Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, shown here on July 1, 1997, said the paparazzi had “blood on their hands” after his sister’s death in a car accident in Paris as she was pursued by photographers. File Photo by EPA-EFE
NEW YORK, Aug. 29 (UPI) — It’s been 25 years since Princess Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, died in a Paris car crash after being chased by paparazzi in pursuit of photographs of the celebrity couple.
Ensuing laws restricting such hounding by photographers in Europe and the United States, the birth of social media and COVID-19 lockdowns have combined to depress the value of such images since Diana’s death.
Experts told UPI that new laws have brought a “radical shift” in how celebrities and royalty are able to defend against the paparazzi’s intrusions. And with famous people posting their own images on Instagram, Twitter and other platforms, the “surprise” of a new baby, a new paramour or new hairdo is revealed firsthand.
“TikTok, Instagram and Twitter have shut down the first exclusive pictures of things like Kim Kardashian’s baby because now they’re taking a selfie in their house, posting it online and taking away that surprise,” Dennis Clark, a New York-based photographer who worked for three years as a paparazzo in South Florida, said in an interview.
Sarah Feinsmith, a photo editor at the British tabloid Daily Mail who was working for Newsday in New York on the day Diana died, said photo editors, like celebrities, “are now turning more to social media.”
“In those days, we were all clustered around the TV set for updates, whereas now we would be trawling Twitter,” Feinsmith said. Back then, photo editors would have to wait for wire or agency photos to transmit after they were developed.
“There certainly is a big difference in the job now,” she said.
Clark said the market for tabloid photography — candid shots of celebrities in their private life — has also declined as everyone locked down during the pandemic.
“The number of paparazzi on the street is nil to what it was before because nobody has been buying pictures from them because there were no pictures to buy,” Clark said.
Hounded to death
It was a different story in 1997, when Diana was trailed by aggressive photographers everywhere she went.
“You make my life hell!” she once screamed at them. “You make my life hell!”
The British paparazzi had always been more aggressive than American photographers, Clark said.
“We’re aggressive like getting tinted windows on your car and hiding in plain sight on a beach dressed in a bathing suit until the right moment happens,” he said.
“They’re more aggressive like getting onto a scooter with one person driving while the photographer sitting behind holds on and tries to shoot through the window of a moving car. I don’t know anyone personally here who’s ever done something like that.”
On the afternoon of the crash, Aug. 31, 1997, Diana left the Ritz Hotel in Paris with Fayed to go to a nearby apartment owned by his father.
The princess had arrived in Paris a day earlier en route to London after nine days aboard a yacht owned by Fayed’s father, Egyptian businessman Mohamed Fayed. It was on the Jonikal where a photo of the couple kissing was taken by Mario Brenna the month before.
“Not only did this photograph appear to draw media attention to the couple, it is believed that the amount of money reportedly earned by Brenna focused the attention of the paparazzi,” according to a report on the crash by British police.
In Paris, the couple got into the back of a Mercedes S280 while Fayed’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, hopped in the front seat. Henri Paul, acting head of security at the Ritz, drove the car from the hotel’s back exit.
“Once the paparazzi realized that the couple had left by the rear exit, they were quickly in pursuit. Indeed, a small number of the paparazzi had been covering the rear exit in any event,” the report reads.
Paul sped along, with the paparazzi hot on his heels, until the Mercedes crashed into a central pillar of the Place de l’Alma underpass. Fayed and the driver died at the scene. Diana and Rees-Jones were taken to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she later died of her injuries. She was 36.
Seven photographers were arrested and nine were ultimately charged, though they were never penalized. A French judge concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge them with crimes including involuntary manslaughter. At least 14 paparazzi were identified as having been at the hotel when the couple departed.
Witnesses Antonio Lopes-Borges and Ana Simao testified that the paparazzi climbed onto the car after the crash to snap shots of Diana, Fayed and Paul as they died.
The world, horrified by Diana’s death, quickly blamed the paparazzi for chasing the car. Her brother, Charles Spencer, described the princess of Wales as “the most hunted person of the modern age” at her funeral in September 1997.
“I always believed the press would kill her in the end. But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case,” Spencer said after the crash.
“It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands today.”
Britain’s Protection from Harassment Act had gone into effect in June 1997, just weeks before Diana’s death. But the tragedy prompted calls for the Press Complaints Commission to review its Editor’s Code of Practice.
“This event unleashed many vociferous calls for the code to be reviewed. It was certainly clear to the industry itself that the code, particularly as it related to privacy and harassment, could be tightened further,” reads a document published by the British Parliament.
“The result of such consensus was the most substantial rewriting of the code to date — leading to perhaps the toughest set of press regulations anywhere in Europe.”
The revised code was implemented in January 1998 with significant changes, including calling the use of long-lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent “unacceptable.” For the first time, it also precisely defined private places.
