After Diana: The Media - Drinking in the last chance saloon

After Diana: The media attacks on the media which followed Diana's death forced some restraint, but is it really now business as usual?

Peter Cole
Wednesday 26 August 1998 23:02 BST

Two institutions suffered opprobrium after the death in Paris of Diana, Princess of Wales: the Royal Family and the media. The media, representing, as they would have it, "the people", accused the Queen of insensitivity both to the dead princess and her subjects by failing to grieve in public and to break with protocol by flying the flag at half- mast over Buckingham Palace when she was elsewhere.

Earl Spencer, Diana's brother, representing, as he would have it, the princess herself, accused the media, particularly the tabloid newspapers, of murdering the princess. He completed the opprobriun circle with a less than subtle attack on the Royal Family as well.

A year on, the Queen, counselled by her prime minister and others, has embarked on the creation of a less remote monarchy, and is flying the flag at half-mast to mark next Monday's anniversary. Prince Charles has worked hard on his public image, particularly over his relationship with his sons. The press have dutifully and positively reported this, and have helped to increase his popularity. But what of their own?

Let us remind ourselves of Earl Spencer's words in Westminster Abbey: "I always believed the press would kill her," said her brother. "It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana's image, has blood on their hands today."

There can never have been so savage an assault on the press. There was no mileage in drawing attention to Charles Spencer's own association with the media, to his own sale of pictures of the grand home his inheritance had brought him, to his own marital problems, to the dysfunctionality of his own family. On that day, in that climate of grief, the people accepted the words of the brother of the people's princess. If the monarchy had a job of rehabilitation to do, the media's was much greater. That applied particularly to the press, and especially to the tabloid press.

And today? The People's Pictures. Remembering Diana. Diana's Last Month. One Year On. Diana: The Mourning After. Diana's Children. Just a tiny taste of titles, billing articles by the dozen, programmes by the score, during the days leading up to The Anniversary next Monday. In terms of volume, certainly, nothing has changed. It flows over us, interesting only in that it extends the boundaries as never before in the search for yet another "angle" on a single event.

The only thing which made me pause for a second occurred in one of those inevitable "What were you doing on the day Diana died?" features. John Humphrys, Radio4 Today presenter, had the courage/foolishness to say, "I am not the slightest bit interested in remembering where I was. It was not, as far as I am concerned, a seminal event."

Diana - the face, the story, the myth, the icon - sells; hence the present avalanche of words and pictures. When the Daily Mail ran a glossy part- work biography of the princess it increased sales by around 400,000. The series ran for 12 weeks and was so successful the Mail quickly put together another equally successful part-work, on Diana and fashion.

So the evidence for demand is there. The biographies, by two unlikely authors, Julie Burchill and Bea Campbell, were serialised in broadsheets. The Times serialised a book exploring the conspiracy theories surrounding the car crash. The present cascade of memorial offerings occupies as much space in the broadsheets as the tabloids. Upmarket, downmarket, glossy magazines, tacky magazines, mass audience television, minority television - every market is involved, everybody is to blame. To blame for what?

For "pandering" (emotive word) to public prurience? For responding (non- emotive word) to public interest? The media are always susceptible to charges of hypocrisy, with some justification. It is less acceptable to accuse consumers of the same, still less to accuse, posthumously, Diana herself. But in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy the public, who in one guise were allegedly excoriating the press, in another were buying newspapers in exceptional numbers, including the tabloids. They could not get enough special supplements and features. This was as true in the regional press as it was for national newspapers. Whether the demand for Diana material is as great one year on remains to be seen when newspaper sales and broadcast audience figures for this period emerge. I doubt it.

Diana herself, on whose behalf her brother attacked the media, and who undoubtedly did suffer from the excesses of press intrusion, was adept at press manipulation, ensuring their presence when she wanted publicity for one of her good causes, wanted a point put across in her enduring feud with the Royal Family, or simply wanted to upstage Charles. Richard Kay of the Daily Mail and Andrew Morton of the (famously accurate) biography of the princess both profited from special relationships of Diana's making.

The hours and days after Diana's death, particularly the period between the tragedy and the funeral, left little space for reason or detachment. It was a brave person, and certainly a brave newspaper or broadcast editor, who declined to go with the flow of tears. To express surprise or incomprehension at the seemingly spontaneous national anguish was off-limits.

