Wednesday 19 December 2018

Diana's death brought us the age of chronic oversharing

'Our JFK moment': Mourners weep during the funeral of Princess Dian
'Our JFK moment': Mourners weep during the funeral of Princess Dian
Princess Diana
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Unless you've been living with your head in a bucket, in a cave, on Mars, you will know that we're rapidly approaching the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's untimely death.

We know this because her sons have been on what, for all the world, looks like a publicity tour, engaging with documentaries like this week's Diana, Our Mother, while papers and TV stations from the UK to the US and all points in between - which is us, basically - have been busy disinterring the bones of a two-decades-old story.

One of the more interesting quotes from the documentary came from a contributor who stated simply that "everyone loved her", proving that one of the first true masters of modern media manipulation still holds a remarkable sway over people - not only people who knew her and have at least earned the right to make such grandiose statements, but also people who never met her yet adored her with a weird, almost religious sense of devotion.

In fact, I've always thought that if she had been a Catholic there would have been calls to make her a saint - and they probably would have been successful.

Princess Diana
Princess Diana

Yes, I know we live in a social media era where the traditional 24-hour news cycle has been replaced by a hyper-real culture and the page refreshes every few minutes rather than just every day. But in broad historical terms, 20 years is only the blink of an eye. Yet, when we look at society now compared to the one which existed in 1997, it might as well be a different universe.

Diana can claim some credit for that or, depending on your point of view, she should shoulder much of the blame.

That she was an immense media presence was never in doubt, and her demise was many people's first introduction to a massive, almost seismic, public death - as more than one person said at the time, without bursting into laughter, "she was our JFK moment".

I was never a royalist, and I always thought she was an obvious phony who had somehow managed to fool people into loving her. Yet the shock I felt that morning was undeniable - not helped, admittedly, by the fact that I used to sleep with the radio on and woke up thinking she had been killed in a car crash in Crossmolina, which would certainly have been a turn-up for the books.

Yet while she was a ubiquitous presence in life, she quickly became an even more powerful figure in death - a tragic, criminal, untimely death which also ushered us into the era of compulsory compassion.

As a baby columnist back in those days, I went along to the UK embassy in Ballsbridge shortly after the Paris crash, and while it was initially a pleasant change to see Irish people gather peacefully outside a building which they had once tried to burn to the ground, it was clear that a new form of hysteria was in the air.

People queued with flowers while they waited to sign the book of condolence, which was nice, but many of them were actually sobbing which was just odd.

Why were normally stoic Dubliners openly weeping over someone they had never met? Frankly, that was the class of behaviour which, at the time, was normally reserved for excitable Americans.

"Ah," replied one woman (the crowd was mostly, but not exclusively, female), "I felt like I knew her."

Of course, the woman didn't know Diana. She had never met her. But she "felt" like she knew her, and that was the harbinger of the incoming tide of unfettered, irrational emotionalism which suffocates society to this day.

A few days later, I appeared on a radio show and exactly the same thing happened. I was surprised, because I still operated under the illusion that people in the media were a bit more savvy than punters, but as we discussed the crash, another guest just burst into tears.

Had we all gone mad? Well, the answer to that is a simple, but sad to admit - yes, people had indeed gone mad and they haven't calmed down since.

From a purely political point of view, Tony Blair played an absolute blinder and surfed the wave of public emotion to historic highs in the opinion polls.

That was a lesson learned by every other media-savvy player, and so the era of the politician-who-like-really-really-cares was born.

Feelings beat facts was the lesson of the day.

One can only be mildly grateful that the internet was in its infancy and social media had yet to be conceived. But when you look at the absurd outbursts of mass drippiness which erupt intermittently on Twitter and Facebook, which sees empathy and distress becoming a competitive sport, you can trace it back to the collective craziness which was formed two decades ago.

Some observers have pointed out that this was the moment when strangers suddenly felt free to express their grief with others, as if that's automatically a good thing. It's not.

I felt then as I feel know: group hysteria is always a bad thing, and while we can all be unexpectedly struck by the death of someone we never knew or met, the idea that this fundamentally illogical response is something to be proud of, rather than embarrassed by, has led to a society where nothing - no matter how trivial and trite - feels real unless it has publicly shared.

That's the real legacy of Diana: a society where over-sharing and brittle, ersatz emotion rules the day.

We should look back at the reaction to her death and shudder. Instead, we wallow in it.

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