Saturday, Jun 03, 2023
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Putting The World On Hold

Putting The World On Hold

Mother Teresa was a landmark. Diana, a concerned tourist.

WATCHING TV on Days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 AD (New Style), I realised that BBC television and Diana between them had managed to script the popular response to her death before she died. Of the thousands of people who left bouquets or queued to sign condolence registers, BBC World interviewed several and they said: "She really was the Queen of Hearts" or "She was the People's Princess" or "she cared for AIDS sufferers/land mine victims/lepers". These insights had been minted by Diana herself in her now famous interview to the BBC where she had told all in her doein-headlights style. Eerily, her mourners were now using them as mottoes for their grief.

Diana's concern for the disadvantaged was of the same order as Aishwarya Rai's. Aishwarya Rai had recently done a television spot asking people to pledge their eyes for the blind (as she herself had done) and the advertisement had bumped up the number of donor pledges received. To use a celebrity to get the media and the public to attend to a worthy cause is a good thing to do and it is to Diana's great credit that she held AIDS victims before it was public knowledge that it was safe to do so. But listening to BBC World's anchors solicit testimonials for her from everyone in radio range, you could be forgiven for believing that she was some perfect composite of Princess Grace and Mother Teresa.

A good example of misplaced reverence was the moment when BBC World's Donald McCormick asked the director of a leprosy mission—of which Diana was the patron—how her work would be carried on now that she was dead. But it wasn't her work; it was the work of the organisation that had been working amongst lepers before Diana became its patron and would continue doing so after her death.

When Mother Teresa died the day before Diana's funeral, it made sense to ask what would become of the work of the Missionaries of Charity after her death because that work was Mother Teresa's creation, she had brought the order into being. Diana's role was different: she lent her name to good works begun and carried through by others; she helped raise funds and drew attention to causes she favoured. It was a different order of social concern and commitment, a difference the BBC might be expected to grasp. Not a bit of it: on the programme

Hard Talk , there were grown-up people seriously discussing Diana and sainthood. Elsewhere, Donald McCormick, with the discrimination we have come to expect from him, tellingly observed that Mother Teresa's ability to reach out to people, specially children, was something she had in common with Diana. Something in common with Diana....!

McCormick's confusion was understandable: he was in full Diana battledress building up to the next day's funeral when Mother Teresa died. The tears to be shed for Teresa, welcome at any other time, were inconvenient now: she was raining on Diana's parade. Manfully, though, he soldiered on, replacing Diana's name with the Mother's but asking the same question. How was India feeling? What were VIPs saying? Wouldn't the money for her charities dry up? And of course, what would become of her work. ...

The questions might have been the same but the answers, interestingly, were different. McCormick asked the BBC Religious Affairs correspondent if her death was a great loss to the Christian community. He replied, grudgingly, that it probably was, though Teresa was an old-fashioned humanitarian, narrow in her range of concerns and the Christian community had progressed beyond that model. He observed that her death was unlikely to provoke great grief because unlike Diana, she had died in the fullness of age.

The Religious Affairs correspondent was entitled to his views about Mother Teresa (though this dry-eyed, astringent tone had  been conspicuously missing in the gush about the Princess of Wales)—where he went wrong was in failing to understand how unlike Diana Mother Teresa really was. They don't belong in the same sentence because Mother Teresa settled down in one place, in Calcutta, set out her stall and began serving the destitute in the name of Christ. She didn't "reach out", she didn't range twinkle-toed from leprosy to landmines and since all she had was two saris, she had no clothes to spare for auctions. She was a landmark in a literal way because people knew where to find her.

Diana was a concerned tourist. She was concerned about the causes she sponsored, concerned about sponsoring them on camera and concerned to look concerned. Diana wanted to be liked. Mother Teresa didn't really care. She was unconcerned. She could take care of herself and manipulate the world to advance her work, but the world had to take her whole, on her terms. The Catholic dogmatist was inseparable from the missionary social worker.

THIS doesn't explain why millions more will mourn Diana. I think the answer is that Diana was at once human and divine. This has happened once before but not on television. Diana's dual nature has to be carefully understood because not only did she live on earth and in heaven, she lived in two separate heavens. Diana was human (one-of-us) in being a commoner who was plucked from subjecthood and elevated to the remote heavens of the British royal family. This established an early claim to the title 'People's Princess'. The royal wedding delivered her to the second of the two heavens she inhabited: television.

The inhabitants of video Valhalla are generally of two kinds: characters in soaps and working celebrities, people famous for doing something well. Diana got there by being herself. Network audiences found in her the ultimate non-doing fantasy: the thrilling idea that with a little luck and a pretty face you too could be famous for private indiscretion and public compassion. They claimed her for their own. The banality of her public utterances ("people need to know that there's someone there who cares", "I'd rather be the queen of hearts") went down well with audiences whose most favourite neighbours lived in soap operas and for whom real life was the channel they didn't get on television.

When I saw BBC World put the world on hold for a whole day, I tried to think of comparable examples of monomania. The only parallels I found in India were the personality cults of Dravidian politics, specifically the AIADMK, where the death of a leader often led to suicides, rioting and mass hysteria. The revelation of the week has been that BBC World's news room has the balance and credibility of an MGR fan club.

But the proper precedents for Deathwatch Diana were the Gulf War and the Simpson case where American news networks showed the world how to turn news, specially violent news, into running sagas that send ratings surging off the graph. Responsible global news coverage, which used to be the BBC's brief, consists of making consistent judgements about the significance of this event or that; it wasn't just the rest of the world that managers of BBC World turned off like a tap the day Diana died, they also suspended their reason for being. They did it either to pander to the popular mood or for the revenues that saturation coverage would bring which made their agitation about the paparazzi puzzling and inconsistent.

In the jargon invented by CNN, Diana's death was "breaking news", fresher than fresh, LIVE. The irony was that the news channels shut down the world for 24 hours to help us feast on carrion.

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