Monday, November 27, 2006

What If... Diana Died Today?

Stephen Tall and Iain Dale have both posted their musings on the death of Princess Diana, and the mass hysteria that followed. Stephen takes the hard-headed approach, and talks of his feeling of alienation at the time; Iain is more in touch with his emotions (perhaps), and openly admits to "howling" while watching the funeral. I must say that I sympathise with Stephen's approach.

From the news breaking, the whole world seemed to be turned upside down. Not that the news of someone dying in a car crash - tragic as it is - was of earth-shattering importance. Especially when the person dying did not hold elected office. No, the madness came through the public seeming to lose their senses.

Or, at least, that was what the media told us. Later in the year, a group of my friends sat around waiting for our language examinations. We tried to think of a single person that we knew who had signed the fabled books of condolence that had sprung up across the country. Between 10 of us, we couldn't name a single one. And my family were travelling at the time of Diana's funeral. No matter what the viewing figures tell you, the roads were unquestionably busier than they normally are on a Saturday morning.

If Iain Dale were to travel back in time to the first week of September 1997, I'm sure he'd feel like he'd been transported to a parallel universe. Why? Because the blanket media coverage was so unquestioning, and so relentless, that it squeezed out all other news. Including the deaths of Mother Theresa (unquestionably a more deserving figure of such plaudits) and President Mobutu of Zaire (which was emerging from a bloody civil war), and the awarding of the 2004 Olympics to Athens. Why was Premiership football on the Sunday afternoon cancelled? For the death of an ex-Royal? It was crazy.

Of course, one thing for sure would have been different. Tony Blair was responsible for much of the mass hysteria that developed. His "off-the-cuff", "People's Princess" speech was a masterstroke of spin. It pre-empted the development of the round-the-clock media coverage of "the nation's grief". And the Prime Minister speaking so eloquently on behalf of the nation allowed the media to take that as their theme for the rest of the week. That would never happen nowadays. We would doubt, rightly, Blair's sincerity. And the absence of a prominent figure speaking like that would somewhat have diminished the media's ability to major so strongly on the story.

But, ultimately, even if Stephen's blog had been operating in 1997, I doubt the blogosphere would have had any impact whatsoever on media coverage. It would have provided an outlet for people like myself to grumble, moan, or rant about the mass hysteria of the media, but it wouldn't have changed the coverage significantly. Why? Because in these situations, the media is scared. Scared of losing its customers. It is the same reason why the Holly and Jessica story dominated headlines for so long.

Once a paper thinks it is selling more copies, or a TV station thinks that it is picking up more viewers, it will continue to plug the story. The BBC will have been flooded with telephone calls about Diana, at the total expense of everything else. Now, this is, of course, a vicious circle, because so much of it is driven by the blanket coverage itself. But in refusing to cover the story, the media organisation runs a serious risk not only of losing market share, but in getting permanent damage from being criticised vociferously. If this is on a political matter, it can be justified. It's a different matter where widespread public grief is concerned.

That, of course, is the downside of the 24-hour news cycle. If nothing else is happening, then non-stories that tug at the heart-strings can dominate the news - and the feedback loop it starts off sees the story rise and rise up the cycle. And, regrettably, there's no reason to think it would be any different today.