Press Column

Did the press kill Diana? Full story and pictures on pages 1-94

This is not entirely a joke: Monday’s Express had in its table of contents an entry "Other news, 33-34". The only area of the newspapers to survive was the sport, the cartoons, and the horoscopes. All editors knew that what the public wanted was to savour again all those dreadful newspaper stories which had driven her to her tragic end; judging from the sales figures, they were right. But should the press supply this appetite? And if it does, is it uniquely blameworthy? Celebrity may be a Faustian bargain; but it is one freely entered into by all parties: the journalists, the public, and the star. Why should the media be regarded as the only responsible parties? Partly it is because they are the only necessary factor in the equation, even if not by themselves sufficient.

There’s no doubt that they — we — I personally — are being blamed. I am writing on Tuesday morning, when, by a nice irony, it has emerged that the driver of the car was drunk as well as driving recklessly fast. It is not clear how closely he was being pursued, though at least one of the arrested photographers was driving home in his car when he happened upon the accident, and immediately started to take photos of the limo without knowing who was inside. This reaction may be shocking, but it is not persecution of the sort usually implied by the word paparazzi. None the less, whatever the fine detail of the story, it is fitting, with the accurate unfairness that that press so love when applied to others, into the general theme that media pressure killed the Princess of Wales.

When I reply that she asked for the pressure that killed her, my wife, who is not a journalist, responds that this is the excuse of rapists through the ages. Yet, in the precise and literal sense, she did ask for intrusive and degrading coverage of her life. There was a period when she talked deliberately and at length to journalists about the iniquities of her husband and his family. There is an illuminating account by Peter Stothard in Tuesday’s Times of a lunch with her in 1994: "She could be as ‘on message’ as the most disciplined New Labour Apparatchik. She was as charming that day as everyone always says that she was. But she did not move outside the lines that she had most clearly defined. Inside those lines were the very aspects of life which most people keep outside in discussions with newspaper editors — her husband, his mistress, her in-laws, her own fragile sense of herself. Within minutes I felt I was talking to someone I knew. By the time that she had toyed her way through her foie gras and lamb, I knew things about her that I did not know about my closest friends."

As it happens, Stothard did not use directly any of the stuff she gave him. He could not have done without being intrusive and degrading. That is what the details of other people’s marriages neccesarily are, even when they dish the dirt on themselves. She was also trying to plant with him a specific story about how she had rescued a tramp from drowning in Regent’s Park canal; and he didn’t entirely believe her, though the story duly emerged from more usual sources.

But the interesting aspect of Stothard’s story from the point of view of journalistic ethics is that it has a journalist will read it quite differently from any member of the public. To the public, it is a picture of a confused, unhappy woman, pursued even at her private lunches with newspaper editors by paparazzi, who should have been left to live her life in peace. But no journalist could possibly have that reaction. To us, that story shows a woman who has voluntarily surrendered her right to a private life. This is not because we are particularly nasty or brutal people. It is not even because we do not believe in a right to privacy. Stothard, it will be noted, waited till she was dead to print the story, and even less distinguished journalists have been known to keep secrets that were revealed over lunch, and to guard other people’s privacy.

What seems to a journalist to surrender her right was not that she told Stothard about her marriage, but that she had obviously told others as well. If you tell me a secret, it may still be yours. But if you tell my rival, I will do everything in my power to take it from both of you. That is a visceral reaction which has nothing to do with the public’s right to know. It is more personal than that. My rivals have no business knowing, still less publishing, anything I don’t know. And this effect is cumulative. What has once been released into the public domain can never be recalled.

That is the mechanism that makes celebrities public property. It is what led eventually to the standard royal coverage in the first editions of the Sunday papers: "Loathe us if you like, Diana, but please act your age" (Jessica Davies, a columnist in the Mail on Sunday). "Diana on the couch .. and her mother-in-law too" (Oliver James "attempts a daring royal psychoanalysis" in the Sunday Times) "Sad Wills wants Di to ditch Dodi" (the News of the World’s weekly Royal Exclusive).

Obviously, there are all sorts of other factors involved in the pursuit of celebrities than the competitiveness I have identified between journalists. People like Diana are worth millions to the proprietors of newspapers, and so become the subject of fierce competition at that level. There is the whole question of photography. But I doubt that photographs, or even the presence of paparazzi, cause nearly as much damage and pain as words do. Most of the really celebrated paparazzi photographs of Diana were sale-worthy because of their captions. One of the differences between a paparazzo and a photographer is that a paparazzo can only hope to illustrate a pre-existing story. A photographer can show a new way of looking at the world. I have concentrated on that competitiveness because it is the motive that operates at the level of the individual journalist, which is the level where we are responsible. But without it, we wouldn’t be journalists at all.

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