Over the weekend I had the opportunity to see a film about Queen Elizabeth and the way that she responds to Princess Diana's death in the hours and then weeks after it occurs. It was fascinating to revisit a time that I can recall vividly, and to experience through the medium of film a little of what the Queen, her family and advisers were going through in the weeks following the tragic accident. It was good to get some perspective from "the other side"and to see how Diana's death ended up threatening the monarchy. Even more intriguing was to see the royal stoicism of the Queen yielding at last to the humbling advice of her then newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
One thing that the film kept revisiting, and on which the story revolved, was that of the mass grief and hysteria of the British people following Diana's death. The question that struck me when it happened came to me again during the film. I have often wondered why (aside from the fact that it was a tragic way to die, and yet this sort of death commonly occurs) all of the public grief and obsession for a woman whom the larger part of the British population had never known personally? It was a question I asked again when "America's Prince", John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law perished in a plane crash and we saw a repeat of the same media fixation and public grief that is now becoming a common way of dealing with the deaths and tragedies of celebrities: those people we know intimately but have never met personally. Carl Trueman answers my question superbly in his book The Wages of Spin:
...The scenes of mass hysteria following the tragic death of a young mother were simply incredible - but what was really disturbing, if not a little frightening, was the language of familiarity which so many of the mourners interviewed on television used in connection with the princess. "She was a friend to us all"; "We felt she was one of our own; "She was like a big sister to me". Statements like this abounded, statements which implied that a real, personal relationship existed between Princess Diana and those being interviewed. Such was not the case: these individuals had come to know an image, albeit a carefully cultivated image, of a young woman they had never met but who entered their houses and their lives through the box of electronic wizardry in the corner of their living room. Then, at a moment of tragedy for the Princess and her close family and friends, these unknowns had also been swept up in the and been bereaved - not of a real friend, but of an image, of a character in a fantasy world. That they were incapable of discerning the difference is perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the power of television in our time.
-from chapter 2 of The Wages of Spin by Carl R. Trueman