"To be honest, the concept of vicarious grief completely escapes me," wrote the iconoclastic Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail during the week of national grief. "There have been times this week when I have felt like a visiting alien." He was not alone, but few others dared say it.

As a year has passed one or two more have raised their heads, some to suggest that the press helped to create the national hysteria, that by reporting and showing the thousands flocking to London to lay their wreaths and sign the book of condolence they encouraged many more to do the same. I remember it rather differently. Conversations with editors at the time indicated that the media too were surprised by the scale of national grief and were working to keep up. For once, I think, the public acted and the media reacted. Such was the surreal mood that nobody was immune from over- reaction and haste of reaction. Cynicism, rightly and understandably, was on hold, but silence, which might have been sensible, did not occur even to those in the firing line. A procession of editors rushed to react in a chorus of mea culpa. Max Hastings, editor of the (London) Evening Standard, indulged in only slightly more hyperbole than his fellow editors when he said: "Some members of the newspaper trade have behaved like animals and it is strongly in the public interest that they should be deterred from doing so." Tabloids vowed never to deal with paparazzi again, never to intrude on the privacy of the princes William and Harry, to listen to the message the public was sending them.

Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, seized the hour and the mood. As an experienced politician he might have been mindful of legislating in haste, but he clearly took the view that it would have been criminal not to exploit such a mood of editorial repentance. Less than three weeks after the death, editors agreed at a PCC meeting with Wakeham to end "deplorable practices", and within another few weeks the Code Of Practice was strengthened. The concept of "persistent pursuit" was introduced, largely to deal with the paparazzi. The harassment clause in the PCC Code now states: "Journalists and photographers must neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit."

Lord Wakeham is content that much has been achieved in the area of self- regulation in the year following Diana's death, and sees it as "an abiding tribute to the memory of the princess".

So are we reading different tabloids, cautious in their coverage of all things royal, reticent about publishing "intimate" (a warm word much preferred by tabloid editors to the word intrusive) photographs? Phil Hall, editor of the News of the World, wrote recently in the Guardian about being offered two photographs of Prince William. One showed the future king with his arms round a pretty girl, the other, taken by the same member of the public (no paparazzi involvement) at much the same time, showed Prince Harry abseiling without safety line or protective helmet. Hall's explanation about why he published the latter but not the former could have come from the mouth of Lord Wakeham: "The decision on which was publishable and which was not was simple. The princes are and should be allowed to grow up without their every movement being recorded. Prince Harry's life was clearly being put at risk by adults who should have known better and it was legitimate for a newspaper to expose those mistakes in the public interest."

That represents change. And paparazzi royal pictures are no longer being bought. But before we get too carried away about the tabloid taste revolution one or two stories over the year to note: Stake-out of Highgrove to catch Camilla Parker-Bowles's arrival for Charles's early 50th birthday event. Leaking of Camilla's first meeting with William and Harry. Leaking of review planned by young princes for Dad's aforementioned early 50th. Zara Phillips's stud in the tongue shock. And a page of the Daily Mail just last week showing Zara embracing a series of men at the Gatcombe Horse Trials.

But by and large more restraint than before, and particularly over the young princes, who are being left alone by the press more than, say, Charles the schoolboy was. None of this applies to other tabloid celebrity fodder, but it is arguable whether it should. Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham, Anthea Turner, Kim Wilde have all "suffered" at the hand, and lens, of the tabloid since Diana's death and the new PCC code.

In tackiness terms, television probably has most to answer for. Channel Five's tasteless soap-docs about the life of Di, produced by Kelvin MacKenzie and described in this paper as "awe-inspringly bad, a Grand Canyon of dramatic trash". The same channel's Diana Years with pop soundtrack identifying each year in question. ITV's conspiratorial and journalistically suspect examination of the night Diana died, with unlimited access provided by Mohammed Al Fayed for reporter Nicholas Owen to film in Dodi's flat and Edward and Mrs Simpson's mansion. But it is hardly surprising that a medium currently obsessed with the sexiness of its news-readers has distorted values when it comes to remembering Diana.

And happily for the media for it was for once out-tackied by last weekend's "walk the funeral procession route" event, in which a discriminating public voted with its feet, not by walking but by staying away.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.

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