James Flint on Tue, 23 Sep 1997 13:40:46 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Death by Media

"The news guy wept and told us, earth was really dying,
He cried so much his face was wet, and then I knew, he was not lying."
(David Bowie, Five Years)

Maybe the news that the world will end in five years would bring tears of
conviction to the media's eyes, but the news of Diana's death certainly did
not. Apart from the grief exhibited by those, like royal commentator Nick
Owen, so cut up on the day of the accident that it was clear that they were
personally in love with the Princess of Wales, the mourning of the press
was tempered at every turn by the most revealing flexing of media muscle
that this country has ever seen.

For what happened in the week between death and funeral? On the Sunday
morning, Britain awoke to the news that the most famous woman in the world
had been killed by the media. There was something awesome, something
utterly defining for the
century, about this death. The most famous woman in the world finally
disappears in the conjunction of the motor of the camera and the motor of
the car, two out of
three of the defining motors of our age (the third being the motor of the
machine gun). Perhaps that is why so many people were so upset, often
despite themselves - in some way Diana's death is emblematic of the way all
our lives (and deaths) are now mediated by the media. As a textbook
Virilio/Baudrilliard/Ballard scenario, this couldn't be beat.

The actual details of the night itself - to what extent the crash was
caused by the swerving motorbikes of the pursuing photographers, to what
extent by the mis-calculation of the driver - are in fact fairly
irrelevant; the point is that Diana's death was the conclusion of 16 years
of media harassment in which many many journalists, from from TV to
broadsheet, had a personal hand. This sounds like a strong, provocative
claim, but it isn't really - I'm not trying to establish criminal guilt, a
simple and direct cause, or whip up anti-media feeling. But still there was
as strong a case as one could imagine that the media shares some of the
responsibility for her death and in acknowledging that should accept a
wider causality, one in which a cause is a distributed mechanism, an
affect. But this kind of causality is one not recognised by current media
dogma, except as a nebulous theory to reject in passing.

If we can accept some kind of prima-facie media responsibility, however
weak, then media reaction - which varied from sector to sector - becomes
interesting in itself. From the earliest news broadcasts on Sunday morning,
the BBC were already playing down the role of the photographers in the
accident, attributing any undeniable aspects to the "press" (i.e. the
papers) rather than the "media" (which would include TV), and deploying to
maximum effect the usual highbrow tactic of only ever referring to either
"press" or "media" as "they" - a kind of inverse of the Royal "we". For the
rest of the day, almost any journalist with a college degree who was
interviewed said that in fact the press wasn't to blame at all - it was the
public's fault: they bought the papers. The tabloids found it harder to
wheedle their way out - editorials were quick to accept guilt, and, they
declared, they would atone, which they immediately did, by iconising the
Princess. At the same time they made it clear that it wasn't really their
fault, oh no, it was actually a small group of photographers, the
paparazzi, which was to blame, and the tabloids never bought pictures from
this type of low-life scum anyway. Tabloid contrition lasted precisely four
days; it was broken by the Sport on Thursday 5th, with the frontpage
headlines "Kinky Sex Secrets of Diana's Death Driver" and "Diana Bodyguard
has 'tongue torn out'", the latter a blatant and sensationalist lie which
was immediately denied by the man's family. Interviews with British
paparazzi quickly revealed that they weren't guilty either. All the English
lads had, apparently, stopped chasing Diana years ago ("there's this line,
guv, and I just wouldn't cross it, right?"). No - it was actually the
continental paparazzi what had killed her, all those spics and foreign
johnnies who didn't understand good old fashioned British manners.

Having got their story straight, the next thing was for the media to close
ranks and divert attention, a manoeuvre that was enabled by the
extraordinary "public outpouring of grief" and the Royal Family's retreat
to Balmoral, where they tried to work out how the fuck they were going to
deal. Wheeling out every forgotten "royal expert" they could find in the
gutters of Mayfair, the media made much of the fact that the failure of the
Queen to give a speech or fly the flag at half-mast at Buckingham palace
meant that she was in fact an unemotional hard-assed bitch who was totally
out of touch with "her people". And yet, until fairly late in the week, by
which time the TV news had lodged the meme in everybody's brain, no one had
given a second thought to either of these things. Public opinion, in as
much as it was allowed to be aired, seemed quite happy to accept that the
family would want to retreat for a while - in fact, it was the most human
thing they could have done. And no one in Britain gives a shit for the
niceties of the symbols of Victorian royalty anymore. And yet, from Monday
on, all news bulletins stressed the public's criticism of the royals, and
almost no vox pop interviews that criticised the media were given airtime.
On the Thurday following the accident, I saw a BBC reporter recording an on
the spot interview for the evening news. While he made the point that
"during the week, the anger of the crowds has shifted its target from the
paparazzi to the Royal Family," two hundred people stood around, scratching
their heads, wondering what he was going on about. As he and his cameraman
packed up to leave, a trio of women standing by the palace gates started to
point out to each other the fact that the flag was not at half-mast (it was
in fact not flying at all - it never does when the Queen is not in

Guests on TV discussion panels, such as those hosted by Jon Snow, were
continually steered away from the topic of media culpability and back onto
the more appropriate subject of royal reaction. Strangest of all, perhaps,
was Sky's choice to editing the word "paparazzi" from the Rosebud episode
of The Simpsons, screened the night of the funeral. But the single most
audacious action of the week was the way that the television news
completely inverted the emphasis of Earl Spencer's funeral speech - which
slammed the media and admonished the Windsors - with their coverage. In
their extensive highlights on Saturday evening, ITV even went so far as to
cut from Spencer's speech the specific reference to avoiding the paparazzi
on Diana's final visit to his home in South Africa. A week after the coffin
had been placed in the ground, the backlash against him had already began,
with pundits saying that he had spoken out of turn. Spencer had better
watch out - he has angered the beast, and he will not be allowed to rest
until it has had its pound of meat.

It appeared that the Queen was acutely aware of the situation. Concessions
to make the funeral more modern, more informal, more accessible, were
hardly concessions to "the power of the people" as the papers made out, but
attempts to forestall or derail incessant media criticism. What was going
on here was nothing less a revolution. The media was finally taking power
away from the royals - or at least from the Windsors, whose "german roots"
were stressed in the Observer (the Spenser-Churchills, by contrast, were
described as representing a "more ancient branch of the aristocracy -
crucially, more free-thinking branch.") After all, one doesn't want to kill
the goose that lays the golden egg - just control it.

All revolutions have their dark side. It's difficult to feel any sympathy
for the Royals, who persist despite everything in maintaining their rotten
constitutional role from behind their (increasingly porous) bastions of
privilege. Still, we should be aware that if the figurehead of royalty has
been irretrievably destablised this past few weeks, it is only because
there is now in this country a force so powerful as to be capable of doing
that. It may or may not be a force we are comfortable with, with which we
may or may not be willing to conspire. But it is important to learn what we
can about the way in which it operates, about the realities it constructs.
For, just in time for the millennia, and in a particularly British way -
midwifed by the death of a princess - the British media has joined its
American cousin as the most powerful element in society.

James Flint, September 1997

Jim Flint

vox: +44 (0) 171 837 7479
page: 01523 106401

My socks smell of chips

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