Leading Article: People's princess? No, it's just a media conspiracy

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SHE HAD "pretty loose morals" and has become a "false goddess", says the former archbishop of Canterbury. Up to a point, Lord Coggan. It is not for a secular newspaper to lecture the retired boss of the Church of England on theology, but isn't he missing something important about the Christian message? Diana, Princess of Wales was never going to qualify as a saint in the colloquial sense - someone whose personal morals are above reproach - but did Jesus not find the spirit of love and forgiveness in all sorts of people?

It seems a bit rich, too, for a leading churchman to speak ill of the dead, when it could be argued that Diana communicated the message of compassion more effectively than the established church has for a long time.

Nevertheless, there is too much idolatry about, and we should be clear about where it comes from and who is to blame. The build-up to the anniversary of the car crash in Paris has begun embarrassingly early. Many Sunday newspapers yesterday contained full-colour commemorative supplements. Newsnight had its anniversary discussion long ago, and the television schedules are already packed with Dianaphernalia. Yet there is still a week to go to 31 August.

It is too easy to blame the media as if it were a single corporate conspiracy. There are, after all, the commemorative plate makers, margarine manufacturers and even the Prime Minister himself seeking to cash in on the cult of Diana. But primary responsibility for stoking the emotional overkill must lie with the press and broadcasters. We hope that The Independent/ Harris opinion poll on the subject of Diana, published today, will help wind down rather than contribute to this process. It suggests that the British public are healthily downbeat about her legacy. The traditional defence of media obsessions is that readers and viewers demand them; not in this case, according to our survey. About two-fifths of the population think the anniversary of Diana's death should be "specially marked" in some way, but a majority, 53 per cent, disagree.

As for her legacy itself, large majorities say that her death - and people's response to it - has not changed us, either as a country or as individuals. Clearly, for a minority her death was highly significant. For them, her life stood as a shining example of how they could be more compassionate themselves, and her death offered the nation the chance to rededicate itself to caring values.

An even smaller minority reacted violently against what they saw as the mawkishness of public sentiment. But for most people the Princess's death was less highly charged, beyond the usual intimation of mortality: devastating for her sons, bleakly beneficial to her former husband's campaign to restore his miserable public standing, and a valuable chance to consider the good causes that she espoused.

She was, sadly, never the "queen of people's hearts" to which she aspired, and she was only the "people's princess" in the sense that she stood against those aspects of the monarchy that most people want reformed: the stuffiness, the protocol and the anti-democratic pretensions.

The public display of emotion that followed her death was acclaimed as a touchy-feely revolution in national sensibility, which it was not. There have been near-universal displays of public grief before, but the form of this mourning was different from, for example, the hundreds of thousands filing past Winston Churchill's coffin. The flowers and weeping in public were, however, less her legacy than a marker of trends under way for some time, especially that of the growing emotional literacy of men.

Over the next week, then, let us hope we can keep in perspective what is valuable about Diana's legacy, while all around the media lose their heads.