Fact is stranger than fiction in 1997 – the year of the people

The people’s favourites grabbed the headlines this year, but those who live by the media can often die by the same means. Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent.

1997 was the year in which a media princess died and a media government came to power, in which a media pop group rose and fell and a media star became a media mogul. It was the year in which, for the most part, real life people and stories proved more popular – and in some cases stranger – than fiction.

Some of these people cleverly harnessed the media – the Princess of Wales, Tony Blair, the Spice Girls and Chris Evans – but ordinary people also became stars through television: the courtroom nanny Louise Woodward, the learner driver Maureen Rees and other ordinary people in factual series like Driving School, Airport, Hotel and Holiday Reps. The only fictional characters to come close were the Teletubbies and the perennial stars of the soaps.

Yet such is the pace of change in this media-dominated age, that our view of the events and people that hit the headlines has altered dramatically during the year.

Memories are already fading of that remarkable week between the death and funeral of the Princess of Wales, when much of the nation – and the world – mourned so publicly, and the media played the roles of messenger and alleged murderer, people’s mouthpiece and nation’s counsellor. Those memories will be revived as broadcasters and newspapers reflect on the events of 1997, but already the feeling – so strong at the time – that “nothing will ever be the same again” has subsided.

This week, newspaper editors will publish their new code of practice, agreed in the heat of the outcry over press intrusion. Its wording will be tighter than the old one, but already there are clear signs that editors – with no great revolt from the public – continue to infringe people’s privacy when they deem it worthwhile.

For the Prime Minister, who on the morning of Diana’s death struck a remarkable chord with the nation (as he had on the morning of his unprecedented election victory), there is now a realisation that governments need more than focus groups and a strong media image to succeed.

One reason he was so sure-footed over the death of Diana, I suspect, was that Labour’s long-established research groups had shown him just how highly and sympathetically she was regarded by most sections of the community – even though the Establishment and many media commentators regarded her as a rich and ill-educated clothes-horse, cavorting round the south of France with a playboy.

(Many still do. A distinguished deputy headmistress recently told me she was appalled by the public’s “media-induced hysteria” that week, saying it had convinced her that Britain could succumb to a Hitler, provided he had media backing.)

Labour has learned an important lesson from the marketing world that good presentation is vital for any organisation, in order to build a strong relationship with your customers, suppliers and staff. But a government that lives by focus groups and the media may well die by the same means.

The Blair honeymoon could never last for ever but the feeling of a fresh start, and a nation newly willing to put aside division and cynicism, has all but disappeared.

The Spice Girls must know how he feels. Their short career has been truly phenomenal, in a world where media hype is the daily currency. Shrewdly hired, before the group had hit the heights, by Channel 5 to spearhead its launch, the station’s delay until Easter Sunday gave the group time to reach the peak of its UK fame. Whether that can be revived remains to be seen, but they may take heart from the experience of Chris Evans – a far more original talent – whose career has revived in spectacular fashion, after seeming to plunge earlier in the year.

Many thought when Evans walked out on the Radio 1 breakfast show – giving no notice, after a series of increasingly wayward incidents – that presenter power had overreached itself and he would live to regret the decision.

Yet Evans re-emerged, not just as a ten-week breakfast DJ at Virgin Radio but the station’s boss, whisking it from under the nose of Capital, while the Monopolies & Mergers Commission held up proceedings. Whether he enjoys being a media “typhoon” remains to be seen. A new three-year deal with Channel 4 for TFI Friday and other shows has helped bankroll his slice of the agreement, but the rest of the money comes from banks and City firms which will need to see a real return in time.

Evans’s takeover brings an element of true excitement – not to say mischief – to an industry that needs it. The day he and Zoe Ball launched their rival breakfast shows, radio grabbed acres of newspaper coverage – in the broadsheets as well as the tabloids. The next time they shared the front pages was last week, when they left 10 Downing Street after Tony Blair’s latest celebrity party.

Blair, like Evans, recognises that a mix of celebrities and real people can be a potent mix, whether you are running a government or a radio or TV show. He has tried to portray himself as an ordinary guy, but already satirists have got the measure of him.

Evans, too, on taking over Virgin, has portrayed himself as the ordinary guy who suddenly finds himself in charge. For many, Diana’s most appealing characteristic was not her extraordinary charisma but her ordinary vulnerability. And the Spice Girls’ success was built on ordinariness, convincing millions of girls they could do the same.

1997 was the year which gave us a people’s princess, a people’s lottery, a people’s government, a people’s pop group and a people’s media mogul. I’m not sure people can take a people’s 1998.

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