Diana syndrome - we
get the conspiracies we deserve
There was a time when only eccentrics were interested in conspiracy
theories. However, in recent times conspiracy has gone mainstream.
One recent survey found that 27 per cent of the British population
believed that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were assassinated. As
many as 43 per cent of the 4,170 people surveyed by London's Evening
Standard answered yes to the question, "Do you think Diana
was murdered?" Almost all the viewers who phoned in to The
Richard and Judy Show last week about Diana's death, believed that
there was more to it than meets the eye. The British establishment
itself lacks the confidence to dismiss unsubstantiated rumours of
These theories are no longer ignored but investigated. That is
why the official inquiry into Diana's death has turned into a de
facto murder inquiry. Michael Burgess, the person appointed to head
it, has indicated that he wants to investigate every theory about
the death of Diana.
Burgess is likely to be kept busy well into the next decade. Since
the 1997 Paris car crash, the rumour mill has been working overtime.
So which of the many conspiracy theories is Burgess going to investigate?
That Diana was killed by Mossad? Or that she was murdered on the
orders of MI6 or the CIA? Will Burgess investigate Mohamed al-Fayed's
claim that responsibility for this "horrendous murder"
rests with the Prince of Wales and his father, Philip? Is he going
to investigate the rumour that points the finger at Osama Bin Laden?
Apparently Osama feared that Diana served as a poor role model for
Muslim women so, it's claimed, he ordered the hit. While he is at
it, Burgess could do worse than investigate the rumour that the
singer Morrissey predicted the princess's demise in his 1986 song
"The Queen is Dead".
Of course, there is nothing new about our fascination with conspiracies.
For decades, people have speculated about who really killed President
Kennedy. But at least we know for certain that Kennedy was murdered
- so that rumours about his demise correspond to something that
occurred in reality. Today an accidental death is sufficient to
provoke officialdom to search for conspirators. Why? Because of
an all-pervasive sense of mistrust in official authority.
The public's scepticism towards the official version of events
surrounding Diana's death is the result of a profound sense of distrust
in conventional authority. We live in an age of rumours where official
facts often carry little more authority than an internet site devoted
to alien abduction. Indeed we are increasingly cynical about the
official "version of events" precisely because it is official.
Another important cultural pressure is the tendency to endow any
form of misfortune with meaning. People find it difficult to accept
the fact that a misfortune was due to bad luck or an accident. You
don't need to be a Diana to have questions raised about your death.
When a child meets an untimely death, parents frequently look for
something that will explain their tragic loss. Desperate mothers
and fathers will seize upon rumours of cover-ups to make sense of
their children's affliction. The belief that "we are not being
told the truth" helps shape contemporary public debate.
That is why the instinct is to assume that "they" have
lied about weapons of mass destruction, the death of David Kelly
or the true risks of the MMR vaccine. It appears that there is always
a story behind the story and a conspiracy theory fills a need created
by a culture of mistrust. Some associate rumours and conspiracy
with uneducated people who find it difficult to engage with our
sophisticated knowledge economy. Yet, conspiracy theory is not confined
to a misguided culturally illiterate sub-class.
It is the sophisticated Michael Meacher, one of Tony Blair's longest-serving
ministers, and now a backbencher, who argues that the US government
knew in advance about 11 September but did nothing about it. And
crackpot theories about MMR are far more likely to be believed by
middle-class professionals than ordinary folk. It may well be the
lack of trust which afflicts the middle class that accounts for
the mainstreaming of the conspiracy.
in the Independent, 11 January 2004