Jade, Diana and the myth of public hysteria

Commentators are made uncomfortable by Jade Goody because she’s a product of the degenerate celebrity culture that they helped to institute.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

So, will Jade Goody, the terminally ill British reality TV star, be anointed the ‘new Princess Diana’ when she finally succumbs to cancer? Some seem to hope so. In an attempt, perhaps, to transform her demise into a kind of poundshop version of the ‘Diana phenomenon’, British prime minister Gordon Brown has already spoken of the public sorrow over Goody’s suffering. Justice secretary Jack Straw intervened to ease the bail conditions on Goody’s boyfriend, now husband, Jack Tweed, so that they could spend their wedding night together. And many of the snobbish commentators who previously denounced Goody as a chav, a racist and even a pig have now embraced her as a worthy victim; victimhood, it seems, absolves all sins. Goody has gone from being a ‘national disgrace’ to a ‘national treasure’.

However, what is perhaps most striking is that, this time, there has been a reaction against the tentative transformation of Goody into an emotional icon, and a warning not to turn her into a ‘new Diana’. Unlike during earlier instances of emotional conformism, many observers are warning people against creating yet another ‘celebrity victim’ to mourn over. Mark Lawson of the Guardian advises Brown – ‘who has already made public statements on Jade’s illness’ – to let the ‘black-clad bandwagon’ pass by. He should refrain from making any ‘public obituary’ upon her death or labelling her ‘the viewers’ princess’, says Lawson (1). Lambasting the ‘visual freak show’ that has emerged around Goody’s cancer diagnosis and her pre-death wedding, another writer says people should avoid ‘turning Jade Goody into the new Princess Diana’ (2).

A columnist for the Independent says the worrying thing about Goody is ‘that she enjoys fame as much as Princess Diana, whose connection with the public was equally morbid’ (3). Another writer hopes that, when Goody dies in a few weeks’ time, there will be no outbreak of ‘hysteria’ like that ‘provoked by the death of Diana, a distasteful overreaction’. Especially since, where Diana had been labelled ‘the People’s Princess’, Goody could only really be called ‘the People’s Pig’ (4).

Discussions of Jade Goody in the same breath as Princess Diana seem strange. These two women are not only from different sides of the track, they’re from opposite poles of the social universe. Goody is the gobby self-promoter from a broken home in rundown Bermondsey; Diana was a privileged socialite self-promoter from Althorp. Aside from both having blonde hair and lower-than-average IQ levels, there seems little to link the queen of reality TV with the self-styled queen of people’s hearts.

Yet that is what makes the creeping Jade-as-Diana fears so intriguing. This debate is not really about Goody or Spencer or analysing what lies behind today’s culture of public mourning. Rather, it is driven by a deep concern about the state of British society and the state of mind of the apparently volatile British public. The pre-emptive fear that Goody’s death will produce another round of Diana-style ‘hysteria’, even the very notion that someone like Jade could be a ‘new Diana’, speaks to a view of the public as enslaved by celebrity culture and given to outbursts of weepy irrationalism. It is built, in other words, on a distortion of what really happened during the ‘Diana phenomenon’, and a whitewashing of who was responsible for the degraded culture that sprung from it.

No event in recent British history has been so thoroughly rewritten as the ‘hysteria’ that followed the death of Diana in August 1997. In today’s retelling, the public went mad following that fatal car crash. Not only did they ‘overreact’ to Diana’s death, but they did so in a ‘distasteful’ fashion (5). Their ‘morbid’ connection with Diana led them to do all kinds of weird things, such as stand in line to sign condolence books and write notes for a woman they never met. Amongst the opinion-forming classes, it is de rigueur to look back with shame-reddened cheeks at how ‘the people’ behaved in the balmy (or perhaps barmy?) days and weeks after Diana’s death – and now some of them are looking forward with trepidation to a possible repeat of such mourning following Goody’s death.

It is true, of course, that a great many people mourned publicly for Princess Diana. But the true import of the ‘Diana phenomenon’, the thing that transformed the death of a princess into a new kind of public culture, was the elite’s clinging and desperate attachment to it. Post-Diana mayhem was not simply a case of elderly royal-watchers and other suburbanites being cajoled by the reckless tabloids into descending on The Mall to throw flowers at Diana’s coffin. More fundamentally the ‘Diana phenomenon’ involved virtually every sphere of the British elite – from political officials to psychotherapists, from the Church to the commentariat – seeing in the death of Diana the rebirth of Britain and the renewal of their public roles.

