The Diana Rant -- How should the media react to a less-than-world-shattering event?
by Paul S. Jenkins
August 10, 2000


It's over two years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and since then we've had all sorts of speculation, conspiracy theories, tributes, memorials and what-have-you. Though this has diminished a little, it's unlikely to stop altogether. But that's not what this article is about.

For people across the globe, during the weeks that followed the crash, the sight of the UK in media-turmoil must have been fascinating. Personally I found the coverage of the event disturbing -- not because of its content, but because of the assumptions the UK media made about its consumers. One week after the accident I emailed some friends in Canada. This, slightly adapted, is what I wrote:

I've just been watching some of Princess Diana's funeral on TV. I thought you might like to hear a view of the past week's proceedings from a standpoint you may not have been aware of.

The great outpouring of public grief, both at home and abroad, is something with which I sympathise, in principle but not in degree. Diana was not a saint, and moving though the funeral and tributes were, we must not lose sight of the fact that she was just a person. Of her many acts of generosity and caring, repeatedly related over the past few days, I would say that these were laudable, and she deserves credit for them. But there are many unsung stalwarts of charity organisations worldwide who have given unstinting service to others without the benefit of her fame and fortune. It's true she has used her fame for the benefit of her favourite charities, but she could hardly support them without her fame being a factor. I'm not denigrating her -- she did good works -- but since last Sunday's tragic accident the media have built up her personality cult to truly staggering proportions. That the accident may have been a direct result of the media's obsession with her personality seems to be guiltily brushed aside.

Sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning, soon after the news broke, it seems to me that the media took a unilateral decision that the untimely death of the Princess of Wales was important to a degree that surpassed anything in history. We would not have had more coverage for the outbreak of a third World War. Even the assassination of the Prime Minister or the death of the Queen couldn't have been covered any more fully -- not because there is a limit beyond which the media is prepared to blanket-cover an event, but simply because it had already decided to go to maximum coverage. It was simply not physically possible, given current technology, to provide wider coverage.

The BBC was particularly unilateral in this respect. During Sunday morning BBC 1 television and BBC 2 television had wiped the schedules for the whole day and were showing the same programme: a news service covering the accident. BBC Radio, that is, Radio 1 (pop channel), Radio 2 (light entertainment), Radio 3 (classical music), Radio 4 (news, current affairs), Radio 5 Live (rolling news and sport) and BBC regional and local radio stations, were all broadcasting the same programme: a news service covering the accident.

The blanket coverage might have been excusable if there had been sufficient news to broadcast, but information coming from Paris was very sparse. The known facts could be stated in under two minutes, so the broadcasts (all live and ad-libbed, of course) consisted of bulletins every 15 minutes, interspersed with commentary (all speculation, given the lack of hard facts) and repeats of expressions of sympathy and regret from various notables. These were all endlessly repeated throughout the day, as were archive news stories of Diana.

After listening to the radio for about an hour in the morning (from about eight o'clock) I realised I wasn't going to hear anything new, so I switched off. There were no other channels to turn to (the commercial stations were doing their own similar version of the same thing). Throughout the day I switched on television or radio to catch up, but I heard the same repeats, and nothing new. I am at a loss to understand why the BBC used simultaneous broadcasting when there was so little to be reported.

Simulcasting was used again this morning for the funeral, but this time the BBC 2 transmission came with sign-language. That seems a sensible use of a simulcast.

No doubt the spot interviews with the British (and other) people lining the streets of London in the past couple of days have been broadcast across the world. I don't know how representative they are of people in general. The people I speak to seem to feel, as I do, that the media have gone over-the-top, and the emotional out-gushing has more to do with a need to focus one's thoughts and aspirations, than it has to do with genuine grief.

On Thursday the papers were bemoaning the silence of the Royal Family, who remained in Scotland while preparations were made for the funeral in London. There were complaints that the flag was not flying at half-mast on Buckingham Palace. An acquaintance of mine, and his wife, the only people I have spoken to who seem to be caught up in the media-fest, sympathised with these complaints. My acquaintance was scathing in his contempt for Prince Charles. "It's bloody disgusting," he told me. "He jets over to Paris, snatches the coffin, comes back and dumps it in London, then effs off back to Balmoral." I'm afraid this outburst was for me the biggest surprise of the week. I began to wonder whether I and the others I had talked to were out of touch with the feelings of the majority.

The hypocrisy of the media's portrayal of the Royal Family at this time was brought home to me yesterday, after it was announced that the Queen would return to Buckingham Palace early and make a live broadcast to the nation, and the Union Flag would fly at half-mast during the funeral. The media, after castigating Her Majesty for her silence, now expressed astonishment at her breaking with tradition and protocol and at her succumbing to public pressure. She's damned if she does, and damned if she doesn't.

Let's face it: does it really matter whether the flag flies at half-mast in accordance with public mood, or if, conversely, tradition and protocol are upheld, against public wishes, during a national ceremonial occasion? No lives are at stake here. No hospital patients will be denied treatment if the decision goes one way or the other. Education in schools will not be affected, nor will the size of people's mortgage repayments. Yet the depth of feeling expressed in support of either side in these arguments about the flag far surpasses anything spoken or written on such ostensibly more important issues.

It's a curious business, and mourners lining the route of the funeral cortege -- and expressing their horror at the terrible deed ascribed to the paparazzi -- don't seem to realise the irony of the fact that the ultimate consumers of the paparazzi's product are the mourners themselves.

My own position regarding the royals is that personally I can take them or leave them, but I do believe that they are, on balance, an asset to Britain. The Queen, as figurehead, is the greatest ambassador we have, embodying the tradition and cultural heritage of our nation. The royal establishment is a tourist attraction that no other country can match, or is ever likely to. It seems to me that in spite of the controversy, today the royals have acquitted themselves well. In light of this last week, I doubt that the same could be said of the media.

I'm sorry if I sound peevish. For someone who says he can take it or leave it, I seem to have plenty to say on the subject. But there really is no other topic of conversation in Britain today. In the past 72 hours we've heard of bombs in Jerusalem, and the deaths of Mother Teresa and Sir Georg Solti. These would be headline stories in other circumstances, but today they are sidelined.

(This article originally appeared in The Rev-Up Review Pages. Used with permission.)


Copyright 2000 Paul S. Jenkins