Death puts media madness in focus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 September, 1997, 12:00am

A massive backlash against the media in general and the paparazzi in particular is growing as questions over the blame for Princess Diana's death are asked.

Within minutes of confirmation she had died in a Paris hospital after a chase by paparazzi ended in an horrific car crash, waves of anger and revulsion were directed at photographers outside Buckingham Palace with people yelling 'leave her alone now'.

For weeks the paparazzi had dogged and pursued Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. The rewards for their aggressive tactics were staggering: the photographer who took the original shots of the couple enjoying tender moments on a boat off Sardinia is believed to have earned more than $30 million.

The cover girl princess had always been a target for photographers and faced a love-hate relationship with them. For years she had complained of harassment, fuelling calls from MPs and others for tighter curbs on newspapers.

Yet in free societies the huge public interest in her all over the world created a highly profitable market in stories and photographs.

At times the princess was happy to co-operate with the pack. But often photographers and journalists brought her to tears, forcing her to take evasive action sometimes through the courts.

Only last week in her interview with the French newspaper Le Monde she complained about 'the ferocious press'. Ironically, in France where she died, there are strict privacy laws yet the paparazzi are more active there than in Britain.

The last Conservative government struggled for some time to try to harden privacy laws but constantly faced difficulties in producing legislation which protected privacy without hindering genuine journalistic inquiry. In the end it agreed to the media controlling itself through its own industry groups.

From the moment her relationship with the heir to the throne became public the young Diana Spencer found herself the focus of intense media interest. In the beginning it was her innocence on which the photographers focused, but within weeks of her wedding the strain of the exposure began to tell and Buckingham Palace asked photographers to treat her gently.

But she was too glamorous and her role too close to that of a fairytale princess to ignore. When her marriage failed the media interest only intensified.

In a speech after her separation she recalled the impact: 'When I started my public life 12 years ago I understood the media might be interested in what I did.

'I realised then their attention would inevitably focus on both our private and public lives. But I was not aware of how overwhelming that attention would become.' She became adept at manipulating the media. On a trip to India in 1992 she deliberately posed alone and soulful by the Taj Mahal as her marriage broke up.

On the night Prince Charles gave a television interview about their marital problems she effectively upstaged him by appearing at a charity function in a stunning off-the-shoulder black dress.

She urged her friends to collaborate with the journalist Andrew Morton, author of a revelatory biography, and she gave an interview to the BBC's Panorama programme without telling her press secretary. In it she reiterated her complaints against photographers.

'I never knew where a lens was going to be,' she said. 'A normal day I would be followed by four cars. A normal day I would come back to my car and find six freelance photographers jumping around me.

'Some people would say 'if you had a policeman it would make it easier'. It doesn't at all. They have decided that I am still a project, after 15 or 16 years, that sells well.' The freelance paparazzi she so detested stalked her every move in search of revealing photographs to sell for vast amounts of money to magazines around the world.

Often the snaps were taken from vantage points hundreds of metres away as photographers, crawling through undergrowth or camouflaging themselves against sand dunes, tried to snatch a snap of her in a bikini or compromising position.

On one occasion outside a London gym she retaliated by snatching the keys to a photographer's motorcycle.

In recent years staff photographers for the British national newspapers stuck to officially sanctioned 'photo opportunities' - but that did not stop the tabloid press happily paying vast sums for the produce of the paparazzi, who were mostly freelance operators unperturbed by ethical considerations.

Actor Tom Cruise said yesterday: 'I have actually been in that same [Paris] tunnel being chased by the paparazzi, they run lights and they chase you and they harass you all the time. It happens all over the world. You don't know what it is like being chased by them. People should be allowed to have a private moment.' In its blanket coverage of the princess's death yesterday, British newspapers denied responsibility for the actions of freelancers. The British press also expressed a need for tighter controls.

Tessa Hilton, editor of The Sunday Express, commented: 'Diana was unique. She had a unique relationship with the public - and the media were the way, many times, in which she communicated with the public. She had a place in the heart of the public and I don't think we shall see that kind of press attention really ever again.' Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, said: 'I think there will be a terrible backlash against the press and I think it is important that we don't rush into any legislation. But equally I think it is important that the media address this whole question of publicity, which at the moment there was a reluctance to talk about.' In recent months the princess had used the media in her campaign against landmines while visiting Bosnia and Angola. She would doubtless have enjoyed the publicity she would have brought for Hong Kong charities during her planned visit in late September.

Diana had become an icon of beauty, of glamour, a figure to be celebrated. But the manner of her death may also have made her the media's victim.