The tabloids take their slice of the pie

Papers that routinely defiled Diana when she was alive now revile the royals for defiling her memory: amnesia is lucrative
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The media giveth and the media taketh away, but what the media wants the media shall have. By reflecting the will of the people this week, it has moved mountains. The Queen, the iciest peak of all, will talk to the nation because that is what the nation wants. How do we know that is what the nation wants? Because the media has told us so. Diana's death, caused in some way by the very worst aspects of the media, has already brought out some of its very best.

It has reflected the nation back to itself and we are changed by it, humbled by what we see of ourselves. By reporting the views of "ordinary" people, the media has forced changes upon the arrangements made to mourn Diana. It has proved more powerful, more influential than any other institution. The government, expert at negotiating and spinning stories, has worked with the media. The royals, with their archaic flunkies reading out statements, haven't - and look where it has got them.

I do not want to glorify the whole circus of which, obviously, I am a part, for we have all been walking a fine line this week. We have all wanted to have our cake and eat it, if that is not too bulimic an expression. A series of largely questionable oppositions has emerged, enabling one section of the media to slag off another part of it and exonerate itself in the process. Thus broadsheets are different from tabloids. Scummy foreign paparazzi are different for our good old boys who simply do their job. Television is different from newspapers, and so on.

The one opposition that we are all in tacit agreement about is the most startling: that of the people versus the Palace. The masses gathered in the streets are, then, part of some quiet revolution. The historic symbolism of masses of people silently gathering on the streets is not lost on us. It pre-figured the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We feel, now, that something has to give, but the monarchy looks incapable of giving. The Queen's broadcast will be seen by many of us as too little, too late. It has been dragged out of her rather than spontaneously given.

No one knows quite what to make of this public feeling, for this is cultural rather than political revolution. It is about being rather than doing. It is saying not so much that we want a radical change as that we have already changed radically. It is just that no one has really grasped how much.

And who would not want to claim this mood, to read the zeitgeist as part of some far larger, more easily defined project? Yet, now that Diana is dead, it is still no easier to sign her up to republicanism than when she was alive. She wanted desperately for her son to be king. The tabloids, in particular, want a slice of this pie. They who routinely defiled her when she was alive now revile the royals for defiling her memory. Amnesia, it appears, is lucrative. Those who commissioned, bought and published pictures of her pregnant in a bikini, working out at the gym, crying in the street, are now ever so concerned that enough respect should be shown. They are now preparing their special supplements of more acceptable pictures. Collective denial, collective guilt about what happened to Diana masks the continuing desire to still see more and more of her. We continue to consume her image as voraciously as we ever did.

We are all voyeurs, all implicated in this. Do we want to see the Royal Family break down and weep, its supporters ask? Yes we do. Is the only emotion that is meaningful one that is clearly visible to the outside world? Yes, I'm afraid, at the moment, that is the way we feel. We want to turn outwards rather than inwards, to express something collectively as well as individually.

This may be seen by some as a kind of hysteria, a clinical condition to which many vulnerable folk have succumbed. Hysteria, of course, is a deeply patronising word, for it both feminises and infantilises the depth of feeling of the public. How can people grieve so for someone they have not met, ask psychologists, who base their theories on the work of a man who lived long before the age of mass media. Well, we grieved for the children of Dunblane and we cried for Jamie Bulger and the victims of Hillsborough and as long ago as the King's Cross fire we started taking out little bunches of wilted flowers to the site of these terrible tragedies.

Put simply, Diana was not only perceived as a force for tremendous good but as the biggest celebrity of all. This combination in a secular age is the most powerful imaginable. The total visibility that the media gave her made a more significant presence in some people's lives than people they actually knew, just as some people feel that an appearance on television is the most real and legitimating moment of their lives.

This, some suggest, is misguided. They would like all this emotion poured into a more politically correct cause or a properly religious one. They would perhaps have preferred a more politically correct princess, but that is to miss the point. Diana cut across all that. In giving herself permission to be vulnerable, contradictory, idealistic, she has given us that same permission. She used the media to show that to us, and we are now using the media to show it to each other.

There may be a point at which we say we do not want to see any more, that we have had enough, that there is nothing left to see of her or her mourners. But that, at the moment, is unimaginable. We continue to find what has happened to her all-consuming. The nation will stop on Saturday and the media, full of both its good guys and bad guys, will give the people what they most desire - inclusion in this mass spectacle.

It has always been impossible to speak of Diana without talking of her relationship with the media, and it still is. Her image is being constructed in death as it was in life, but the force that is driving it is the will of the people, the punters, the consumers. The media is one step behind trying to satisfy a demand that even in its wildest dreams it underestimated. The gulf between image and reality is fading fast, for the nation is re- making itself in her image in order that we might see ourselves as we really are.