The Firm

ANYONE TUNING IN the Sunday talk shows to find out what was new in the governance of men was bound to be disappointed: The punditocracy had given itself over entirely to the death of Princess Diana and her consort. Our Sunday sages were only part of the wall-to-wall network TV coverage of the accident that occupied the little screen nonstop for a hundred hours this weekend, and that shows no sign of abating. No cliché was left unminted in the torrents of lachrymose prose that leaked from the tube. Anyone with even the most tenuous and fleeting contact with the late princess was dredged up to fill airtime: John Travolta, who danced with her once, was endlessly interviewed; Henry Kissinger was disinterred from his corporate consultancies long enough to growl ponderously about her social significance; and even the president disturbed his Martha's Vineyard vacation for an I-feel-your-pain press conference of the sort usually reserved for heads of state. CNN gave itself over to a 10-minute on-air telephone chat with a supposed eyewitness to the car crash who turned out to be one of those Howard Stern-inspired pranksters.

Perhaps it's my Irish gene pool, but I find all this emotive gush over the British royals excessive. The accidental death of any human being is tragic, of course, but I can't help thinking that the gory murders of some 300 women, children, and old men decapitated and burned alive by renegade Algerian terrorists in the village of Sidi Rais at week's end--an event that got little if any notice stateside--was of infinitely greater importance.

The princess and her playboy were, after all, only two spoiled rich kids with more money than brains, and the pathetic flood of TV coverage seems a perfect illustration of Guy Debord's famous essay on la societe' du spectacle. The British royal family (who by blood are German, not British) calls itself The Firm, and the loveless arranged marriage that brought the ambitious young Diana into it made her part of the world's largest state-financed public-relations enterprise, one that Maggie Thatcher's privatizations never even dreamed of touching. That the global village reached for the Kleenex at the news from Paris is attributable to the success of a marketing campaign as effective as Coca-Cola's.

The rush to judgment in blaming the media for her death reeks of hypocrisy, especially coming from the talking heads on networks which air myriad magazine shows that have helped blur the distinctions between journalism and infotainment. Di's one skill was as a manipulator of the media, one that she perfected after Prince Charles, having spawned the Heir and the Spare, shunted her aside for the woman Di and her entourage baptized the Rottweiler. Even Di's occasional, but highly publicized caritative forays were carefully designed and stage-managed by a phalanx of sophisticated media advisers. Just six hours before her death Di had telephoned one of her favorite Fleet Street gossip-mongers, and two days before had visited the press boat following Dodi's yacht to promise them "big news" in a few days--as the Guardian's Martin Walker has pointed out, these are scarcely the actions of someone who wanted to discourage the paparazzi. One is tempted to observe that those who live by the media may also die by the media.

But the most disturbing aspect of the Di and Dodi show has been the calls for increased curbs on the press from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. One does not have to be a fan of tabloid sensationalism to note that such restrictions would only help the political classes curtail coverage of their malfeasances. There are already plenty of laws on the books governing trespass and harassment under which overly intrusive paparazzi can and have been prosecuted (remember the Ron Gallela case?). But no paparazzo had his foot on the accelerator of Dodi's Mercedes, which is said to have been hurtling through the center city at 100 mph.

The Firm, however, is breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not only has Di's sudden death put an end to what the royals considered an unseemly marriage to a philandering upstart wog, but the canonization of the princess guarantees the survival of the monarchy for another generation, as the wave of sympathy for her sons preserves them from republican agitation.

The sanctification of Diana will be completed Saturday with the massive public funeral being staged by The Firm. How ironic: Where once the monarchy seemed threatened by media revelations of its secrets, it will now endure thanks to the globally televised complicities of those same media. And that's an outcome that among the enlightened should produce at least one small tear.

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