In the week after Princess Diana’s death I was baffled and deeply alienated by the public response to the horrifying accident, and its amplification by the mass media. I could neither understand nor share the apparent outpouring of grief, nor the explanations thought up by media commentators for the flowers, the poems, the queues and the candles. Of course, I thought it was terribly sad—the death of a young woman and mother when on the threshold, it seemed, of a happier period in her life—but I did not feel I had lost a friend or a member of my family. On the contrary, since a neighbour of mine had just died, I was painfully aware of the difference between the death of someone who actually was a friend and the more ethereal loss of someone known only as a media figure.
Nor did I believe that the tragic event had in any real or permanent sense ‘united the nation’ as we were being told. I did not believe that this marked the beginning of a transformation of the British personality as we loosened our stiff upper lips, and openly expressed our emotions; I did not believe this meant that the nation had become ‘feminized’, nor that henceforth we would become a different, more ‘caring’ society. Nor, least of all, would I credit the notion floated by some commentators, that Britain was becoming a republic.
In the first week after the accident the only public expression of dissent from these prevailing views appeared in the Guardian. Its columnist, Mark Lawson, reported that the bbc had been inundated with demands from television viewers for less coverage of Diana’s death and its aftermath, and the readers’ letters column in the Guardian expressed anger and scepticism in varying degrees. ‘Broadcasters. . .seemed determined to create rather than reflect the mood of “a nation in mourning”’, wrote C.J.R. Abbott, on 2 September: ‘Don’t they realize that the strange mixture of hedonism, self-pity, media manipulation and noblesse oblige displayed by the former Princess of Wales in recent years mattered very little in most people’s lives?’, while Mike Pokorny admitted that ‘I never realized that Diana had single-handedly led the campaigns for the eradication of aids, leprosy, landmines and youth homelessness. And to think I had always assumed that this selfless and saintly woman only ever used the media to manipulate her own image.’ But the very next day the heretics were slapped down in no uncertain manner by Andrew Heath as: ‘curmudgeonly; clever-clever; slightly nasty minded; and above all wholly contemptuous of what ordinary people think and care about.
Between the death of Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed and the funeral of the Princess, I felt desperate to write something, to try to mount a serious challenge to the apparent general consensus. Then, gradually, several journalists wrote thoughtful articles that went against the general grain. In particular, Nikki Gerrard in the Observer wrote ‘let’s hear it for stoicism’, and questioned whether the unfettered outpouring of vicarious grief was as wholly virtuous as everyone seemed to have assumed. She and Mark Lawson in the Guardian voiced my doubts and my resentment, and expressed my disquiet about the whole way in which the aftermath of the Princess’s death had played. So perhaps there was nothing further to be said after all.
In the following weeks, however, the ongoing media discourse on Diana continued to evolve. Despite all the protestations of guilt, despite the regrets of those who admitted they had bought the tabloids which had—perhaps—contributed to the Princess’s death, the revised version of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story headed the best-seller lists the moment it appeared. There was intense debate on the Internet about the cause of her death, and there and in newspapers in Egypt and other Arab states a conspiracy theory developed that she had been murdered by m15 in order to prevent her marriage to a Muslim. At the same time the continuing investigation into the causes of the crash shifted the focus of blame from the paparazzi to the drunken chauffeur.
Yet despite the daily flood of comment—which included more rubbish than I have ever before had the misfortune to read—certain silences were maintained. This was a classic case of the way in which Roland Barthes argued that a ‘myth’ is created. In Mythologies Barthes developed the idea that a myth is a representation which, in articulating one set of meanings, silences possible alternatives.footnote1 His best known example was a photograph of a black soldier in French army uniform saluting the tricolour; in the 1950s, in the context of the Algerian troubles, Barthes interpreted this as a statement that there are (good) black men who are loyal to France. Thus, the image he deconstructed silently buried the arguments in favour of decolonization, substituting a sub-liminal message reassuring to conservative opinion and white racism. This message was not openly uttered, rather it was subtly implied. The very silences of the ‘myth’ covered up what could not be said, ‘suturing’ the wounds.
In investigating the ‘myth’ ‘Diana’, which is, of course, much more complex than any single photograph, it is just as necessary to look for what is