Robert Fulford's column about the media's treatment of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales

(Globe and Mail, September 1, 1997)

The sudden and unexpected death of a celebrity, particularly a celebrity who aroused complex feelings, naturally produces consternation among those who must describe it on television and radio. Placed in front of cameras and microphones with barely a moment to absorb the news, they wonder: What should I be doing, saying? What do people want from me? Faced with the death of the Princess of Wales late on Saturday night, the TV news people were actors thrust onto the stage with no script and only a sketchy idea of the plot. And, for reasons of tradition and public need, they were forced to remain on stage, hour after hour, exploring the most minute details of the subject.

Remarkably, the people on CNN, Newsworld and the BBC performed with efficiency and even a certain grace. Young or old, novices or veterans, they seemed to understand that they were part of a necessary ritual--even if, only a few hours earlier, they had held the view that all stories about Lady Diana were stupid and trivial.

Death changes everything. In this case it turned the Princess of Wales into a historic figure, someone to be both praised and mourned. By dying she became, for the second time, the focus of a major international media event. The first time, of course, was her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981, a textbook example of the planned media event, with every costume, camera angle and note of music calculated for maximum effect. The unplanned media event, on the other hand, almost always starts with a shocking death. After that, everything is improvisation.

I think I first began to understand the meaning of these spontaneous media events on the January day in 1986 when the Challenger spacecraft exploded, killing the crew of seven. That afternoon, hours after the explosion, I noticed that all the men in a downtown Toronto health club were still watching, in respectful silence, every interview that appeared on TV. Why? It was sad, but it was the sort of disaster to be expected in frontier technology. And all the news we would get that day had long since been delivered. Why were they watching so intently? I said something like that to an editor friend, and he gave me the answer: "Because it gives them, and everyone else, the feeling of sharing something important."

Of course. One theory of mass communications holds that the central function of media is the creation of community--a newspaper helps turn a city into a self-conscious community by giving it political and cultural cohesion. In the TV age, this process has become both grander and more delicate, but the effect is similar. Television, which so often is accused of alienating and isolating people, demonstrates in a crisis that it has a unique power to create ceremonies that connect us. What the media offer is something like a wake, a shiva, a funeral-parlor visitation. It's a chance for everyone to feel involved.

Each event of this kind is unique, but the ritual of mourning repeats itself. The arrival of Lady Diana's coffin (the imagery so strangely reminiscent of the Churchill funeral in 1965) becomes a moment of solemn drama. The statements from political titans like Nelson Mandela deepen the sense of history. Even the man from the London Sunday Times, bursting into middle-of-the-night tears on CNN, becomes part of a satisfying drama.

"Media event" was a term invented by television's enemies, to show its essential phoniness. But in 1992 Daniel Dayan, a French sociologist, and Elihu Katz, an Israeli scholar, wrote a detailed and persuasive defense, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Harvard University Press). They argued that these events, planned or unplanned, demonstrate the true value of television, as a way of linking humanity: "These are events that hang a halo over the television set and transform the viewing experience."

On this occasion, the halo isn't firmly in place, since the print media were possibly implicated. Photographers were chasing the Princess's car, the car was perhaps driven dangerously in order to elude them, and therefore the photographers are guilty of indirect manslaughter. This seems nonsensical to me. To believe it, you must accept that it is mandatory or at least understandable for a celebrity's driver to break the law if photographers are in pursuit. But it isn't. They weren't terrorists or kidnappers; they were just a major nuisance. Nevertheless, on Sunday some journalists were ready to accept the idea of the photographers' guilt. As Michael Enright (who did a one-hour CBC radio special on Sunday morning) put it, "We certainly shifted into self-flagellating mode pretty quickly."

If guilt has to be assessed, it should be more widely distributed. Many magazines publish unauthorized photos and therefore motivate ambitious photographers. Those of us who read People from time to time are guilty, too. And some of those photos go to the wire services and may even appear, dare I say it, in our own dear Globe and Mail. Nor would Lady Diana escape blame. Like all celebrities, she passionately sought publicity but wanted it on her own terms. She believed, mistakenly, that she could control it. On Saturday night, seeking privacy, she had dinner at the Ritz.

Funerals bring out the moralist in many of us, and at every wake there's someone intent on establishing his own rectitude. At Lady Di's media event yesterday, this role was played by, of all people, the National Enquirer. It announced on the Internet that last year it established a no-stalking policy for photographers, "to prevent exactly this type of horrible tragedy." Furthermore, the National Enquirer announced that it won't buy pictures taken by papparazi who were following the princess. So in case anybody thought otherwise, the National Enquirer at least is entirely innocent. It's good that someone is.

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