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Ian Burrell: Make no mistake - Thatcher’s funeral will be nothing like Diana’s

Media Studies: The shock of Diana’s death gave the story a momentum which drove the media into a frenzy

I well remember covering the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and spending the previous warm, September night on the pavement by the Wellington Arch, in order to have a good view of the procession. In the sleeping bags next to me were two middle-aged female Daily Mail readers who kindly shared some of the chicken they had brought in their sandwich boxes.

“They’re going to be standing ten deep,” a news editor had instructed The Independent’s reporting team the day before, in an impassioned address designed to convey the full historic import of the event. “Someone is going to try to climb on the gun carriage!”

I was reminded of all this by a line on The Sun’s front page last week, as it promised that Baroness Thatcher’s funeral would be a ceremony “just like Diana”. But Wednesday’s event, despite some similarities in ritual, will be very different.

For political reasons, The Sun and the Daily Mail would love to see the impression given of an outpouring of grief on the scale we saw at the funeral of the “People’s Princess”, and they will try to coerce broadcasters – especially the BBC – into giving the story the same saturation treatment. Newspapers, I am sure, will seize an opportunity to produce the collector’s edition supplements that offer a day’s respite from falling circulation.

But as news events these two funerals are not on the same scale. The shock of Diana’s death, and the “field of flowers” placed outside Kensington Palace, gave that story a momentum which drove the media into a frenzy.

Internationally, the contrast is even greater. Diana’s funeral drew a global audience of two billion. America was transfixed as the big-name network presenters – Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings – flew to London to anchor coverage that began at 4am. Such were the resources devoted,  American networks were then criticised for the lack of coverage given to the funeral  of Mother Teresa, a week later.

But despite the warmth many Americans felt for the Iron Lady, the nation’s media has been weighing up the possible attendance of President Obama as it gauges the newsworthiness of her funeral. Like the poverty-fighting nun, who lived to 87, Lady Thatcher was an elderly woman whose passing was not unexpected. 

I thought The Sun’s front page headline “Maggie dead in bed at the Ritz” was a jarring sight on the newsstand, given the stories we are used to seeing in red tops about events in hotel rooms. Her presence at the Ritz for her final days, paid for by friends, was widely known. Almost all news organisations had obituaries and other material ready to go, thus ensuring the general high quality of retrospective pieces on all media platforms last week. Diana’s death, however, was not only sudden but it contained an element of mystery as to the circumstances in the Paris underpass.

Where do you draw the line on the quantity of Thatcher coverage? The BBC learned a lesson from Diana’s funeral, which was that some were dismayed at the “hysteria” over the death of an aristocrat. They objected to the broadcaster’s suggestion of a country united by grief (we were only three-deep on the pavement, by the way, and no one climbed on the gun carriage).

“We were not always precise enough in our use of language, especially when we started to use phrases such as ‘the mood of the nation’, ‘the grief of the public’. There was no single mood, rather there was a variety of moods,” one BBC executive admitted, in a confidential document that emerged years later. But Diana was a royal who, unlike any other, had support on the political left for her devotion to causes such as the fight against Aids. Lady Thatcher presents an altogether different challenge to the BBC, which has opted for a three-hour special on BBC1, hosted by David Dimbleby.

Lady Thatcher’s divisive legacy means there is an extra angle to this story. The Mail is already on red alert for signs that the hard left are planning to disrupt the funeral, bringing an element of tension to an otherwise solemn occasion. If there were any “bad guys” at the Diana funeral, they were the media themselves, specifically the paparazzi photographers who hounded her and the tabloid papers and magazines that published their pictures.

Christopher Wyld, director of the Foreign Press Association, tells me that interest from foreign media in Wednesday’s funeral is far less than for last year’s royal wedding, and that the big story of the year will be the birth of the royal baby. “The monarchy is of colossal global interest, politics is not on the same scale,” he says. The number of accreditation requests from photographers has been “quite modest”.

Nonetheless, this week’s proceedings will be seen by a vast global audience. Back in 1997, the early days of the internet, we filed our Diana reports verbally by mobile phone. Never mind the lack of accredited photographers, the thousands of spectators on the pavements on Wednesday will not just be passively mourning, but using phones to take their own pictures and publishing them online. I dare say that’s how many will follow the funeral. It won’t be “just like Diana” at all.

Beware the rise of the ‘phoneographer’

Talking of photographer  accreditation, in among the professional snappers at the weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley were two so-called “phoneographers”, taking shots on their mobiles for social media.

Oliver Nielsen, 18, who runs the quirky @awaydays Twitter account, which has 53,000 followers and shows clusters of visiting fans at matches, was pitch-side with Ope Odueyungbo, a 21 year-old amateur photographer who has accrued 47,000 followers for his stylish “greatarsenal” Instagram account, which is more about street images than football ones.

Very good. Except this publicity stunt by American beer-brand Budweiser – said to “recognise the power of citizen journalism” – will exacerbate tensions between football and news organisations.

Several big clubs are squeezing professional media by giving limited access to a single, pooled photographer, while putting their own snappers in superior vantage points to secure rights to the best images.

The notion that a fan with a phone can do the job – as many try to do every time a player takes a corner or throw-in – will undermine the idea that this is a profession worth a salary. Not many grounds have Wembley’s facilities and many press boxes have limited capacities. As bloggers grow their audiences, how much longer will the professional football journalist be able to claim their free ticket?

Media bosses laud digital future

Such threats help explain why the national newspaper industry is trying to change the way it’s seen. On Wednesday many of its senior figures will come together for a rare conference to explain that, with vast digital audiences, the business should no longer be seen solely in terms of the printed page.

“Once you start talking about newspapers as news brands operating across a variety of platforms I think there’s a very powerful story to tell,” says Rufus Olins, chief executive of industry trade-body Newsworks.

Highlights of “Shift 2013” will include a conversation between Olins and Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust, and a presentation by the Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher. Headed “24 hours in the life of…” it should disclose whether or not he takes any sleep.

Paul Cheesbrough, the chief technology officer at News Corporation, is set to reveal insights from behind the Wapping paywall.

“It’s an indication that people have a willingness to work together – even though they’re intensely competitive,” says Olins. The real test will be whether delegates from advertising agencies and big-client brands, such as Boots, Tesco and Aviva, embrace this success story.

Twitter: @iburrell