BBC Online Network BBC Homepage BBC News BBC Education BBC World Service
Diana - one year on Home Sights and Sounds Your thoughts Q & A Reporter's reflections Visit Althorp Contribute
Q and A
Dr. Michael Pokorny

Michael Pokorny is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. In October 1997 he chaired a dialogue on the public reaction to the death of Diana. He has since given further lectures on the subject and continued to collect material on the possible explanations for the public reaction then and now.
Back to Q and A Homepage
"The public reaction to Diana's death was misunderstood and misrepresented by the media. Complex issues can be identifies in the seemingly simple outpouring of emotions and in the supression of dissent that were apparent in the week between her death and her funeral."

Do you think Diana''s death has had a profound effect on the whole of the Royal family?
Mr. Smith, London

Certainly. It has changed the way they look at their role, and the way they interact with both their subjects and the media.

Why do you feel that the public reaction to Diana's death was misunderstood and misrepresented by the media? And how do you feel about Diana?
Katherine Beverly, 41
Grand Rivers, KY

I think that the media were caught up on the hop both by the sudden tragedy of the deaths and by the public reaction.

Diana was the most photographed woman in the world about whom the English newspapers wrote endless stories of which the factual content was at all times dubious to say the least. Whilst she was alive, she was regarded as fair game by the media but the moment that she died, she became an entirely different figure.

No longer available for reporters' games of story-telling, a new mode of relating to her and to her family had to be found in an instant. When some consolation was needed in the first few hours, the media were solemn and when some interpretation was needed in the week between her death and her funeral, the media took the line that we had all reacted the same way and we were all filled with grief.

This was clearly false, as there were many and various reactions to the deaths, but the media allowed no dissent from what they deemed to be the official line. This was then promoted to the claim that the whole of Great Britain plus half the world were heartbroken which was a ridiculous claim.

My thoughts about this are that the media are caught up in a shift in the public mood in which serious drama has given way to circus mode. This follows exactly the same pattern as the shift from ancient Greek tragic drama to the Roman entertainment of gladiators and Christians. I think that it represents a secular trend which brings with it a simplistic way of explaining events, instead of being able to grasp the complexity of human emotions and their manifestation in a wide variety of reactions to any tragedy. Just as the Romans lost the Greek tragic tradition in which the Chorus related the tragedy of the Hero to the common experiences of the audience, the media failed to act as a Greek Chorus and thus lost the chance to show how a car crash is a tragedy which though avoidable in theory, is in practice extremely common.

My feelings about Diana are that the sudden avoidable death of a young mother whose children still need her, is a tragedy for them, more even than for the rest of us. But I am aware that I know nothing about Diana other than what I can glean from the media, which is contradictory and highly unreliable except as entertainment whilst she was still alive. I was very shocked when the news was broadcast on TV.

How could one person spawn such an outcry of grief globally? I still don't understand why I felt a member of my family died. I had always admired Diana, but was shocked at my reaction
Anne Manmiller, 37
United States

Very many of us were shocked by our reaction. Diana was not just a celebrity she was the celebrity. She occupied a unique position both as potentially the next Queen, and later as the most outspoken member of the Royal Family. Whatever each of us saw in her, we lost it suddenly and unexpectedly when she died. This is not really different from losing a family member. The death of a very important person will have this effect, regardless of the basis for their importance. It is the fact of being important to people that matters in the context of sudden loss. A very similar effect happened when President Kennedy was assassinated.

I think it is a mistake to regard the effect as spawned by the celebrity herself. The effect is spawned by the creation of celebrity figures, in which we the public play a crucial role. Without our co-operation there would not be any celebrity. As far as celebrity is our creation, we suffer loss when the celebrated person dies, more shocking when it is sudden and unexpected.

Why do you think there is so much negative "Diana backlash" in the press and in some churches, e.g those Sunday school teachers telling kids Diana is "in hell" and all? Are people ashamed and/or embarrassed because the world openly expressed so much grief at her death? Also, I am offended that those who cared about the Princess and still miss her are called members of the "Cult of Diana". That is absurd.
Lynn C, 51
New York, United States

The negative backlash, as you call it, is an interesting effect of the simplistic way the media handled the death at the time. All of us are by nature ambivalent and our reaction to death is also ambivalent. We are shocked, we do not want to believe it, we get angry with the dead person for abandoning us, especially if it is sudden, we look for someone to blame. If we are only allowed to express one aspect of this complicated reality, then the other aspects come out later. It is never possible to deal with powerful feelings by pretending that they do not exist.

