Diana - The Last Farewell; The public wants what the public gets

TELEVISION: Jasper Rees on how the media has manufactured the popular expression of grief
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The news headlines were delivered by my five-year-old daughter. Bong! Daddy, there aren't any cartoons on the telly. Bong! Daddy, Diana's dead. I can't have been the only person to find out what was on TV on Sunday morning by being told what was not on. And for the rest of the week there may as well have been nothing else on either. At the precise moment in its calendar when television annually unloads a truckful of spanking new programmes, I didn't watch a single minute of any of them.

The television was switched to ITV when we got downstairs, because that's where my daughter had given up the search for children's entertainment. It's a small but significant measure of how knocked for six we were that for several minutes we stayed with GMTV's coverage, as it attempted to dredge up the appropriate levels of gravitas in a pink and fluffy studio. Over on the BBC sat an appalling irony in the human figure of Martyn Lewis, a man who has for so long endured the ridicule of his colleagues for wanting to disseminate more good news. His punishment: to be the one to break some very bad news indeed.

It was a couple of hours before my four-year-old girl began to lobby for something a little less solemn. Channel 4, invoking its remit to be alternative, obliged more quickly than anyone could have expected. For every other channel, Diana's parting gift, though involuntarily donated, was one last gargantuan feeding frenzy, one last dip of the snout in the trough. It wasn't until Tuesday night that anyone could bear to utter the words, "And now today's other news.''

By Wednesday, though, with the paparazzi charged, there was a palpable sense that the story was going cold on them. There were no actual events to report, only emotions. Swift action was taken to clamp a couple of electrodes on the story and zap it into life. Hence what seems to me to be an entirely synthetic item about the Queen's alleged indifference to her subjects' grief, one of those classic examples of a public mood taking shape only when the public is told by television that it is going to take shape.

From "think of the boys'', the theme of the nation's grief turned to "forget about the boys, Ma'am, and think of us''. Suddenly, the news programmes seemed to have performed an extraordinary 180-degree turn, like a river that perverts the laws of nature by starting to flow upstream. Normally the conduit through which the people find out about the Royal Family, it suddenly became a means of communicating information about the people to the Royal Family. They say that in grief you always want to be doing something. This is what the news programmes did, manufacturing material that they could then report.

So it wasn't only The People who found themselves behaving collectively out of character. 5 News played a melancholy instrumental track as it reported on the queues outside St James's Palace. News at Ten dispensed with its immensely lucrative commercial break (although it is rumoured to have applied to the ITC for advertising screentime to compensate for the loss of revenue). There was a recital of homespun poetry embedded in practically every bulletin. All week, as the values of journalism went into what one hopes is a reversible coma, Newsnight looked distinctly uncomfortable. On Monday it gobbled up the issue of press intrusion, but that left four more programmes in which all they could do was talk about feelings. Like the Royal Family, that's not something Newsnight does very well. It looked particularly ill at ease on Wednesday and Thursday, framing its studio debates with vox pop interviews outside St James's Palace. It alone seemed to realise that it is impossible to report on something as amorphous as popular sentiment, and the proof was in the pudding.

As if conscious that it will lose all its viewers to the BBC today, ITV spent the weekday mornings consoling them. By yesterday, Live with Lorraine in particular had moved into full beatification mode. On John Stapleton's The Time, The Place, Diana's sons had shrunk to "those two little boys'', like characters from that fairy tale into which the princess married in the first place. When Diana's biographer Andrew Morton appeared on This Morning with Richard and Judy on Monday, the first thing he said was "You couldn't write the script, could you?'' Oh, but you could: if you were going to write up the drama of Diana's life as fiction, this is exactly how you'd end it. Unfortunately it's not a script, and the pack hunting her to her death really did include a man called Rat. But faster than you can say "Ich Dien'', on Monday morning, an abundance of biographers will sit down and go to work on their own scripts for future publication. And the cashtill will go on tolling long after the bells of Westminster Abbey have fallen silent.

Comments