A new clause “made explicit an editor’s responsibility not to publish material” that had been obtained in breach of the clause, “regardless of whether the material had been obtained by the newspaper’s staff or by freelancers.”
And a strict new clause extended the protection of the code to all children while they were at school, which previously had referred only to children under age 16.
Diana’s oldest son, Prince William, was 15 at the time of her death, while Prince Harry was 12 and unofficial photos of them in their younger years are limited.
“Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion,” the code states. “Where material about the private life of a child is published, there must be justification for publication other than the fame, notoriety or position of his or her parents or guardian.”
In the United States, bills were introduced in a House committee in 1997 and 1998 that aimed to prohibit and set penalties for harassment, defined as “persistently physically following or chasing a victim” to photograph or record them for profit to the point that the victim had a reasonable fear of death or bodily injury. Neither measure made it past introduction.
California had more success, passing Senate Bill 262, which was signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson in September 1998.
The law added provisions that allowed for photographers to be liable in a civil lawsuit for the physical invasion of privacy when they “knowingly committed an act of trespass in order to physically invade” a person’s privacy or when taking an image “in a manner that is offensive” of a person engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
California lawmakers even drafted bills to create a “zone of privacy” in public places and change the state’s defamation laws, Jacqueline Sharkey wrote in the American Journalism Review in November 1997.
The pressure to pass such laws was heightened after published photographs of then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton slow dancing on a beach in bathing suits were criticized by the White House.
In 2005, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law to triple damages awarded for photography-induced accidents and prohibit paparazzi from profiting from the photos that ensue.
Celebrities fight back
In the next few years, the paparazzi continued to score in some instances. Photos from Britney Spears’ 2004 wedding to Jason Alexander reportedly fetched around $120,000. In 2006, Spears said she “was terrified” of “physically aggressive paparazzi.”
Entrepreneur reported in 2008 that the photo agency X17 had a team trailing the “Toxic” singer around the clock and sold more than $2.5 million worth of photos of her in 2007 alone, “including $500,000 for its exclusive Bald Britney pics.”
Celebrities started to fight back against the harassment, filing lawsuits, criminal complaints and even scuffling with the photographers.
In 2005, celebrity photographer Galo Cesar Ramirez was arrested after an auto accident involving Lindsay Lohan. The charges were later dropped.
Some have defended the rights of the photographers, including Tim Cavanaugh of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote in a 2006 op-ed that Lohan’s accident “was the centerpiece in an anti-paparazzi campaign” waged by celebrities including Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon and Halle Berry.
“Diana’s 1997 death in a drunk-driving accident remains the standard cautionary tale about photographers gone wild,” Cavanaugh wrote, referring to the fact that Paul had been drinking before he drove the couple. “Yet the attempt to build a case against the paparazzi was abandoned by prosecutors, and even the dogged Mohammed Fayed eventually lost his civil suit against three of the alleged pursuers.”
Diaz settled a lawsuit filed by photographers Saul Lazo and Jose Gonzalez whom she threatened when they tried to photograph her with Justin Timberlake in 2006. Witherspoon filed a false-imprisonment charge against paparazzi that was dropped in 2005.
Alec Baldwin shoved at least two journalists for New York tabloids — reporter Kevin Fasick of the New York Post in November 2013 and photographer Marcus Santos of the New York Daily News in June 2012.
New technologies such as drones have added to the debate. In 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the future use of drones as they began to be used by reporters and paparazzi trying to get glimpses of celebrities and closed crime scenes.
Even with new restrictions and official social media fodder, the interest of the paparazzi was renewed by the time Prince William began dating Kate Middleton in 2003 and reached a crescendo when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were first reported dating in 2016.
Robin Callender Smith, a professor of media law at Queen Mary University of London who also works for Rupert Murdoch’s News UK empire, told UPI the Data Protection Act of 2018 — Britain’s implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection laws — has helped the famous fight back.
“There has been a radical shift here to celebrities, and members of the royal family, using the privacy rights that have grown from the EU’s General Data Protection regime and human rights legislation to warn off paps,” Smith said.
“But in many respects, all of that has been completely confounded by the public’s use of the ubiquitous iPhone/Android. We’re still in a developmental stage of this whole area. If you think of a counterfactual on Diana’s death in the world of the iPhone and the material that would have produced, you begin to see the different world we live in now.”
Harry and Markle, citing harsh treatment by the British media in a manner reminiscent of Diana, stepped down as working members of the British royal family in March 2020 and moved to Montecito, Calif.
That move sparked further criticism from tabloids in New York and London, with a reporter for the New York Post writing that they “have another thing coming to them if they think photographers will lay off them.”
The couple have issued annual anti-harassment reminders to the media since 2009, warning that the family would be prepared to take legal action if their right to privacy was violated.
Lady Diana Spencer, age 19, in 1980. Photo by B. Smith/UPI | License Photo