"They Will Be the Death of Diana"

Memory and the Media

How to Cite

Meakins, F. (1998). "They Will Be the Death of Diana": Memory and the Media. M/C Journal, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1710
Vol. 1 No. 2 (1998): Memory
Published 1998-08-01

"No doubt we will see more 'pictorial tributes' to the late Diana, Princess of Wales in the weeks and months ahead from those editors who not even a month ago thought nothing of plastering Diana and Dodi's 'holiday snaps' across the front pages of their publications." (Evans 3)

This type of comment rarely appeared in the media following the death of Diana, yet was vigorously whispered behind the hands of cynical magazine readers. Much was made of the media's hand in Diana's demise and death, the perfect closure to the narrative of media harrassment, however little was mentioned of the ironic transformation of the construction of Diana by the media after her death. The media, it seems, have manipulated our memory of Diana by adopting a form of a epideictic rhetoric, the eulogy. This rhetorical mode was first proposed by Aristotle and later schematised by Walter Beale.

One of the criterial factors of news value, as formulated by Galtung and Ruge, is the reference to élite personalities. This culturally bound factor is said to transform events into news. Fowler (15) considers the reporting of Diana's life to illustrate this news production process well. He suggests that the media semiotically constructed 'Princess Diana' out of a previously unknown aristocratic teenager. Our perception of Diana was a result of the events in her life being deemed 'newsworthy'. Thus, prior to her death, Diana was a bulimic (Berry 70), an unwilling bride, a victim of neglect (Jones 6-7), a flirt, and finally in the week before her death Diana was portrayed as someone lacking moral standards, with newspapers and magazines paying thousands for pictures of Diana and Dodi holidaying together.

However, since Diana's death, the image of this person has changed dramatically. The media are altering our memory of Diana through a transformation of her representation. The media have dusted off and printed only the most flattering pictures of the deceased Diana, accompanied by words of praise and awe. For example, many tributes to Diana have included photographic collages which apparently best represent Diana and her life (see for example Time 8 Sept. 97). In fact these photos ideologically construct a perception of Diana which contradicts those produced before her death. Diana has become, Diana, the caring mother of two; Diana, the caring mother of thousands; Diana, the glamorous aristocrat; Diana, the fairytale princess; Diana, the people's princess. Rosenblatt (108) encapsulates all of these images, describing Diana as the antithesis of Death -- Beauty.

In more abstract terms, the media may be said to have adopted the epideictic form of rhetoric called the eulogy. Indeed the media representations of Diana post-death appear to eulogise her life -- Diana's eulogy did not end at her funeral! Rhetorician Walter Beale uses J.L. Austin's version of Speech Act Theory to describe the function of an epideictic form such as a eulogy. In Beale's theory of the epideictic, an underlying Speech Act performative is isolated and identified as the function of the text (233). In terms of the eulogy, Beale identifies the performative nucleus of this form as praise. This use of praise is not new. Aristotle (I 3.6) developed an early theory of the epideictic in which he suggested that attributes of a person must be amplified to the highest level of praise in the eulogy.

Indeed, the accounts of Diana's life after her death may be generally reduced to the performative Speech Act of praise. The pictures and words employed to describe Diana are produced within this Speech Act in a manner typical of eulogies. Diana is semiotically constructed by the media in a positive light through the performative Speech Act, praise. In a sense, the media are narrowing down the range of images that could represent Diana. No longer do we see the not-so-flattering fuzzy pictures of Diana in swimming togs, but are presented with an 'authorised memory' of this human being. This image is becoming much like the picture of the Queen that hangs in every primary school Principal's office which seemed to reprimand us as children when we were called to The Office. More and more we see the same pictures appearing in magazines and it will be interesting to see what will become the 'authorised memory' of Diana. However it may be predicted that the image will be complimentary and will conform to the Speech Act of praise.

The media, it seems, have discarded the old Diana, amplifying her physical and personal characteristics to the level of perfection. She has become the epitome of purity and it is through these flawless images that Diana is immortalised in our memories -- as Diana, the "People's Princess". The media have responded to public criticism concerning their part in Diana's death. By lavishing Diana with praise and eulogising her life, the media have given Diana life again in our memories.

Author Biography

Felicity Meakins