SEPT. 10, 1997
Asians Think Western World Overreacted to Diana's Death
Philip Bowring, International Herald Tribune, c.1997


HONG KONG Viewed from this part of Asia, Britain, and perhaps the Western world in general, emerge diminished by their response to the death of the Princess of Wales. The reaction here to the reaction in the West is one of astonishment at the volume and the hyperbole of the coverage.

Immediately after Diana's death, the public response at least as measured by callers to a prime time radio phone-in, was one of sympathy and sadness. A week later, the dominant theme was irritation at the adulation of Diana as though she were a figure of the stature of Gandhi or Kennedy, Churchill or Mao.

The blanket coverage meanwhile served to remind people here of the late princesss publicity- seeking, jet-setting characteristics, and of her close links to a tabloid press that was now engaging in self-flagellation. Glamorous, yes, deserving of sympathy, yes. But where was achievement to be admired, or example to be followed?

Editorials in serious newspapers took a similar tack, contrasting her contribution to the world with that of Mother Teresa, whose death, albeit not a shock, was so overshadowed by the attention to a princess whose charitable work was mostly in front of the cameras. Asians viewing the adulation pondered what sort of adjectives would be used by the BBC, for instance, if Filipinos acted in similar fashion after the death of one of their glamorous movie-star politicians. Hysterical, credulous, irrational?

Parallels were drawn with the adulation of Imelda Marcos in her earlier days, when extravagance, jet-setting friends, an always ready smile and adept use of the media combined to make her the local equivalent of the peoples princess. Some Indians recalled the embarrassment they felt at the mass adulation given in death, as in life, to M.G. Ramachandran, the film idol who became chief minister of Tamil Nadu. How did the foreign media treat that outburst of emotion?

For the monarchists of Thailand and Japan (republicans are rare in both countries), the episode had a different message. A degree of distance and dignity was vital for a monarchy. Had not both Charles and Diana brought it into disrepute by conducting their squabbles through the media?

If royalty had a function it was as symbol of the nation. As such, it had to be divorced from personality. By definition it was old-fashioned. Soap opera stardom and extravagant, but often insincere, media hype could lift individuals temporarily in the popularity charts, but undermined the basis of the system. A popular touch could be a plus for royalty, but gravitas mattered more. An inward-looking, self-obsessed Britain had not just lost its last bit of empire. It had lost all sense of gravitas.




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