Reading the rewritten version of the Diana phenomenon, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only people at the ‘top of society’ who fell for this outburst of public hysteria were the tabloids. Writing about Jade Goody this week, Stephen Glover in the Independent reminds us that in 1997 ‘half the nation went into convulsions over the death of Diana’ and they were ‘aided and abetted by the tabloid press’ (6). In truth, the elite media – the BBC and the broadsheets – were even wilder than the tabloids in their slavish canonisation of Diana. As Peter Ghosh argued in his critical essay ‘Mediate and Immediate Mourning’, there was a ‘mindless, uniformitarian conformism’ in the media and it was induced ‘first by the BBC’. Ghosh points out that the public mourning for Diana was given ‘an extraordinarily powerful kickstart by Blair and Birt’ – then PM Tony Blair gave his cynical ‘People’s Princess’ speech on the morning that she died, while then director-general of the BBC John Birt instituted a ‘machine-like precision and uniformity’ in the state broadcaster’s coverage of Diana’s death (7).

Ghosh challenges the idea that the media were simply ‘giving voice’ to a weeping public. This is the most common criticism now made of the media, especially the tabloids, in relation to the Diana phenomenon: that they indulged ordinary people’s unhinged emotions. Yet as Ghosh argues: ‘By putting a microphone in front of distressed mourners and asking them to emote on cue, they claimed they were giving the ordinary articulate citizen “a voice” – but in fact the BBC, reasoning from Diana’s known vulnerability, had planned for the event of her death in advance.’ The BBC’s ‘full stretch’ coverage of Diana’s death was based on an internal, predetermined ‘fictional scenario’ involving ‘the death of a leading royal in a car crash in a foreign country’ (8). And this extraordinarily prescient scenario would come, the BBC imagined, with displays of public grief (9). Ghosh argues that the public mourning for Diana, following the much-publicised laying of flowers after the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the murder of James Bulger in 1993, the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994 and the Dunblane massacre in 1996, was the ‘ritual of a previously formed media community’ (10).

It is easy to forget today that in August and September 1997 many, many ‘ordinary people’ protested against the BBC’s continual and cloying coverage of Diana’s death. There was a ‘mass protest of viewers’ who demanded that the BBC put its everyday TV shows back on air; eventually the BBC relented and put ‘normal TV’ on to BBC2. Ninety-eight per cent of the people who contacted BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme complained about the BBC’s ‘over-coverage’ of Diana’s death; only two per cent thought it was appropriate. Ghosh says that ‘perhaps, then, “the People” did not want what the BBC director general John Birt was so efficient in providing for them – at least, not in such draconian fashion and without any alternative’ (11).

Other respectable media outlets were equally quick to hail Diana’s death as something of profound and historic importance. The left-leaning New Statesman said the response to her death ‘has shown, even celebrated, the end of the age of deference, the triumphant confirmation that Britain is not, and need not be, a conservative country, but a dynamic, liberal place’ (12). The Observer, under editor Will Hutton, held a panel discussion on the ‘meaning of Diana’s death’, in which numerous well-to-do academics and writers agreed that her death and the reaction to it revealed Britain’s newfound ’emotional maturity’, our ‘freeing ourselves from the reins of the past’, and our ‘growing up as a nation’ (13).

The idea that the mourning for Diana was a mass and physical manifestation of an important political shift (New Labour had ended 18 years of Tory rule just four months before Diana died) was widespread. Radical black columnist Darcus Howe gushed at how the response to Diana’s death represented, for those who still couldn’t quite believe Labour had won, the British people’s ‘uninhibited rejection of the Conservative Party’ (14). New Labour officials, right from the moment of Tony Blair’s lip-wobbling eulogy, also exploited the reaction to Diana’s death as a real, tangible expression of their ‘modernising’ agenda and their war against the ‘forces of conservatism’. It says a lot about the soullessness of the New Labour project that it required the accidental death of a spoilt princess, and a few days of flower-laying and book-signing, to make its victory appear real. As Linda Holt argued in 1998, looking back on the events of September 1997, ‘Rarely have politicians, journalists and public figures been so united and apparently unquestioning in identifying themselves with a new or modern phenomenon as with Diana and her mourners’ (15). And you thought it was just ‘public hysteria’?

Elsewhere, Diana’s death was exploited by both the Church and psychotherapists as a confirmation of their respective religious-tinged values. The Church of England, in the words of one writer, ‘seemed to take heart from the unexpected and at least partly spontaneous creation of a new kind of secular religion or religiosity’: the Church issued statements about Diana’s ‘goodness’ and held special ceremonies celebrating her ‘vulnerability’ in an attempt to coax people back into the depleted pews (16). Meanwhile, members of the new secular priesthood of therapy and emotional literacy hailed Diana as their saint. Elaine Showalter insisted Diana was ‘one of the great success stories of contemporary psychotherapy’; Susie Orbach said the response to Diana’s death was ‘the expression of some kind of emotional literacy’. Showalter went so far as to label Diana the near-perfect embodiment of Freudian principles: she ‘seemed to be on the brink of realising Freud’s formula for adult psychological health: love and work’ (17).

