Laws of physics killed Diana, not the press

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am

The tragic death of the Princess of Wales highlights a disturbing feature of Hong Kong journalism - the willingness of a surprising number of pundits, politicos and parasites to convict the local media of guilt by association, well before it is established there is actually any guilt to be associated with.

These commentators would have recoiled with horror from the idea of printing a photograph of the dying princess but were, curiously, quite happy to use her demise for the equally-exploitative purpose of lending a spurious air of topical relevance to a discussion of the privacy rights of local public figures.

What is the point of writing for the newspapers if you do not set a good example in the matter of not jumping to conclusions? It was clear through all the early coverage that the most crucial point in the story - what actually happened - was obscured by a dearth of authoritative information.

The occupants of the doomed car were either dead or unconscious. The putative photographer villains were under arrest.

The princess' brother had very decided views - 'I always knew the media would kill her' - but he was in South Africa. Mr al-Fayed senior was sure the photographers were to blame, but he was in London.

In the shock of public tragedy and personal bereavement they were entitled, perhaps, to express their suspicions as facts.

Sundry eyewitnesses were mentioned, but always at third hand. Eyewitnesses are a tricky business anyway in events of this kind, where the crucial event is swift, dramatic and only gains its importance after the event.

Still, a little detail like lack of evidence was not holding up anyone in the commentary business. By Tuesday morning the 'paparazzi' had been tried and condemned. They were 'the photographers who hounded Princess Diana to her death'.

Local editorial writers hastened to heap ashes on their own heads. From overseas we heard a chorus of complaints from notorious privacy-seekers like Madonna and Sylvester Stallone.

These goings-on in the open department coincided nicely with the first sign that all was not as it had at first seemed in the hard-news section.

The driver, it seems, was drunk. And not 'all right, just one for the road then' drunk. Or even 'my client only drinks orange juice but his friends spiked his drink' drunk. He was, both literally and metaphorically, stinking.

He apparently called out, before the trip started, words to the effect that 'you will not be able to keep up'. As the Paris Ritz is entirely surrounded by speed limits of the normal urban kind, this can only have expressed an intention to indulge in a refined form of illegal road-racing.

And at the time of the crash the car was doing about 200 kilometres an hour.

It also now seems that the photographers arrested were not professional celebrity-chasers. All but one of them worked for international news agencies covering a variety of topics.

As the arrests were made about 10 minutes after the crash, we do not know if the photographers then at the scene included all or any of those who were doing the 'chasing', if anyone was. We can, I think, safely rule out the man who was riding a motor-scooter.

I expect when the dust has settled we will discover that there were no press motorbikes within half a mile of the crash when it occurred. We will then be told that 'hounded to death' was a figure of speech, a metaphor for press excess.

Well, no explanation for the princess' death can diminish the tragedy - the blasted hopes, desolation of survivors, possibilities unrealised, an unhappy life unhappily concluded.

But surely she deserves a better memorial than a posthumous existence as a spurious pretext for attacks on press freedom.

I fear that every proposal for curbs on the media will henceforth be justified as a way to protect future victims of a predatory press from the fate which befell the princess.

Alas, the poor lady was not a victim of the press. She was a victim of the persistent and widespread delusion that as the clients of the Ritz do not have to worry about the traffic laws, they can expect a similar indulgence from the laws of physics.