Diana, Princess of Tales

Ten years after her death, the media fascination with Diana lives on

Ten years ago today, the world awoke to the news that the car carrying Diana, Princess of Wales had crashed in a Paris tunnel, ending her life and, with it, her tragically modern fairy tale.

What the crash didn’t end, of course, was the media obsession with Diana; in fact, the tragedy extended it, heightened it, even justified it, moving the fascination—and the woman who inspired it—into the mythical realm of perpetual youth. The public fixation that had haunted Diana in life vaunted her in death.

There’s no better evidence of this than the resurgence the media have afforded Diana in commemoration of today’s grim anniversary. First, there’s the deluge of coverage in magazines, newspapers, and books (among them The People’s Princess: Cherished Memories of Diana, Princess of Wales, From Those Who Knew Her Best; After Diana: William, Harry, Charles, and the Royal House of Windsor; Diana, an Amazing Life: The People Cover Stories 1981-1997; and, of course, the ubiquitous Tina Brown’s much-hyped The Diana Chronicles). And then there’s the TV coverage, which has been even more excessive in serving up Diana’s life and death for American consumption. Following MSNBC’s live airing of her memorial service this morning, it re-aired Diana’s three-hour-long funeral service from 1997. It will run three specials—“Five Diana Conspiracy Theories,” “Time & Again: Royal Wedding,” and “The Princes: William and Harry”—this weekend. WE-TV will run a Diana special later today and follow it up with another special on December 1. Lifetime ran three consecutive nights of Diana programming earlier this week. CNN aired—and then, of course, re-aired and re-aired—Soledad O’Brien’s new “special investigation,” “Growing Up Diana,” which featured the standard stock footage of Diana’s childhood, engagement, and marriage, as well as a couple of “never before interviewed!” interview subjects speaking about Diana’s early life. NBC re-aired Matt Lauer’s June interview with princes William and Harry (the most memorable moment of which being the awkward silence that greeted the clearly Windsorphilic Today Show host when he asked them, “What’s the coolest thing about being a prince?”). TLC aired and re-aired “Diana: Last Days of a Princess.” Not to be outdone, E! aired and re-aired “Diana’s Last Day.”

“Re-aired” is the key word in all this. Nearly none of the Diana coverage is new—it’s all, rather, frustratingly stale: the same familiar footage. The same acknowledgments of Diana’s cultural influence on Britain and the world. The same vaguely voyeuristic exposés of her struggles with depression, bulimia, loneliness, neediness. The same gushing analyses of her fashion choices. The same celebrations of her as a mother and humanitarian. The same off-handed mentions of the conspiracy theories that still swirl around the circumstances of the crash. It’s as if the media are marching, in dutiful lock-step, with the rest of the cortege trailing Diana’s coffin in a funeral that has lasted not three hours, but ten years.

And it’s questionable whether the public even wants such coverage anymore. A confidential BBC study made public last year revealed that nearly half the British population felt the blanket media coverage of Diana’s death and funeral “was excessive and over-emotional.” Forty-two percent of people polled felt there was too much coverage of her death even on the day the story broke, while forty-four percent felt there was too much during the week leading up to the funeral. If they felt that way when the news was fresh, imagine what those numbers might be now, a decade later.

The flood of stories about today’s anniversary also largely ignore the irony at the heart of Diana’s death: that, given the paparazzi chase that led to the crash, the public obsession with Diana—and the media’s dual role as both architect and enforcer of that obsession—are complicit in the accident that killed her. A decade later, we in the press are still exhibiting tunnel vision when it comes to the princess’s death; in indulging that, we are not only miring ourselves in the past, but also failing to fulfill the overarching wish Diana and her family expressed during her life: to leave her alone.

One has to wonder—at what point does all this coverage stop being a tribute and start being an insult?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.