27th October 2000 at 01:00
INTERPRETING DIANA: television audiences and the death of a princess. By Robert Turnock. BFI Publishing pound;40 (hbk), pound;12.99 (pbk).

On August 31, 1997, the nation woke to the news that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died after a car crash in a Paris underpass. The week that followed was memorable for many reasons, not least for the television coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath.

Clearly affected by a procession of lachrymose documentaries and news reports, men and women wept openly while talking to television cameras, and teachers had to comfort distraught children. Not for decades, we were informed, had the nation so unreservedly mourned as one. But how accurate was this assessment?

Some certainly took it badly. Around 40 per cent of the viewers surveyed for Interpreting Diana admitted being "shocked or shattered". "I cried as I told my children," says one. Another pays tribute to what may yet turn out to have been the Prime Minister's finest hour: "Tony Blair's contribution was sot-on and set me blubbering again."

Others, though, had less need of tissues. One-fifth of the sample complain that the coverage was "over the top", and a small number clearly believe they were fed a tear-jerker with a sinister subtext. One 71-year-old woman complains of "being brainwashed", while a man eight years younger is reminded of the media under Stalin and Hitler: "Anybody who doesn't agree had best keep quiet."

In an absorbing if sometimes complex review of the nature of modern TV news coverage, grieving rituals and forms of community, Robert Turnock uses audience testimony to demonstrate sometimes unexpected and often inconsistent reactions. For instance, several respondents report being unaffected by the princess's death but almost overwhelmed by the funeral.

For all the media insistence to the contrary, the public response to the death of Princess Diana and her lover, Dodi Al Fayed, was nowhere near uniform. So why was it presented as such?


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