Dying by the media

Print edition : September 06, 1997

POLITICIANS and family members were quick to put the blame for Princess Diana's death on the overzealous attentions of the tabloid press, in particular the 'paparazzi', the roving squad of freelance photographers who will, notoriously, go to any lengths in their pursuit of celebrity snaps. Viscount Althorp, Diana's brother, bitterly declared that the Princess had been "hounded to death" by the media. Robin Cook, Britain's Foreign Secretary, suggested that the law needed to be amended to protect individuals from intrusive press scrutiny. These views were echoed by pundits (many of whom write for the tabloids) and members of the public (many of whom read them).

The details of the car crash which killed Diana and Dodi Al Fayed have not yet been and may well never be revealed in full. But the eagerness with which the 'guilty' verdict was pronounced on the tabloids and their agents said a great deal about the ambivalent popular view of the hugely powerful popular press.

What makes Britain's tabloid press unique is not so much the shrill vulgarity for which it is often condemned but the extraordinary political clout it wields. Since the arrival of Rupert Murdoch on Fleet Street in the 1970s, competition at the tabloid end of the newspaper market has pushed tone and content ever further downmarket. At the same time, the tabloids have come to be taken ever more seriously by politicians. Increasingly, the news agenda for the 'quality' broadsheets as well as for the BBC is being set by the tabloids, which have become the arbiters of Britain's omnivorous celebrity culture, a culture in which all that counts is name and face recognition, not talent or achievement. And since Diana's name and face were the most widely recognised of all, she reigned supreme among the gaggle of footballers, TV actors, millionaire playboys, drugged out rock stars, sleazy politicians and titled dunces who jostle each other on the tabloids' photo spreads.

Victims of the tabloids' attentions have often complained about the harassment, the intrusions, the distortions and the downright lies. Some have sought remedies in court. Others, including Diana, have on occasion taken matters into their own hands. Paradoxically, the public which buys the tabloids generally sympathises with the tabloids' celebrity victims, while the archetypal sleazy tabloid hack is held in widespread contempt. Diana's battles with the tabloid press gained her much popular sympathy, and contributed to her carefully cultivated image of a wronged and vulnerable woman. But the reality is that Diana's treatment by the tabloids was kid-glove stuff compared to the wanton malice dished out to more obscure individuals, notably trade unionists, immigrants, and teachers whose politics, cultures or sexuality were deemed deviant.

Since the days of Queen Victoria, the British royal family has laboured mightily to transform its image from feudal institution to exemplary bourgeois family. In that process, the popular press - and later radio and television - proved indispensable. But as royal marriages gave way to royal divorces, the Windsors found that those who live by the media may also die by the media. And in Diana, they had created a force they could not control.

Few contemporary public figures have exploited the media spotlight more ruthlessly or skilfully. Indeed, without the tabloids and the paparazzi, 'Princess Di', as the public came to know her, would never have existed. The relationship between Diana and the popular press was always a symbiotic one. She helped them sell newspapers. They helped her wage her war against her former husband and his family. By endlessly enhancing her fame and her mystique, the popular press gave her a stature and power that she would never have otherwise enjoyed. Diana was well aware how much she owed the media, and New Labour's famous spin doctors had nothing to teach her when it came to hyping a slight story by releasing it on a dull news day, or astutely alternating leaks and denials to create headlines.

While Diana complained about reporters trailing her and Dodi during their summer romance, she and her entourage were careful to feed the media pack a regular flow of photo-opportunities and gossip. Indeed, her outrage at photographers' alleged failure to respect her privacy was less than convincing when she chose to express it before the cameras dressed only in a swimsuit. She must have known that the titillating image would wind up in every tabloid (and not a few broadsheets as well) the following day.

MORE significantly, Diana told a sympathetic woman journalist from France's Le Monde newspaper that Britain's ousted Conservative Government had been "really hopeless" in responding to her campaign to ban landmines. Such an explicitly political intervention by a member of the royal family inevitably provoked uproar and drew media attention. Diana then denied the quote, provoking more uproar and filling more column centimetres. Meanwhile, she had been in communication with Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, and was obviously keen to identify herself with the "modern" image of the New Labour Government.

Diana's battle with Charles and his mother, the Queen, had been far from resolved at the time of her death. She had made it clear that she wanted a major public role and bitterly resented the decision to strip her of her "HRH" prefix. She clearly intended to maintain control over the education and grooming of her eldest son, the future King William, which would guarantee her access to power and a continuing high public profile.

In the short term, the principal political implication of her death will be an increase in demands for a 'privacy law' to put the tabloids in their place. It seems unlikely, however, that such a law will achieve anything other than the protection of the rich and famous from public scrutiny, while leaving ordinary citizens as powerless as ever when faced with the unwanted attentions of Rupert Murdoch or his fellow tycoons. And it will certainly do nothing to halt the infiltration of tabloid values into the rest of the media, a trend which the Diana saga, and its aftermath, will only intensify.

DIANA'S death leaves the future of the House of Windsor and the British monarchy even more uncertain than before. It may now be somewhat easier for Charles to marry his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, though it may also swell popular resentment of the latter, who lacks Diana's youth, looks and media savvy. It may unleash a wave of sympathy for Charles and his bereaved sons, and thereby stabilise the status of the Windsors, or it may exacerbate public disapproval of Charles - whose antiquated and sometimes bizarre personal manner has alienated millions of his subjects. Support for the abolition of the monarchy, though still confined to a minority, has grown exponentially in the last decade (from just 5 per cent to nearly a third). There seems little reason to doubt that it will continue to grow in the next decade.

Diana, of course, was every bit as much the millioniare blue-blood as Charles, but - thanks to those reviled tabloids - she managed to pass herself off as "the People's Princess", in Tony Blair's phrase. True, she was a favourite topic of conversation in pubs, workplaces, classrooms, creches and launderettes across the country. But her lifestyle and preoccupations were shared by only a minute fraction of the British populace. On the day of her death, the BBC went to great pains to present the image of a nation in mourning. But the reality on the ground is more complex. After the initial shock of someone so young, famous and attractive meeting a violent death on the roads, public interest is bound to recede. Diana looks set to enjoy the kind of weird half life bestowed on Elvis, Evita and their ilk by their passionate cultists. As such, the tabloids may end up even more obsessed by her than they were when she was alive.

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