It is not surprising – though it tends to be very definitely forgotten – that in this climate of political, media, religious and therapeutic canonisation of Diana as The Moderniser, The One, The Perfect Symbol of a New Politics and the Reign of Therapy, anyone who dared to criticise the deranged Diana phenomenon was simply censored or chastised. That ‘mass viewer protest’ against the BBC’s obsession with Diana’s death was discussed sniffily in the press. Guardian columnist Linda Grant launched an intolerant assault on those who criticised the Diana bandwagon, labelling their objections as the ‘sneering, Puritanical distaste of the Left [for ordinary people’s feelings]’ (18). (In truth, it was not ‘the Left’ but a tiny handful of commentators, most notably LM magazine, that questioned the Diana phenomenon.) Alongside the BBC’s ‘draconian’ imposition of endless Diana coverage, an issue of Private Eye that mocked the Diana coverage was effectively banned when it was ‘withdrawn by censorious distributors in a fit of fealty to the deceased princess’ (19).

This is the truth of the ‘Diana phenomenon’, of the public ‘convulsions’ over the princess’s death: yes, there was public mourning, and yes, it expressed ‘ordinary’ people’s search for solidarity, for some kind of public connection; but more fundamentally the Diana phenomenon was a draconian, censorious, political project that aimed to refresh Britain and institute some new British values. What is today discussed as an outburst of silly public weeping was in fact a cynical and opportunistic attempt by the powers-that-be to redefine Britain in a post-political, post-traditional era: initially they were thrown by Diana’s death and the Diana phenomenon, but as the days and weeks passed they milked these events as a means of defining ‘New Britain’. In many ways, the Diana phenomenon merely copperfastened political and social trends that had been apparent for a decade before she died: new rituals of public mourning; the replacement of the political subject by the therapeutic object; the erosion of the distinction between public and private; the search for meaning through sickness and hardship rather than through achievement and ambition. The Diana phenomenon at root represented the creation of a new morality tale, complete with a fairytale princess, to make sense of changing Britain.

This might go some way to explaining some of the commentariat’s rash and Diana-obsessed reaction to the ‘Jade phenomenon’: they see in Jade Goody, with her celebrity wedding, public illness and potentially publicly-mourned death, the crudest manifestation yet of the new therapeutic culture that the elite itself helped to institute. Goody, for them, is the daughter of Dianastein, that hybrid monster of therapy, religion and ‘damaged this and damaged that’ which they created and unleashed in August and September 1997. In publicly discussing her illness, Goody is taking the culture of ’emotional literacy’ to its logical conclusion. In possibly televising her impending death, she is following the cultural precedent set in 1997 for achieving national unity and meaning through random tragedy. And in potentially connecting with the public through grief – her ‘morbid connection’, as one columnist calls it – she is taking her cue from the Shared National Experiences that have become commonplace AD (After Diana).

This is what makes the great and the good’s reaction to Goody so striking. Some hope, forlornly, to recreate the Diana phenomenon around Goody; others, however, are made uncomfortable by the ‘Jade phenomenon’ for it is the logical conclusion to the slack, degenerate culture that they and their ilk forced through, with ‘mindless, uniformitarian conformism’, following Princess Diana’s death. So their reaction to Goody’s death-as-event is either to continue rewriting its predecessor, the Diana phenomenon, as a ‘mass convulsion’ that they had nothing to do with, or else to turn on Goody herself and label her a fame-obsessed, stupid young woman who is being exploited by the tabloids. Goody is being turned by some into a proxy Diana that commentators can condemn and mock, as a way of making amends for their own cynical and censorious institution of the culture of celebrity sainthood in the first place.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at the media’s response to Jade Goody and her ‘celebrity cancer’. Previously, he called the Jade and Shilpa row on Celebrity Big Brother a Zzzz-list scandal. Frank Furedi examined our unhealthy obsession with sickness. Mick Hume outlined the importance of trashing celebrity culture. Or read more at spiked issue Celebrity.

(1) Tragic relief, Comment Is Free, 22 February 2009

(2) TV is a visual freak show, Jonathan Jones, Guardian, 18 February 2009

(3) What Jade and Diana have in common, Joan Smith, Independent, 4 March 2007

(4) We’ve mocked, pitied or tried to ignore her for nearly seven years – now we know Jade Goody is dying, how does that make us feel?, Scotsman, 5 February 2009

(5) We’ve mocked, pitied or tried to ignore her for nearly seven years – now we know Jade Goody is dying, how does that make us feel?, Scotsman, 5 February 2009

(6) This celebration of ordinariness by the media leaves me bemused, Independent, 23 February 2009

(7) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

(8) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

(9) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

(10) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

(11) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

(12) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(13) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(14) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(15) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(16) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(17) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(18) Cited in After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck, Verso, 1998

(19) ‘Mediate and immediate mourning’, London Review of Books, 16 October 1997

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