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Europe: Diana's Death Raises Questions About The Press

Washington, 1 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - In the wake of Princess Diana's sudden, tragic death, attention has focused on the role of the press in the car crash that killed her and a companion in Paris on Sunday.

In America, prominent journalists and commentators, as well as shocked and mourning publics all over the world, are asking whether news photographers and reporters go too far in pursuing celebrities and politicians to bring the public a glimpse of their private lives.

Most of those interviewed agreed that the Paris tragedy may well be a terrible example of overzealous and unscrupulous media behaviour. But no one so far is suggesting legal curbs of press freedom.

When President Bill Clinton interrupted his seaside vacation in the U.S. northeast Sunday to pay tribute to Princess Diana's life and works and extend condolences to the British people, the only question asked by a reporter was whether the press should change its ways.

Clinton said now is a time to respect and honor the dead and grieve for them and that such issues should be carefully considered before making a judgement.

A lot of careful consideration also went into Clinton's reply -- for in the United States, the press is the freest in the world. The question of where its freedom ends and an individual's freedom begins has been a topic of unending controversy throughout U.S. history, going back to the 18th century.

Princess Diana's death has raised anew issues about the public's right to know versus an individual's right to privacy, and sharpened the continuing debate in the U.S. about media ethics.

The accident that caused her death occurred during a high-speed chase when "paparazzi" photographers on motorbikes pursued her car into a tunnel on the banks of the Seine.

French police said they have detained seven paparazzi for questioning -- six Frenchmen and one described as a Macedonian.

Photographers specializing in celebrities' private lives are called "paparazzi" after a prototype figure in Italian director Federico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita."

Eyewitnesses at the scene of the car accident said some paparazzi were snapping shots of the wreckage and mangled bodies, instead of aiding the victims.

The driver was killed instantly, with Diana's friend Dodi Al Fayed. But her bodyguard survived with serious injuries.

Steven Koss, editor of "The National Enquirer," an American tabloid that has an enormous circulation built mostly on stories and pictures of celebrities, said that within hours his newspaper was offered pictures of Diana trapped in the wreckage but turned them down.

"I challenge the world press to join us and shun those photos," he said, adding that "right now they are trying to sell them around the world for about a million dollars."

Koss condemned the action, saying "it is one thing to observe celebrities, it's another thing to hunt them down, and a line has to be drawn."

He made the statement in interviews Sunday, appearing on all major television networks in the United States.

Defending his publication's reputation, Koss said the photographers that hounded Diana wherever she went belonged to what he called "a new breed of chasing, stalking paparazzi." He said they are a relatively recent phenomenon motivated by greed.

Koss said some publications will pay a fortune for their snapshots, and that the paparazzi sometimes earn as much as three million dollars worldwide from one celebrity picture.

He said prices in the last year have risen for such photographs because respectable magazines such as "Time" and "Newsweek" and others have gone into the celebrity business. "The situation has changed because the traditional press has moved into the tabloid area," he said.

But with a mounting backlash of public anger and criticism, journalists and editors known for covering famous people -- like Koss -- were quick to distance themselves from the extremist paparazzi phenomenon, saying these photographers are not proper journalists, work for no media organization and receive no assignments.

Media ethics specialist Ellen Hume of the Public Broadcasting System, said on the Sunday talk show of NBC television that the boundary between public and private has been lost in a public obsession with celebrities.

She said "the lines have blurred between really serious and important journalism and just stalking celebrities" and that many reporters are good journalists trying to do a decent job.

A British reporter in Washington, David Smith of Independent Television News, pointed out that when Clinton took office he told the media that he and his wife Hillary are fair game for the press but their teenage daughter Chelsea is off limits -- they drew the line and by and large, the American media respected the boundary, he said.

But Smith said "nobody in Europe did that, and of course Diana and the royal family courted the media for many years."

Former presidential candidate, now television commentator Patrick Buchanan, said shots of Diana and her friend sell millions of copies. "Money, money, money that's what this is all about," he said.

Buchanan said the paparazzi alone are not responsible for Diana's death: "a lot of us are responsible .... the reason the tabloids pay what they do is because we want to see all those pictures of Diana down at Monte Carlo and on the Riviera with her boyfriend," he said.

Former governor of New York state Mario Cuomo, who appeared with Buchanan on an NBC television discussion panel, agreed that "the paparazzi were paid professionals doing what the public demanded."

Some media experts predicted that Princess Diana's tragic death may have a temporary chilling effect on the tabloids, as well as the paparazzi, but they would not remain subdued for long.

Cuomo said "the media's job is to give the people what they want," and that people should begin questioning themeselves why they like what the tabloids are selling: "We love to read the ugly stuff. The pretty stuff is nice, the fairytale was wonderful. The nightmare will get even more attention, and that's what people should be asking themselves about. What is this proclivity we have for negativism, for harshness?"

As for some kind of law to curb the photographers, in initial reactions, most experts did not give the possibility much serious consideration.

The principle of freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In more than 200 years it has been honed and defined and redefined in countless attempts in the courts to restrict the media. Except for cases of proven deliberate and malicious libel, the verdict almost always favors the press.

Television commentator and editorial writer for the "Chicago Tribune," Clarence Page, made clear why it is unlikely that Princess Diana's death will change this trend, saying "there's no way we can restrict the activities of paparazzi without also restricting legitimate journalism."