror, The Express, The Daily Mail et al. in the United Kingdom, and a host of magazines and newspapers abroad, created a highly lucrative global market for the paparazzi pursuit that contributed to the tragic death of Diana.

The universal popular anger directed at the seven paparazzi in the custody of the French police and against this kind of journalism is justified, notwithstanding the fact that it is the public that reads and provides a mass market for it. For India, the manner of death of a British princess should drive home the lesson that it would be highly detrimental for any government to reverse longstanding national policy that keeps the Indian press exclusively Indian, and to open the door to Murdoch & Co.

In her relatively short adult life, Princess Diana showed a superficial side, also a deeper side that reached out with compassion and splendid publicising value to a number of social causes. The superficial side was reflected in her continuing involvement in what a serious British newspaper has termed "the international circle of super-rich pleasure seekers." The other side was exemplified by her extraordinarily successful hands-on international campaigns in solidarity with organisations addressing AIDS, leprosy, homelessness, cancer research and the treatment of sick children, and more recently by her work for the Landmine Survivors' Network. The personal aspects of the tragedy aside, the great pity is that her work in these important areas, and her potential to grow as an international advocate and ambassador of such causes, was so cruelly cut short.



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