In defence of the offensive

From the squawks of protest over the airing of Diana's dying moments to accusations at Anfield, why are we all so righteously offended?

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics

The urge to display superior indignation, and the desire to be self-righteously offended, are certainly traits of Western society in the twenty-first century. Indignant victimhood manifests itself in various guises: in the pages of the Daily Mail, in Liverpudlians complaining about being insulted by UEFA or Boris Johnson, in anti-tobacco whingers moaning about passive smoking (who now, in Ireland, complain that their mates leave them in the bar to hang outside) and in Christians – who believe ill-thought-out polemics from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens constitute an anti-Christian vendetta.

Like many pervasive malaises in history, such as anti-Semitism, or being fanatically against McDonalds and Murdoch, the urge to take offence is something that transcends left and right. The Deeply Offended are as likely to be lefties who sense the phantom of institutional racism everywhere as they are to be those who cry ‘It’s political correctness gone mad!’

The howls of outrage over Channel 4’s decision to show photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales’s fatal crash illustrated the vacuity of this predisposition. As usual, ripe condemnation came from people who had not actually seen the programme, Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel. In the end, the photographs weren’t outrageous, and the only one featuring Diana explicitly had her face blacked-out. There were consequently less than 20 complaints made to Channel 4 after the programme was aired on Wednesday night. Most of these photographs were in the public domain already, having been printed in the press after the event in August 1997, and what is more, there are far more genuinely shocking pictures of a dying Diana on the internet. But television programmes on Channel 4 remain a collective, public event, in a way that a three-minute video of someone getting his head sawn off on YouTube will never be; only public events provide an opportunity for public opprobrium.

Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel largely sought to exonerate the paparazzi who, in pursuing the Princess’s car, were initially blamed for causing it to speed and then crash. It initially succeeded, reminding us that Diana might not have died if she was wearing a seat belt and if her driver wasn’t drunk, and that the cameramen did not hinder the emergency services in trying to save her life. But it pushed the viewer’s goodwill too far in seeking to make us sympathise with the paparazzi involved. They may have not been culpable, but they were pretty despicable creatures; they may not have been killers but they did make Diana’s life pretty intolerable. On the programme, the paparazzi came out with cant like they ‘were only doing a public service’, rather than telling the cold truth: they were trying to flog pictures of a mortally-wounded woman only minutes after having taken them.

But Diana, too, was cynical when it came to the media, falling into the celebrity trap of courting the media when it suited her, and then blaming them for ‘intrusion’ when it did not – she herself actively used television and the paparazzi to shame her ex-husband and deflect attention away from Camilla Parker-Bowles. In many respects, she was little better than those who pursued her into that Parisian tunnel.

Diana apologists, conspiracy theorists and fantasists-in-general no longer hold the paparazzi responsible, but believe the British government was somehow involved, that she was bumped off by MI6 because she was carrying Dodi Fayed’s child. Even I was part of this conspiracy, according to Dodi’s father. After I wrote a short book in 2004 called Conspicuous Compassion, I received a letter from Mohammed Al-Fayed, accusing me of being involved with MI6. But the sad truth is that, as a study from the journal Fortean Times showed, those who believe in conspiracy theories often have experienced unexpected bereavement, which is why we must put Al-Fayed’s consequent behaviour in perspective.

The bereaved fall for conspiracy theories because when horrific accidents happen, they want a reason. Fatal car crashes involving the young and the beautiful seem so unfair, such an affront to our sense of natural justice. But we live in an age where accidents don’t happen, in which the word accident has actually been removed from the Highway Code. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and, in any case, Diana’s death wasn’t even an accident. There was a reason, but it was prosaic and partially self-inflicted, and not fantastical and caused by others.

For the same reason, this week, Liverpool supporters have once again failed to recognise that some of their fans are badly behaved, and are ‘outraged’ at UEFA’s suggestion that they are. But Liverpudlians are very good at Deeply Offended Indignation. For instance, whenever someone mentions bringing back terraces, they are always shouted down by Liverpudlians who remind us of Hillsborough (even though it was perimeter fencing, not terracing, bad policing and the behaviour of some of their supporters, that helped to cause that tragedy).

Sometimes, a complainant just wants to complain for complaining’s sake…

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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