The triumph of the people's Diana

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The Independent Online
Will you remember where you were? And what will you remember? Waking up to hear that the most famous woman in the world was dead has disturbed everyone who believed they knew their own mind. The domination, willing and unwilling, by Diana, Princess of Wales, of every visual medium meant she was part of every life in the land, and beyond. So everybody has an epitaph this week. What is surprising is the unanimity on what that should be.

Here is what it is not. That she is a tragic icon, whose rock'n'roll demise in a Paris tunnel at midnight was written in the stars. That the grey Norns measured her thread at birth, selecting her for that gaudy pantheon where certain 20th-century images - JFK, Monroe, Dean, Elvis - keep that ceaseless charm, frozen for ever in their (relative) youth, spangled with the hi-tech glamour of their passing: the fast car, the pills and syringe, the magic bullet.

Oh - you'll still hear that, all this week and after. The startling fluency of commentators pulled into studios on Sunday depended on that ready myth, and understandably so. No one was prepared - and everyone was in shock.

There is an established protocol for senior (in both senses) establishment figures when they die. Meticulous plans have been drawn up - even rehearsed - by broadcasters. But Diana was not expected to be the first to test the system. In the event, resources were deployed, schedules wiped and black ties donned with impressive elegance and respect. If the Royal Family itself was unsure of Diana's standing and status, the broadcasters gave it an indication that reflected the citizens' concerns. No future death will command more coverage - in great part because no figure will offer such an abundance of what television loves most (and radio depends on our awareness of) - the exciting image. The catalogue was overflowing. Diana in dresses, in jeans. In hospitals, minefields and opera houses. With soldiers, nurses, children. With her children. With her husband. Without him.

Her life story needed no words. Her global fame was built on pictures. The marketing-man's dream-product.

But perhaps the packaging was a little too impressive. Sub-titles were needed, after all, to explain the significance of her life and death, to justify the tidal wave of tributes and reportage that flooded the country's screens. How irresistibly tempting, then, to reach the beauty and familiarity of their visual image. The icon who represented our hopes and dreams, whose tragic life seemed doomed. Betrayed before she even reached the bridal bed, brought in to whelp a line of kings and discarded.

And had I been "live and continuous" throughout Sunday's bleary hours, I could not have avoided picking up the same script. But I'm ashamed to admit it. Because it is a script founded in hypocrisy. To accord her the status of "icon" - yesterday I heard "martyr" - "saint", even - is to dodge uncomfortable truths about her, and about themselves. It is to keep up the game of image-construction after death, to carry on avoiding what's inside the package - the real woman.

And we know it. We rush to point to her complicity with the image-makers - her banter and battles with snappers, her pleading with editors to protect her sons. But to suggest that she was in control of how the professionals practised their cunning arts is dishonest and self-deluding. We made her, we magnified her, and now we glibly dispatch her to star-heaven, with barely-concealed schadenfreude, a victim of the Faustian pact she made with us.

What nonsense. If the media are devilish in their devices, there is no pre-ordained compulsion to be so. Even as we claimed to deconstruct the image that we had constructed - shy Di, dumb blonde, bad at picking men, fashion-victim - we revealed our own jealousy, resentment and snobbishness.

But - and here's a wry little reason to cheer - it turns out we've been talking to ourselves. The script which the best commentators this week have been using is quite different. The Prime Minister recognised who the first division are. "She was," he said, "the people's princess." And so it has proved. Every time the broadcasters went to the streets and houses where citizens were remembering and grieving - the same words were used. "She listened to us. She was interested. She kept in touch. She made us laugh. She understood." Not such a dusty record.

They saw kindness and selflessness in her actions when the cameras were not there. They talked about her without affectation, with a combination of sadness and residual excitement. They saw, and now mourn, the real woman.

And we, who knew her only via the selective long lenses and cunning pens of the media, who could not at first but wonder at the enthusiasm and grief of those who thronged to leave flowers and openly weep - we at last understood.

"Twenty-four hours ago I couldn't imagine I would say this," said Michael Ignatieff on Channel 4. "A light has left the world." And so the professionals learnt from the people. For the second time this year, the country saw beyond our efforts to control the images and their meaning - the first time since electing a Labour government for their own reasons, which may come to seem very different from the campaign commitments. Now the people mourn the Diana they knew.

People don't want saints and icons. They crave public figures who reach out and hear and understand - because they know from their own experience that life is not always fair or easy or happy. A princess could do this? It seems so.

And it seems that she had herself realised what might be possible now. There is no virtue in going home alone, however satisfying to prurient commentators. And there is no vice in looking for companionship, even love. In the last month, she defied our prejudices and was unabashed in the company of a man who had time for her.

Late on Sunday night a friend called: "Beware the spin. They're already saying the Royal Family is united in grief by the sudden death of the often-troubled princess ..." There was no inevitability about her death. She was not a wordless image. She is not a tragic icon, nor a saint. She was a young women on the brink of a confident adult life who had carried our fantasies for long enough. She died in a car that was travelling too fast. It was very modern, and very, very sad.

While she lived she made a difference to many people's lives. In death, she may yet inspire some of us to give as much time to doing as to analysing. And if, by the by, her death teaches us all that the construction and manipulation of the image is not about truth, is never intended to convey truth - that Camelot and fairy tales, and possibly one day princesses, belong inside book-covers - then we go better-armed into the next millennium.

The writer is a televison and radio broadcaster.