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29 April 1999

Mourning sickness after Dando

The following article was published in The Times (London), 29 April 1999

'Jill Dando's murder seems to be the latest excuse for another public outburst of the modern British disease - mourning sickness'

by Mick Hume, LM editor

The murder of Jill Dando is a tragedy for her family, friends and colleagues, a genuine shock to many other people, and a legitimate news story. So why can't we leave it at that?

Why does what should be a moment for private grief have to be elevated into a semi-state occasion, complete with appearances from the Queen and President Blair? The orgy of emotionalism can tell us little about the life of the blameless Miss Dando. Her brutal murder appears to have become the latest excuse for another public outburst of the modern British disease - mourning sickness.

Many have tried not just to report her death, but to sanctify her life, trying to endow an apparently inexplicable murder with some deeper meaning. Jack Straw, the home secretary, set the tone for the media coverage when he told the Commons that Miss Dando 'had done a huge amount personally in the fight against crime by her role, not least in Crimewatch UK'. In The Times, Valerie Grove concurred that 'Because she stood bravely in the studio appealing for help in solving crime, Miss Dando stood for right versus wrong' (28 April). The article also compared her televised launch of the Kosovo appeal to the anti-mine campaigning of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Posthumous attempts to depict Miss Dando as a symbol of Good fuelled the speculation that her death may have been an act of revenge by the forces of Evil. The front-page headline in Tuesday's Express - 'Was she killed by a hitman?' - was topped by the banner headline on Wednesday's Daily Mail: 'Was Jill killed by a Serb gunman?'

When emotionalism rushes in the door, perspective goes out of the window. No doubt Miss Dando was a warm and charming woman. But she was also an archetypal celebrity: somebody who is famous largely for being famous, rather than for what they have done. As a television presenter who 'stood bravely in the studio', she was no more responsible for solving crimes or saving Kosovo refugees than her friend Desmond Lynam is to blame for the football results.

Everybody from Julie Burchill to the Mayor of Weston-super-Mare, Miss Dando's hometown, has rushed to compare her to the late Diana. 'Goodbye to an English rose' read one of the floral tributes outside Miss Dando's Fulham house. And while Tony Blair just stopped short of repeating his eulogy to Diana, Sue Carroll of The Mirror did it for him. 'If Diana was the People's Princess', she told us, 'Jill was the People's Presenter'.

Miss Dando was clearly no Diana, more Tesco Metro than Harvey Nicks. Yet those trying to recreate the morbid effusion whipped up after the death of the princess insist that they were both like 'the girl next door'. Where 'ordinary people' loved Diana for her vulnerability and insecurity, Jill was admired for what one former boss called her 'extraordinary ordinariness'.

At one time, being weak might have been thought a reason for not getting the Hollywood treatment. Now it is a telling sign of our unheroic age that we should be encouraged to admire and emulate a princess who called herself 'as thick as a plank' and a celebrity who once described herself as 'Jill Blando'.

The media must take their share of responsibility for encouraging much of the copycat mawkishness. The response of some journalists and broadcasters has gone way beyond the understandable sense of shock and loss at the murder of one their own. Both the BBC and ITN produced special half-hour programmes within hours of Miss Dando's death - something they never managed for the outbreak of war in the Balkans.

Yet the media are not ultimately to blame. Many people seem only too willing to be injected with another dose of mourning sickness. At a time when people feel disengaged from the old institutions that once held them together, public displays of mourning for a Diana, a Linda McCartney or a Jill Dando (complete with the new rituals of flower-laying, condolence-book signing, etc) have become rare opportunities to show some social solidarity.

Respect the grief of the bereaved, but don't indulge the rest of the circus. People may exhibit strong feelings during mourning sickness, but for most they are ersatz emotions, directed at people they did not know for reasons of which they are unsure. As Dr Oliver James said of the tears for Diana, 'whilst the sincerity of the feelings are undoubted, their authenticity is not'.

Meanwhile, in Belgrade, they drag the body of an ordinary, innocent make-up lady from the rubble of the Serbian equivalent of BBC Television Centre. No tears or TV specials for her.

See The Times website at http://www.the-times.co.uk

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