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Diana, conspiracy and celebrity

Princess Di in memoriamLife must be tough for the Daily and Sunday Express. Before this weekend’s news that police are looking at “new information” concerning the death of Princess Diana, this august organ of moral rectitude hadn’t run with a Diana-related story since Thursday. One whole day without their idol. It must have been hell trying to find different fodder to throw at their ever-shrinking readership. Of course, the new angle to the interminable whirlwind of conspiracy and rumour turning about her untimely demise is grist to the Express’s mill. A whole edifice of conjecture will be piled on top of the short, terse statement released by the Metropolitan Police. After all, why splash out on properly investigated journalism when the cost of new stories can be reduced to that of an internet connection?

I have to say, I’ve never cared for the conspiracy-mongering around Princess Diana’s case because I believe it, like nearly every single conspiracy theory in the round, is bunk. Nor do I share a forelock-tugging fascination for the Royals. My interest, if it can be described as such, extends to the role they play in British culture, politics and its constitutional set up. It would therefore be remiss of any socialist to file them away in a cabinet marked ‘ignore’. But last night when the story broke, and after BBC4’s latest Scandinavian crime import, we did have a bit of fun with the conspiracy.

If it turned out that The Star’s headline is true, and the People’s Princess was indeed killed by the military or a section of the secret services in cahoots with establishment figures, could you imagine the huge crisis of legitimacy the British state would face? And if the trail led all the way to Buckingham Palace, as Mohammed Al-Fayed has consistently maintained, we could have a republic by Christmas. The only problem then would be what comes next. Dave, as the all-powerful Prime Minister might recommend a ceremonial presidency while the real power remains concentrated in his office. And who among the Conservatives would likely go for it? Boris Johnson for President?

A case of being careful what you wish for, perhaps.

Given the thoroughness of the enquiries into Diana’s death, I am pretty certain that whatever allegations the Met are looking into will not have any bearing on the settled decision. Not that this matters. While alive Diana encapsulated in her person all the glamour and celebrity one would expect a fairytale princess to have. A solid blue blood by any reckoning, through her charity work and helped by a sympathetic press she was able to cultivate a common touch or, at least, the popular perception of having one. And credit where it’s due, Diana used her celebrity to dispel myths around HIV/AIDS via repeated photo opps and awareness raising campaigns. In short, she was distant and yet very close, she was other worldly but genuinely cared for the ill and the vulnerable. This in the time before the internet took off, she was as ubiquitous a personality as one could be in the print/analogue age.

Diana was also something of an insurgent royal. Cast out by scandal and divorce Diana’s popularity eclipsed that of every other member of the House of Windsor. Only the Queen Mother, the nation’s granny, came close. So her death in a Parisian tunnel was a shock. Not just for those who identified with her in some way, but for the entirety of British culture. She was a fixture of our heavily mediatised every-day and in the weeks after her death, genuine outpourings of grief were reinforced and amplified by non-stop media coverage of her death. Sporting events were cancelled “in respect”, press and TV schedules were rammed with tributes. So powerful, so pervasive was the contrived climate of mourning that the death of Mother Theresa of Calcutta – a noted and celebrated “living saint” for her (problematic) work among the poor – passed with nary a comment. I don’t think Britain had seen anything like the reaction Diana’s death wrought, and I don’t think it will ever be seen again either.

The rise and demise of Princess Diana was a singular event made possible by the media’s political economy at that time. As such it left a deep impression on the country’s cultural memory. If you lived through it, you have your own memories of it. And for some, for those millions who look to the Royal Family as a rock of stability in a society undergoing constant, profound, strange and unsettling social change the passing of Diana made a lasting mark on their outlook. For them, Diana’s death was a cruel reminder that nothing lasts forever. Hence The Express functions as a crutch mitigating this pain by almost daily turning over its pages to nostalgia, and reminding its readers that the glamour and the good works are now shouldered by William, Kate and Harry.

Almost 16 years after her death, unfortunately, there are many people all too willing to still buy into Diana’s personality cult. And should some new, troubling light be cast upon the circumstances surrounding the crash in that Parisian tunnel it is one that will get a new lease of life.

One Comment

  1. I demand that the Metropolitan Police investigate my theory that Ms Diana Spencer, formerly Princess Charles of Wales, died because her chauffeur was drunk and crashed the car.

    Or is that just too far-fetched?

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