Coppers indulging in cringe-inducing ‘dad dancing’ at Gay Pride parades or the Notting Hill Carnival; does anybody really want to see that? A dad’s authority extends no further than his family, whereas the police have it over thousands of people. To see them shedding their remaining shreds of dignity on so public a platform could be perceived as an ill-advised attempt to make them approachable; but it has the same effect as seeing Tony Blair saying ‘Am I bovvered?’ on a Comic Relief sketch. A few years prior to starring alongside Catherine Tate, the most media-savvy PM of all time had coined a phrase that has been endlessly exhumed of late.
Having avoided the glut of Diana ‘tributes’ on TV, I’m not sure if there’s been any programme that has examined those events bereft of the fawning ‘People’s Princess’ script; probably not. I doubt any have taken the long view of how our society has significantly altered since – and as a consequence of – August 31 1997. At the time, the coverage of Diana’s death complemented the coverage of Diana’s life; it followed the same narrative and also felt like a media construct. The theory goes that the mass hysteria came not from the media, but from the people; yet the media had created the Diana monster for the people in 1980 and the people had bought it. Therefore, when the public received its lifestyle manual from the media during that week between Paris and Westminster Abbey, it was taught how to react to her death in the same way the media had taught it to be interested in Diana to begin with.
The transformation was remarkably rapid. The way in which Brenda was perceived as being cold and inhuman simply because she wasn’t bursting into tears whenever a camera was pointed in her direction was a good pointer to how a society could change in the space of just a few days. Two decades on, when teenage girls greet their exam results by wafting their tearful faces with a hand acting as a fan to visually articulate their emotional response – just as TV talent contestants do – it chimes with the long-term impact of these changes. That they willingly do so free from any embarrassment, despite knowing they will be transmitted into the nation’s living rooms, isn’t an issue for them when they’ll probably upload videos of themselves doing likewise on social media, anyway. The private is now public – and that extends to every private function, taken even way beyond Diana’s appetite for publicity via ‘I’m A Celebrity Big Brother Island’.
The pernicious trend for television news reporters to persistently ask witnesses to tragedies how what they witnessed has made them feel also reflects this; the triumph of heart over head and the need to seek an emotional rather than intellectual response to upsetting events can be traced back to that first week of September 1997. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes letting one’s heart dictate a response, of course; we are all human, after all. But the heart is not always a reliable organ in a tight spot; handing it life’s steering wheel can often result in reckless actions that provoke regret and a retrospective wish that the head had taken control at the crucial moment.
The cavernous black hole Diana left in our mainstream media was swiftly filled by a series of nominees nominated by Fleet Street in the way Holy Roman Emperors were once selected by the elite Prince-Electors of Vienna. Posh and Becks were the first to be elevated to the obsessive level Diana had occupied for a good seventeen years, eventually followed by the likes of Jordan/Peter Andre and a swift succession of even greater cretins, each more insubstantial than their predecessors and each possessing a shorter lifespan. Not that the excess of coverage has reflected these diminishing returns; advances in technology have intensified it, despite every nominee being akin to a photocopy of the Diana blueprint with the ink cartridge gradually running out as someone from ‘Geordie Shore’ fills the final sheet of paper in the machine.
In her search for something to do with a little substance, Diana may have gradually embraced laudable causes and broken taboos that needed breaking, but her initial appearance in the public spotlight required little more than simply having the right look for the moment. She was the role model for the modern media darlings who are famous for being famous, appearing just as that role was poised to acquire considerable cache. Her successors have regularly viewed the ‘good causes’ clause as surplus to requirements, yet we are still supposed to be interested in them for reasons that appear utterly mystifying other than they prevent the masses contemplating anything with any depth, lest that prompt them into asking awkward questions.
The ground for 1997 had already been laid by the same media that manufactured Diana. Rupert Murdoch’s mission to remake his first adopted country in his own image, to dumb down its population by stealth and reduce it to his own coarse, crude, anti-intellectual level, had been a calculated campaign of creeping corrosion from the moment he installed Kelvin McKenzie as editor of the Sun in the year of the Royal Wedding. By his own admission, McKenzie was a fairly inept journalist, but he was a man with a gift for an eye-catching headline, however ludicrous – a bullish Barnum of bullshit. As editor of Murdoch’s tabloid flagship, McKenzie expanded Murdoch’s philosophy and took it to unprecedented extremes of outrageously gross bad taste and celebratory idiocy. If the chosen paper of the average working man is devoted to telling him what an idiot he is every weekday, chances are he’ll eventually come to believe it and will never know he has the potential to aim a little higher.
Under the stewardship of Kelvin McKenzie, the Sun became ever more reckless in its promotion of stupidity as a virtue; the huge sales figures gave the paper carte-blanche to venture into territory that even the Digger would have initially avoided, and its malignant influence has been immense across the media as well as, it has to be said, the media’s ravenous consumers. The extent to which one of the nation’s windows onto itself – television – has reflected the dumbing down process was highlighted to me when I stumbled upon an edition of ‘Parkinson’ from 1973 on YouTube a couple of nights ago.
When one bears in mind that Michael Parkinson’s long-running chat-show aired on BBC1 and was produced by the light entertainment department, the edition in question seems even more remarkable; it centres around a discussion between Kenneth Williams and union leader Jimmy Reid on the state of the nation. In a pre-‘Question Time’ innovation, it also draws members of the studio audience into the debate and is utterly compelling television that runs for an hour and twelve minutes. The jarring contrast between the level of intelligence from all concerned on the programme and 2017’s equivalent – the inane Hollywood PR charade that is ‘The Graham Norton Show’ – is so stark that it makes ‘Question Time’ resemble ‘Loose Women’. As a barometer of measuring how low we’ve sunk in the space of four decades, it even surpasses disco-dancing constables.
© The Editor