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In a Darkened Underpass

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon.com, April 23, 2004 as ‘Who’s the hunted now?’)

In the seven years since she died in a high-speed car crash in a tunnel in Paris, the pictures of the bafflingly mangled black Mercedes that ferried Diana to her death have become almost as famous as its most precious passenger.

Looking at the pictures, snapped at night with flash photography (like many of the pictures of Diana), it’s difficult not to wonder at how such an expensive, glamorous, chauffeur-driven, bodyguarded limousine could end up such a shapeless mess – or how such a mess could have been a car at all, let alone such a famous one. To wonder how a limo whisking someone from the Paris Ritz could have turned so suddenly into a hearse. To wonder just how mangled the expensive, glamorous Diana was.

But of course, no matter how hard you look at the picture, you can’t see her – she has already been whisked off to the hospital where she would die soon after from “internal injuries” (something we know she had been suffering from for many years, and they were not caused by any car accidents). Until this week, Diana’s expiring body is literally obscene – “off scene” – in a way that much of her life was not.

Standing in for the totaled body of Diana, the wrecked Merc — the ultimate rubbernecking image – has somehow become a symbol not of prurience but of discretion. We all knew that pictures of a dying Diana in the back of the car were snapped by the paparazzi pursuing her moments after the impact, and that these landed on the desks of newspapers the next day. Until the CBS documentary about her death this week, no English-speaking publication or TV station has dared to show us the pictures.

The media always has to navigate between catering to public curiosity and voyeurism, and on the other hand avoiding provoking the disgust of their audience – with themselves. “What kind of lady do you take me for?” is ever the response of Dame Public when they feel they haven’t been romanced enough before being given “what they want.” The public could not get enough of Diana – but after her death, they turned out to be as bulimic as the shy, awkward, exhibitionistic, sophisticated, vulnerable, feisty girl they voraciously consumed.

Unsurprisingly, the British press has been fairly unanimous in its condemnation of CBS. The left-liberal Guardian denounced the way CBS had plumbed “new depths of prurience”; the Daily Mail thundered on about the “ultimate betrayal.” Much of the media here, though, had few qualms about showing images of, say, mutilated Americans in Fallujah. JFK’s head has, of course, exploded on U.K. prime time more often than fireworks on the Queen’s birthday.

Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Dodi al-Fayed, Diana’s consort that evening who also died in the crash, ordered his lawyers to write to CBS before the broadcast to make a “personal plea” stating, “We cannot imagine that CBS News would want to be the first enterprise to breach the collected understanding of the media based upon good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy.” Good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy are qualities that Mr. al-Fayed, the Pharaonic proprietor of Harrods and chief retailer of Diana conspiracy theories, is well known as exemplifying.

What is really remarkable is not that CBS showed these images but that these images have not been shown before, that for seven years we have been satisfied with the “discretion” of the mangled Merc in the “tunnel of death,” as empty as her womb (according to the doctor who famously testified at the British inquest that she wasn’t pregnant). Part of the reason why there are so many conspiracy theories is because people don’t want to let go of Diana or her “secret life.”

Diana, queen of the English-gossiping world in the last two decades of the 20th century, the celebrity princess, was anything but discreet herself (CBS was responding to rival NBC’s recent airing of tapes recorded by the princess talking about her marriage and confrontation with Camilla Parker Bowles in the early ’90s). Her life was a series of revelations, ever more dramatic and orchestrated, which left the British monarchy looking rather like her last ride.

But this was part of the disavowal of her death that was engaged back in 1997. It was the paparazzi, you see, rather than our own appetite for her — and her appetite for us — that turned Diana the huntress into the hunted, and that ultimately killed her. “They” wouldn’t leave her alone! “They” afforded her no privacy! “They” hounded her to her death! “They” have no decency!

I remember standing with the crowds outside Westminster Abbey in the September sunshine in 1997 as the funeral service for Diana was being conducted. In the passion and the heat a lady fainted. One of the many news teams there began filming the collapsed woman. A posh middle-aged lady shouted out “Have you no decency at all! She’s not well!” As one, we all bristled at the camera crew, who quickly fled. Satisfied, we all went back to the private business of crying in front of the myriad other TV cameras.

There was also much talk after her death about how “the boys” – William and Harry – would not be exposed to the same treatment. And out of “respect to Diana” or rather the public outcry/self-disgust following her death, the boys have been off-limits for much of their adolescence. However, the boys are growing up (William is 21; Harry, 19), and the death of Diana and the collective guilt associated with it is receding into the past. Photos of Prince William having his feet massaged at rugby matches by girlfriends and sharing ski lifts have made their way into the press despite protests from the palace. Most recently the world was ogling pictures of the heir to the throne, in snug Speedos at a water polo match.

The pictures are eerily reminiscent of some of the most famous images of Diana before her death – snapped on al-Fayed’s yacht in her bathing costume (allegedly after tipping the tabs off herself). Those shoulders, those long limbs, those cheekbones, those flashing teeth, that foggy, English, aristocratic skin. William is being offered to us by the media in almost as sexualized a fashion as his mother, even when taking part in something as innocent and boyish as a water polo match.

Much discussion followed about whether tight Speedos and their “anti-grab” material flattered William or not – and whether his wearing them would increase sales. The same Google search that listed these stories also provided a link to a posting on a gay Speedo fan Web site where, on the basis of the tiny picture, someone deduced with scientific precision that William is averagely endowed (“if not smaller — though that may be an effect of temperature”).

Tawdry, slightly pervy speculation about the “crown jewels,” yes. But is it really so different from the more innuendo-based noises the respectable press had been full of?

Interestingly, CBS insisted that its pictures of dying Diana were “tasteful” and featured only her “head and shoulders.” The program also featured the French doctor seen attending to Diana in the pictures, assuring us: “I can tell you her face was still beautiful. She didn’t have any injuries on her face.” This is both reassuring and slightly disappointing. You don’t have to be J.G. Ballard to see that horror and glamour are closely intertwined.

Celebrities tend to lead car-crash lives, and if they also happen to have car-crash deaths then who can blame us if we want to slow down and take a good look?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007