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A sense of proportion

...is called for when reacting to such tragedies as Jill Dando's death, argues Anthony O'Hear

The murder of Jill Dando was tragic. It was a brutal and so far incomprehensible crime which has evoked both shock and outrage. We should not deny any of this or play down the horror. But, particularly in the aftermath of the bombing outrage in Soho, we have to ask whether the public reaction to Jill Dando's murder was not out of all proportion, a clumsy and overwrought intrusion into what should be an essentially private grief.

Diana, Linda McCartney, and now Jill Dando: the deaths of each have been the occasion of massive outpourings of public emotion, both from the media and from people who had no personal knowledge of the deceased.

Some of us found much of the reaction to the death of Princess Diana exaggerated and misdirected. Nevertheless, she was the Princess of Wales and the mother of our future king. In some form or other, public mourning and public ceremony were entirely appropriate.

But Jill Dando and Linda McCartney were not key members of the royal family. Neither had made a major contribution to the life or culture of the country. Neither had been prime minister or won a Nobel Prize for literature or made a significant scientific advance. Neither had led their country to a military or humanitarian triumph, or even, like Sir Alf Ramsey, a sporting one.

One was the much-loved wife of a pop star and animal rights campaigner, the other a television presenter, also loved and esteemed by those who knew and worked with her. So private grief, deep and heartfelt, is entirely appropriate, but not the hours of TV coverage, the acres of newsprint, the references in parliament, the prayers in school assemblies. It is almost as if, post-Diana, we as a country are ready to clutch at any pretext for indulging in communal orgies of second-hand feeling and grief. This does nothing to add to the dignity or the sorrow of what are undoubtedly tragic events, but events which we distort out of all proportion.

Many felt that they knew Jill Dando. This is a testament to the power of television, but it says little for our wisdom or intelligence or even our ability to distinguish the essentially illusory nature of television from real fact. Somebody speaking or reading the news on TV is acting, putting on a performance in a wholly artificial setting. Their projected TV personality may bear no relation to their real personality. So TV presenters are projecting illusions, the upshot of which is that many ordinary people feel they know them, and see them as part of their own lives. This is certainly regrettable, but given the nature of TV it is understandable. It goes a long way to explain the exaggerated public reaction to Jill Dando's murder.

What, though, beggars belief is the way that the Queen, the prime minister and the home secretary all rushed to 'share their pain' with the rest of us. Even at the highest level, we as a nation are in the grip of the cult of quite minor 'celebrities'.

In the case of the Queen, there used to be a convention that the monarch should express grief publicly only over people known personally to her, or over some large-scale public tragedy, such as a terrorist bomb. One can only surmise that this latest foray into the realm of dubious public sentiment is part of the Blairite dumbing down of the monarchy.

In the case of Tony Blair and Jack Straw, it tells us a lot about New Labour's irresistible urge to hijack public sentiment, however misdirected, for the government's own political purposes. Tony Blair did not quite call Jill Dando 'the People's Presenter', but he might as well have done. We all got the message. Here was our not-so-ordinary prime minister showing that, even in the midst of leading an international war and pushing forward the Irish peace process, he can share the grief of ordinary people over the tragic death of somebody whose main public quality was said to be her ordinariness.

In doing so, Blair did neither himself nor the rest of us any credit. In focusing on Jill Dando's murder in the way he did, Blair was implying that her murder was somehow more shocking, more of a national disgrace than all of the other equally shocking, equally tragic murders which take place in the rest of the country.

And in a world where terrorist outrages and near genocide are unfortunately commonplace, for a major political leader to focus on one single murder is to lose all sense of proportion - unless the underlying aim is not so much the expression of grief as the milking of public sentiment for all it is worth. In thinking about the political reaction to Jill Dando's death, it is hard not to reflect on the way the NATO-caused deaths of 12 or more quite junior and innocent TV employees in Belgrade has attracted no public tears or tributes.

To use parliament and the highest office in the land to transform what should be private grief into a display of national mourning does us as a nation no credit. For it is to collude in the pretence that media events and personalities are somehow more real and more significant than others. This is both sentimental and dangerous. It is all too easy to cry our hearts out for people we never knew, and for whom we can do nothing, while evading our duties to those close to us, who need our care and attention, and for whom we can actually do something.

We expect our leaders to show a sense of proportion. We expect them to puncture our illusions, not to reinforce them. Monday 26 April and its aftermath was a terrible time for Jill Dando, and her friends and family. But, for quite different reasons, it wasn't good for the rest of us either.

Anthony O'Hear is professor of philosophy at Bradford University, and author of 'Diana, queen of hearts: sentimentality personified and canonised' in Faking It: the sentimentalisation of modern society (Social Affairs Unit)

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999



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