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03 September 1997

The Real Meaning of the Di Phenomenon

In the early hours of Sunday 31 August, celebrity royal Princess Diana was killed, along with her lover Dodi Fayed, in a car crash in Paris. We are being encouraged by political leaders and media pundits to take part in a macabre ritual that seeks to conjure up a mythical unity through phoney grief for an icon of victimhood.

The media-fest that started minutes after Diana's death looks set to continue for the next week, to be followed by appeals, memorials, revelations and retrospectives throughout the year ahead. For the media has become expert at turning tragedy into a spectacle of international proportions.

From dawn until late afternoon on Sunday, both BBC1 and BBC2 were devoted to Diana. Reporters were stationed outside all the royal palaces describing the scenes as crowds gathered to 'express their grief for the princess'. As the day wore on, the strangely gripping TV broadcasts were like church bells calling the nation to prayer. The people who went to Buckingham or Kensington Palace must have watched the early reports and gone to join the growing crowds, thus accepting walk-on parts in the drama being improvised before our eyes.

Radio 1 axed the Top 40 for the first time ever, other radio stations played the national anthem every hour, the Football Association cancelled all fixtures, Blackpool illuminations were extinguished and party leaders called for a suspension of the dirty game of politics.

At a time when politicians, church leaders and media heads desperately cling to anything that seems to offer an insight into 'what people really think', whether through Blair's People's Panels, endless radio phone-ins or telephone hotlines, tragedies are increasingly drawn upon to make some kind of connection with 'us'. Last year offered dress rehearsals for the Diana wake with the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence and the tragedy of Dunblane, both of which saw politicians clamouring to get closest to the victims and to demonstrate their ability to relate to real people and real problems. Two exceptional, if tragic, incidents became vehicles for political leaders desperate for legitimacy among a public from which they feel increasingly alienated and which they lack the confidence to lead.

Tony Blair's lump-in-the-throat speech on Sunday and the sight of his children being ritually dragged to church set a clear model for our response: we are to reflect on the significance of Diana's life and death. A parade of world leaders and celebrities from Mandela to Yeltsin, from Mother Teresa to Michael Jackson tried to get a piece of the action by adding their own greeting card sentimentalities to the performance, further encouraging the media pundits in their pursuit for the 'meaning of this senseless tragedy'. Luckily, Diana's recent anti-landmine crusade enabled even the most cynical commentators to find something in her 36 years of privilege and luxury to take seriously. While the innocent whose 'heart ruled her head' is held up like an idiot savant as a model to us all, politics and critical comment are suspended. Like over-emotional teenagers who mourn the break-up of their favourite pop group, we are encouraged to suspend disbelief and join in the false community that weeps and hugs itself in the worship of an icon of victimhood.

The response to Diana's death brings into stark relief a society desperately in need of a shared sense of itself. The endless refrains of 'the nation mourns' and 'the need for us all to come to terms with our collective grief' elevates a real tragedy for a real, if peculiar, family into a distorted symbol of common humanity. The fact that this humanity is discovered not in the triumphant achievement of a moon landing or a sporting record, but in a macabre ritual that deifies suffering, reveals a sick society that struggles to recognise let alone celebrate human achievement, but excels at revelling in the maudlin.

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