Remembering Diana, the world’s first Princess of Television

Today, 31 August 2007, is the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic death in a road accident in Paris.

A decade on, I can still remember exactly where and how I first heard the news. This experience is widely shared: to many in my generation — born in the 1960s and raised through 1970s and 1980s (just like Diana was) — this was an unforgettable moment. Perhaps just like the assassination of John F Kennedy was to a previous generation.

The analogy between Di and JFK goes further. Both had charismatic personalities that appealed far beyond their home country. Both epitomised the vibrancy of youth and the potential for change in the institutions they joined (Diana the British Royal family, and JFK the American government). Both lives were snuffed out before they could fulfill that promise, but they left enduring legacies — and thriving cottage industries of conspiracy theories (‘Who killed JFK?’ has now been joined by ‘Who killed Diana?’).

Here’s another similarity: JFK and Diana were both iconic images of the era of television.

If JFK turned up just in time to charm the first generation of American TV viewers, Diana’s arrival on world stage coincided neatly with the worldwide roll out of satellite television, especially the all-news channels. And thanks to the advances in global broadcasting, Diana commanded a far bigger global audience than JFK did (though the comparisons must end there).

I would like to remember Diana as the first Princess of Television of our media-rich age.

Looking back, we can see how satellite television started and evolved almost in parallel to Diana’s own life. Diana had just celebrated her first birthday, when the world’s first trans-Atlantic satellite television signal was relayed from Europe to the Telstar satellite over North America on 23 July 1962. (By coincidence, JFK was to have participated in the event, but could not owing to a technical delay.)

Over the next two decades, as Diana grew up and matured into a young lady who would soon capture the world’s imagination, satellite TV’s technology, outreach and mass following evolved to cover more channels, territories and eyeballs.

A turning point came when the US entrepreneur Ted Turner took a daring step for that time by launching the Cable News Network (CNN), the world’s first 24 hour news channel. CNN went on the air on 1 June 1980 amidst many skeptics asking: who would possibly want to watch news all the time?

Who indeed! Until then, conventional wisdom had confined news to a regular evening slot, anchored by larger-than-life newscasters. The routine was broken only when there was some earth-shattering development.

Turner’s CNN, ridiculed in the early days as the ‘chicken noodle network’, changed all that, and paved the way for dozens of 24/7 news channels.

As it turned out, CNN arrived just in time. The engagement between Diana and Charles, the Prince of Wales, was announced a few months later, in February 1981.

Their Royal Wedding on 29 July 1981 was watched by a combined television audience of over 750 million worldwide. That broke records as the highest audience for a live broadcast, surpassing the Apollo XI Moon landing a dozen years earlier (seen by an estimated 500 million).

The rest is recent history. Television newsgatherers could never have enough of Diana — apparently their audiences kept asking for more. That may be a debatable point, but Diana was quick to learn the art of exploiting the inevitable: when she realised it was a stark fact of life, she started using it to her personal advantage.

Diana used television as much as television used Diana. Her famous BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir was one among many instances when she lived her personal life under the glare of public television (photo below).

Image from BBC Image courtesy BBC

But Diana’s clever use of television was not just for advancing her personal agenda. When she became a big time charity supporter in the 1990s, she used the power of moving images to demystify and humanise global issues from caring for people living with HIV/AIDS to banishing the scourge of landmines. These ensured that Diana became the People’s Princess in the last years of her life.

Image courtesy Daily Telegraph

Early on in her marriage to Charles, a leading newsman told Diana: when you married him, we came as part of the package deal. If she was initially stressed by that revelation, she later made the best use of that inevitable trapping of her celebrity.

And when she died young and tragically, on 31 August 1997, her premature departure became the biggest news story of the year.

The BBC (domestic) announces Princess Diana’s death:

BBC World TV announces Diana’s death in Paris:

Diana’s funeral on 6 September 1997 had a larger global satellite TV audience than did her wedding. Of course, by then there were more people and more television sets on this planet.

Elton John sings a special version of ‘Candle in the Wind’ at Princess Diana’s funeral:

So we salute the legacy of the world’s first Princess of Television. One who moved our hearts with moving images of her personal life and those of the worthy causes she championed. One who showed how moving images can move people.

PS: There was a time when the unforgettable television moments were gone after their broadcasts (unless recorded on tape). But now we have YouTube, where the world’s visual memory lives on. All news and current affairs coverage I have linked to in this post were found on YouTube by simply searching for Princess Diana. There is much more where these came from.

Read BBC Online’s timeline of the life of Princess Diana