Monday, September 03, 2007

Diana and the Media

As I reported, the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana's death was hyped by the media, reluctantly observed by the Royals and largely ignored by the public. When alive and once she had understood where the power lay, Diana used publicity - for good or ill -  ruthlessly and basked in the power of her own celebrity. The media loved it - I became part of the process - and the momentum generated kept the story alive for a decade after her death. The question this raises is: who, exactly, is doing this, who is creating what we now accept as contemporary reality? The media, the newspapers especially, always say they are giving the people what they want and  their evidence for this is the fact that people buy their products. There are a number of problems with this argument, but the important one is this: it is inconceivable that, before, say, Big Brother came along, the public wanted a reality TV show about freaks locked in a house. Somebody had to invent the show. Of course, they did so thinking 'the public will want this', but the same thought could have created any number of different shows. The Big Brother story, therefore, cannot be some organic flowering of the desires of the people, rather it is a deliberate attempt to invent or at least guide those desires. The same is true of Diana. Of course, her marriage to Charles, its breakdown and her death would have been big news at any time in any context. But, because of the way the media now works, it also became an endlessly fertile story-generating system. It was not that the facts could be reported and commented once or twice, it had to be perpetually reinvented and recycled. The public could then be said to 'want' this but only because the media are very good at making people want things, it is, after all, their job. So effective was this process that it created overwhelming peer-pressure; magazines had to have Diana stories because all the others did, just as, for a while, they all had to have Victoria Beckham on the cover. The people were this hounded into an even tighter marketing circle - if they wanted a magazine, they had to have one with Posh or Di on the cover and the marketing goons concluded that, therefore, only Posh and Di sold mags because it was 'what the people wanted'. The media consist of machines for creating wants in people. The truth of 'what people want' is a concept that lies far beyond the imaginations of goons or media executives. Nevertheless, their invented idea of 'what people want' is the theory by which we live. It produces the best and the worst journalism - the best invariably created by those who accept the theory without ever really believing it.


  1. I can understand the need to invent Lady Di but I just don't get Posh. Let it end there.

  2. Peter Stothard also has a piece on his blog about how savvy Diana became about the media -- and how to work it to her advantage. You are in tune on this topic.

    As for the media "creating" the news, I don't know if that's true. People crave celebrity news of a certain type because it reinforces certain fantasies. Both Diana and Posh are girls who rose through the ranks to become princesses: They fulfil the fantasy of millions of women. It's why women read romances. These real beings become like shadow selves -- what COULD happen to me, if I were so lucky.

    And Diana's tragic end also fed the subversive part of the fantasy, as strong as the "dreams come true part": See, these girls who get everything they want? They come to a bad end. So don't feel bad about your wretched life, Miss. Hers was actually *worse*: It ended prematurely.

  3. i suspect there's some subterranean interaction between inchoate cultural needs and the media: the media can't, i think, foist a wholly incomprehensible image or whatever on the public, but certainly marketing, which claims to be about recognising the public's desires, is i think more about prescribing those desires. For example, two literary agents said my novel was good but 'there's no market for it'. Of course, how could there be if no one will publish it? Marketeers and ther excremental ilk claim to respond to the market, but they also determine it to some extent. Their wisdom usually extends to saying 'has something like this been done recently and was it successful?' - if so, there's a market for it, if not, not - or so they judge.

    And people have this disturbing tendency to cluster - if enough people believe or like something, sooner or later almost everyone will. Like sheep. Once the process has started it perpetuates itself.

  4. Give us a sample of the novel, Elberry? Go on. The first few lines even. You never know, we might have a hidden need to read your work. We could start a compaign to have it published.

  5. The media were still out of touch with public sentiment about Diana before the memorial service last Friday. Clarence House was widely criticized for failing to ‘make plans to accommodate crowds who are expected to gather outside the Guards Chapel in central London’ (Daily Mail). On the day only a fraction of those expected turned up. Hopefully the media will latch on to this shown of antipathy and realize that, unlike them, most of those who embarrassed themselves ten years have done their best to forget it.

  6. This seems to be steering straight for J.G. Ballard territory, and I'm rather one with his conclusions about the dangers of a media-led, shopping-mall world:

    "The only ballot box common to all these is the cash register, an extremely accurate gauge of consumer preference in the very short term but useless beyond the next five minutes."

    Susan B. has a very good point about the endless recycling of archetypes. People want and need to hear stories which go some way to mitigating the hassle of simply being alive. I doubt the tales going round the Forum were very different.

  7. okay, Neil, first line of my novel:

    "He shaved his hair off after midnight."

    And they say there's no market for this. Bah.