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Europe: Diana's Death And Journalistic Ethics

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 1 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Yesterday's shocking death in Paris of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the world's most media-genic and most beloved women, is raising basic questions about journalistic practices and ethics across the civilized world -- including in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The "people's princess," as British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Diana, and her companion Dodi Fayed were killed early Sunday morning in an auto accident in a Paris tunnel. They were reportedly being chased at high speed by photographers on motor bikes seeking to film them. The driver of Diana's car also died in the accident and her bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was severely injured. But he is expected to survive and to tell police what actually caused the smash-up.

French police immediately took into custody seven photographers, known as "paparazzi" (literally, insects attracted to light) after their Italian counterparts, to determine how responsible they might have been for the accident. But much of the world -- and some of its leaders -- have already made up its mind. They say it's the press, and particularly the so-called sensationalist or tabloid press, that was largely at fault.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, for example, castigated the international press for what he called its past hounding of Diana, saying he "guessed she hated it" and that the mass media "cannot help but be criticized." In Russia, the widely read daily tabloid "Moskovsky Komsomolets" said that "curiosity killed Princess Diana," while the liberal newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda" wrote: "This death is a matter of conscience for those tabloid reporters who hounded her everywhere." In Paris itself, reporters covering the story were jeered and booed by crowds near the accident site and the hospital where Diana's life ended.

The most devastating criticism came, understandably enough, from Diana's brother, Earl Charles Spencer, who directly accused the press of causing her death. In an emotional statement he read to television cameras, Earl Spencer said that editors who bought what he called "intrusive and exploitative photographs" of his sister had, in his phrase, "blood on their hands." And, he added, every publication that paid for those photos had "encouraged greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana's image."

On Western TVs and radios yesterday, editors and journalists from the mainline press sought to defend their profession. They warned against condemning all journalists for what they admitted were the sins of some free-lance photographers who work on their own or for photo agencies. But they also acknowledged that the "respectable" press and media themselves were increasingly competing with one another to reproduce photo scoops first printed in the tabloids. One of them, an Englishman, said that Diana's death was likely to be what he called a "watershed event" in the media's pursuit of celebrities and the public's perception of the profession.

Everywhere, the same questions were posed: Hadn't the press gone too far in its pursuit of the private life of Diana and other public figures? Wasn't there some way to police press practices and punish the guilty? Or was the press providing only the details of Diana and others' lives that the public itself insisted upon? Wasn't it, then, the public's never-ending desire to know more about its idols, about its high and low life, and about its officials that was really responsible? And hadn't Diana herself often and skillfully used, even manipulated, the press to get across her view of why her difficult 15-year marriage to Prince Charles would end in divorce last year?

Most West European commentators agreed that there were no simple answers to any of those questions. French journalists pointed out that their country had some of the most stringent privacy laws in Europe, but the difficulty in implementing them gave sensation-seeking journalists great leeway to pursue virtually whomever they wished. They also noted that, in a country with less than 60 million people, no less that 3.2 million tabloids and scandal-sheets were sold each week.

In Britain, by contrast, there are less rigorous laws -- but also a thriving "penny" (that is, tabloid) press. Yet British media self-regulation agreed upon last year has resulted in the press mostly ignoring the private lives of William and Harry, Diana and Charles' two sons, while they are at boarding school. This was done, British journalists said, in response to the Princess' public request -- just as the U.S. press has respected President Bill Clinton's plea that his teen-aged daughter Chelsea be allowed to complete her studies without publicity or intrusion.

Eastern journalists begin tackling journalistic ethics

Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have only just begun to face the same questions about journalistic practices in their countries. But analysts point to the growing tabloid and sensationalist press in many former Communist societies as a sign that they could catch up with the West sooner than many might have imagined.

Czech journalists recall that late last year, the highly popular private television channel Nova furtively filmed President Vaclav Havel as he recuperated from lung-cancer surgery in a Prague hospital. "I don't think it was ethical," former Nova foreign-news editor -- and present "Prague Post" Managing Editor -- Josef Novak told our correspondent. "Nova's camera clearly invaded the President's privacy." But he and other local journalists point out that the Czech public was less exercised about the intrusion into Havel's privacy than by the fact that the Nova cameramen got so close to the President they appeared to represent a clear security risk. Havel's body-guards were seen as the guilty party, not the Nova reporters.

In Russia a few months ago, there was a different sort of reaction to the publication of photographs, taken from video film, allegedly showing former Russian justice minister Valentin Kovalyov cavorting with naked women in a sauna known to be run by a criminal group. The minister was soon replaced, but Russians seemed to care more about who shot the film and how the media obtained it than about the minister apparently involved in a sex scandal. Some analysts say that's because Russians generally believe a person's private life -- even a public official's private life -- should be off-limits.

With the rapid globalization of information and images, Eastern countries will clearly soon be facing the same journalistic problems that Diana's death has now highlighted in the West. They will no doubt realize, as many in the West have, that if the paparazzi certainly deserve a large share of the blame, so does the public at large. Ann Leslie, special correspondent of Britain's "Daily Mail," told the BBC yesterday that, "if the public hadn't run around buying the newspapers and magazines that showed Diana, whom they loved to bits, then these kids on motor bikes wouldn't make (large amounts of) money."

That perception is beginning to seep down to the British public itself. "Maybe it's us," a teary-eyed young woman named Sheila Smith said outside Diana's London residence yesterday. "We buy this stuff." Correspondent Leslie went even further: "I'm afraid we all had a hand in it, even Diana --she craved the love and attention."