I do not think there is any evidence of embarrassment or shame about the grief that was expressed only that we later see the other side of the coin of our natural and unavoidable ambivalence.

The idea of the "Cult of Diana" is another expression of the ambivalence as well as colluding with the myth that Diana was the only one who died in the crash. I agree with you that it is an absurd way of trying to avoid the reality of human feelings.

Last year England and the English were crying openly and seemed to have become more warm and open. Now from my viewpoint it seems that they regret their outburst of sorrow. Why?
Dana, 34

I challenge the story that the English became suddenly different by crying in public. Winston Churchill could not have been more essentially English and he used to cry when he visited the scenes of the bombing of London during Second World War. The laying of flowers and the creation of shrines has happened before, for instance in Liverpool after the tragedy at the Heysel Stadium when many fans were killed and injured. It happened again at Hillsborough.

What was new was the scale of the response which showed us just how far reaching the Princess of Wales had been in her life, especially in relation to ordinary people. But we must also note that ordinary people are different from each other. I wonder how much the appearance of regret is really the reaction to the coming and passing of the first anniversary of her death. We know that in the normal process of mourning the first anniversary is a very important point. Mourning cannot be completed until after the first anniversary so a mood shift is to be expected about that time. This does not mean that mourning is over after the anniversary. It may go on longer and often does. But it is never complete until after the first anniversary.

Why is it you think the public is so stupid? Why do you believe along with some of the religious leaders that a people could not truly mourn the loss of someone on a global basis?
Dee Dunkley, 37

You must be talking about somebody else! I am quite sure that the public are shrewd, intelligent and thoughtful. You need only look at the sophisticated way that they employ tactical voting to get the result they really want, despite the electoral system in this country. I doubt whether I would agree much with any religious leaders. Certainly I believe that the reactions to the death of Diana were genuine expressions of feelings which were not well reported by the media.

Diana was an astute woman - well aware of her charisma and the effect she had on people wherever she went. I suggest that she played on this when it suited her and would therefore ask you if you think she was also aware of the power she would have in death?
Sally Ingram, 31

I very much doubt that Diana contemplated a violent death as a means of exerting her charisma. It is said that at times she thought of suicide but that she would never have inflicted such a trauma on her sons. Of course we do not know whether there is any truth in that claim but it is a fairly likely accompaniment of the distress that she publicly acknowledged. There is also some evidence that she often doubted herself. We will never know how much she needed her charisma as a form of repeated self-assurance. Nor, if she did, how effective that was for her.

Isn't Diana a classic example of how style is more important than substance?
Thomas Johnston, 43
Reston, VA; USA

You have bought the little girl lost in a grown-up world storyline! Diana, Princess of Wales, had lots of substance. She was born into one of the oldest aristocratic families in England. She married the next in line to the throne. Her eldest son will one day be king. Her mother-in-law is one of the richest people in the world. How much more substance can anyone hope for?

The introduction of Camilla Parker Bowles to William and Harry was, I felt, far too soon. And surely without this woman there may never have been a split between the royal couple?
Angela Carter, 49
Florida, USA

Blaming the other woman for marital disharmony and break-up is very common but it is an excuse. We have evidence that both Charles and Diana were unhappy as children and that they each had problems with interpersonal relationships. Thus getting into difficulties in their marriage was a sad but very common result of their prior experiences of relationships. Out of the spotlight of the media it happens increasingly as the divorce figures show.

In many cases where a husband becomes free the other woman runs a mile away from him. I quote this to illustrate how complicated relationships are and that simple predictions can often be quite wrong. I have difficulty in believing that Charles's sons were not aware of Camilla all along. Children generally know what is going on even if the parents think that it is secret. Charles's relationship with Camilla could hardly have been less secret. So to formally introduce them is only making clear what they already know and should be helpful to them unless they are forbidden to express their feelings about it. In that case there would be other secrecy conflicts in the family which is the responsibility of the parent(s), not of any other person.