Research reveals myth of a nation united in grief after Diana's death

August 31, 2002

A new book argues that the image of a British nation united in hysterical grief after the death of Princess Diana was a media myth.

"Diana's Mourning" draws on opinion polls and a survey of 500 people, by the University of Sussex, in September 1997 to provide the first people's history of the week.

It illustrates that far from being united, the British people were in fact deeply divided in grief in September 1997. It shows that at least 75 per cent of the population did not sign the books of condolences, place flowers or feel like they had lost a personal friend. The author, Dr James Thomas, a senior research associate at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies said:

"There can be no doubting the deep grief felt by some people. But this was the feeling of a highly vocal minority, not a countrywide reaction. Most people felt that while Diana's death was a very tragic event, especially for her two boys, they couldn't feel grief for someone they didn't know. And they couldn't understand how others could feel deep grief for a woman who was ultimately a stranger not a friend."

The book reveals that this reaction was clearly visible even on the day that Diana died. According to Dr Thomas:

"Most people were deeply shocked but not deeply grieving. When BBC 1 showed a tribute programme in the evening, it was watched by about four million people - just 18 per cent of those watching television. But a massive 14 million people tuned into Coronation Street on the other side. By this stage, three and a half times as many people was more concerned with the goings on at the 'Rovers Return' than in mourning or even watching about Diana."

The book argues that throughout the country there existed a silent majority. Respect for the dead and fear of the intolerance of those in mourning ensured that only positive things were said in public while alternative views retreated into privacy - to gradually re-emerge after September 1997. The book also attacks media coverage for distorting the truth of how people reacted. According to Dr Thomas:

"The media created an image of a country breaking down in hysterical, tearful grief that was widely believed but simply not true, even of most people who joined the queues. The one mourner in tears made for a better story than the ninety-nine that were not, not to mention the hundred that were not there at all - but it also made for a highly inaccurate one as well. There is nothing wrong with the media going for the most dramatic story - and there were certainly some very dramatic scenes. But there is something deeply worrying when the media then misleadingly says, "this is how we all feel, even this is how we must all feel" - which is what they did in September 1997."

The book argues that the result of this was that five years on the mourning was viewed increasingly negatively. According to Dr Thomas:

"We look back and see it as a case of mass hysteria - when everyone went a bit loopy for a week - rather than an example of people power as it was hailed at the time. And the simple reason for this is that most of the country was not in deep grief after Diana's death and couldn't identify with how they thought others were reacting. But the intolerance towards alternative views meant that it was only after September 1997 that people felt able to say so."
-end-
Notes to editors

"Diana's Mourning: A People's History", is published by University of Wales Press in October. James Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

Further information
Dr James Thomas
Tel: 029 2087 4000 ext. 7162
Mob: 0781 2572729
Email: ThomasJ16@cardiff.ac.uk

Review copies from Richard Houdmont
University of Wales Press
Tel: 029 2049 6899
Email: r.houdmont@press.wales.ac.uk

Cardiff University

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