Di On A Rope: The press and princess propaganda

It's 23 years since Princess Diana died and the media still hasn't owned up to its role in her rise and fall.

I got a little TV for my 13th birthday; a TV that I was allowed to keep in my room. It was the reason that I saw Tony Blair’s ‘a new dawn has broken, has it not?’ moment on May 2nd. It was also the reason that three months later on 31st August, I sat up in bed, grabbed the remote control, and turned the TV on to the news that Princess Diana was dead; a story that swallowed up every channel in black trim and hysteria.

Neither of my parents believes in the Royal Family. My mum barely tolerates them, while my dad, like me, is apt to spin into teeth-grinding fury at the continuing insult of their existence at the heart of British ‘democracy’.

So it was that the Death of Diana — capital letters required upon pain of death by tabloid shaming — was simply the passing of a woman none of us knew and for which none of us had a particular fondness. In my house, it was experienced as a very, very peripheral tragedy. We thought it was really sad for her sons and really ridiculous that big parts of the country and especially the media contorted in a travesty of grief.

As Lizzy illustrates in the tweet above, the press and media, especially the tabloids, pulled a hard handbrake turn over Diana. Her body was barely cold as they shifted from slut-shaming to saint-praising. Her charity work — worthwhile but often performative — had not mattered as much as her romantic choices while she was alive, but now she was dead, with the tabloid’s paparazzi bastards at least co-defendants in the disaster, they needed to hammer out a halo and stick it on her head.

The pattern that the tabloids established with Princess Diana has been repeated frequently over the years and it is always women who get the whore/madonna treatment. Jade Goody, Amy Winehouse and Caroline Flack are all examples of women who were hammered while they were living then polished up as martyrs in death.

The Tony Blair’s Labour government, which had done a dark deal with Murdoch for assistance in getting into Downing Street, threw the tabloids some fresh meat with the “people’s princess” line. It was a confection of Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair’s making, and like so many New Labour lines, it sounded good at first before slowly falling apart, zombie rhetoric that could not hold together in the sun (although it was very serviceable for The Sun).

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Diana was born into the British nobility — daughter of John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer, and Frances Shand Kydd — and knew as much about ‘the people’ as I do about various kinds of dessert fork. Yes, she went to London, had flatmates, and playacted at having jobs but Diana was always destined for a life of expensive clothes and cheap personal interactions.

The Royal Family is a soap opera we pay for and are forced to watch as if it really matters. At the point that Princess Diana married Prince Charles, a crashingly dull man who, if he were a prince in a storybook, would get lost in the woods, leaving Sleeping Beauty to wither to a husk, the Royal needed a new star. Diana was that star. She scrubbed up well, morphing from mousey teenager to blonde bombshell, and, crucially for the tabloids, she gave good quote.

The trouble for the Royals was that Diana was easily bored and had no desire to tolerate Charles’ affair with Camilla, nor his controlling ways and boring hobbies. She may have famously said “there are three people in this marriage” but the truth is that any Royal marriage has hundreds of people in it — from The Queen down to the beaky ‘advisors’ who cannot stop themselves burbling on about what is protocol and what is not — and makes the dysfunction of the Kardashians look positively calm.

23 years on from Diana’s death, the media is still treating Royal stories as something where the ‘characters’ involved aren’t really human. It purported for a few years after Diana’s death to have learned lessons, but the media doesn’t learn, it simply keeps its nose clean for a little while until it thinks critics and regulators have stopped paying attention. The relentlessly racist treatment of Meghan Markle is evidence that the tactics and mentality that the tabloids claimed had also died on 31 August 1997 are still shambling on, undead and undiluted.

I never liked Princess Diana but I really hate the tabloids.