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The Princess and the Paparazzi: How Diana’s Death Changed the British Media

21 minute read

It was 9pm on 3 March, 1994, and paparazzi photographers Mark Saunders and Glenn Harvey were sipping coffee in Kensington, west London. The pair had spent the day attempting to photograph the most famous woman in the world, without success. Then Harvey’s cell rang; Princess Diana had been spotted by a contact driving into the Chelsea Harbour development with an unidentified male companion. The pair raced to the complex where Saunders gained access by lying to the duty guard about picking up an imaginary girlfriend.

Diana’s empty Audi was there, but the Princess was not to be found. Then an unidentified man emerged to drive her car into an underground garage. “Get to the rear exit of the restaurant!” yelled Harvey, according to a memoir written with Sanders, called Dicing With Di: The Amazing Adventures of Britain’s Royal Chasers.

Seconds later they were in hot pursuit, following Diana through red lights, driving down the wrong side of a traffic island and accelerating in front of trucks, until she began turning into the entrance of Kensington Palace. Harvey leapt from the vehicle, camera in hand, and dived across the bonnet of the car, firing his camera at the Audi as it disappeared from sight. “Please, please, let that picture be sharp,” he prayed. It was. Harvey’s photograph of Diana driving the married millionaire art dealer Oliver Hoare into Kensington Palace at night was sold to the British tabloid News of the World in an exclusive deal. It caused a sensation — a good night’s work for the paparazzi pair.

This was doubtless a scenario Diana experienced on a regular basis — until the moment, in a Paris underpass three years later, the pursuit would turn fatal. The speeding car carrying Diana away from the paparazzi crashed into a pillar, killing her and her then fiancee Dodi al-Fayed. At her funeral in September 1997, her brother Charles Spencer left mourners in no doubt who he blamed, describing his sister as “the most hunted person of the modern age.” “She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate,” he said. “We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.”

Kensington Palace mourners after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Jeff Overs—BBC/Getty ImagesJeff Overs—BBC/Getty Images

The unspoken villain in his eulogy was the paparazzi and their sponsors on Fleet Street — the notoriously hard-nosed, intrusive tabloid newspapers that remain a staple of British life. From the Murdoch-owned Sun and its competitors the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star to their middle-market cousins the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, these newspapers offer readers a daily helping of news and sport steeped in moralism and prurience, reflecting the obsessions of a broad stripe of the country’s middle class. Celebrity news remains the stock in trade, and twenty years after her death Diana’s “beloved boys” remain rich targets. Yet the manner in which Diana met her end did change the way the media approached the royals, and vice versa. This is the story of how it happened.

“Editors couldn’t get enough of her”

In 1961, TIME explained the relatively new term “paparazzi” to its readers, comparing them to streetwalkers because “they cling to their place in society.” The article helped popularize the word synonymous today with the invasive photographers who pursue their celebrity quarries by any means necessary. “No one is safe [from them], not even royalty,” the 1961 article explained.

In the late 1960s, media mogul Rupert Murdoch entered the British newspaper industry and bought failing broadsheet the Sun. Knowing that the poorly-resourced paper would not beat its competitors on news, it turned its focus to features and, as people were watching television in ever-increasing numbers, centred its attention on the lives of actors both on and off-screen. “The content of his papers shifted towards a fascination with the sex and love lives of the famous,” wrote Kim McNamara in Paparazzi: Media Practices and Celebrity Culture. Other papers followed the Sun’s lead, including the News of the World – shut down in 2011 in the aftermath of Britain’s phone hacking scandal – which transformed from a broadsheet into a tabloid in 1984.

Tabloid newspapers, known as ‘red tops,’ developed into a staple in British society, with a unique reputation of being both rude and funny. “From the 18th century onwards, Britain has had this real disrespect for authority in print,” James Rodgers, Head of International Journalism Studies at City, University of London, told TIME. Over the past half-century or so, tabloids have been credited with holding a great deal of influence over the British public. As well as there being a long tradition of Murdoch’s papers backing the winning side in general elections, tabloids were credited with creating the public mood that led the U.K. to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote last year. However, the influence of tabloids was called into question following the U.K.’s snap election on June 8, when Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May – backed by all but one major tabloid – failed to secure an increased majority. “I think there are questions over the influence the popular newspapers have now and will continue to have in the future,” said Rodgers.

The advent of the tabloid newspaper, kicked off by the Sun in the late 60s, created a demand for paparazzi shots and by the mid-1980s – when a recently-married Diana Spencer and Prince Charles began carrying out their first public engagements together – the celebrity image was a staple in U.K. print media. Diana steadily developed into an international style icon, beloved by the British public who christened her the ‘People’s Princess’.

The Princess of Wales attends a wedding in 1983. Hulton Royals Collection/Getty ImagesHulton Royals Collection/Getty Images

After an estimated 750 million people tuned in to watch Diana’s wedding to Charles, paparazzi began documenting her every move. The Princess of Wales steadily became the most photographed person in the world, with paparazzi offered up to £500,000 ($656,000) for even grainy pictures of her (she steadily gained the nickname in the industry of ‘the Princess of Sales’). One of her most famous pursuers, Jason Fraser, made in excess of £1 million ($1.3m) from selling photos of Diana with Dodi Fayed. “She was probably the most photogenic person I can ever, ever recall,” Ian Down, managing editor at the photo agency SilverHub and former Daily Mirror picture editor, told TIME. “Editors couldn’t get enough of her.”

Legal protection for the royal family prior to Diana’s death was feeble. The Princess of Wales sued a media company just once at the height of her fame: Mirror Group Newspapers in 1993, for printing clandestine pictures of her exercising in a gym. “Princess Diana’s decision [to sue] marks a new approach by the royal family, which has traditionally resisted using the law to hit back,” the BBC reported contemporaneously. The case was settled outside of court and Diana avoided testifying.

Even though Diana generally shied away from pursuing legal action against invasive photographers, she was unquestionably distressed and humiliated by the paparazzi’s endless pursuit of her. In the year before her death she would increasingly confront some of her most relentless hunters, famously screaming at one: “You make my life hell!”. But her pursuers, including Saunders and Harvey, who documented their quest in Dicing With Di, in which they compare themselves to “big game hunters of another age,” felt no sympathy for her. Some of her most dogged stalkers even nicknamed her tearful confrontations “loon attacks” and would grimly compare and contrast the times that they had been personally “looned”. “A worse kind of loon attack was when Diana just stood dead still, eyes welling with tears, head down, giving the silent treatment. Invariably, these happened after she had visited one of her many therapists,” wrote Harvey in Dicing With Di. Harvey declined TIME’s request for an interview, and Saunders did not respond.

When Diana died during a car crash in Paris in August 1997, and jurors ruled at her inquest that she was “unlawfully killed” by both the reckless driving of their chauffeur and the paparazzi who were chasing her, it was a wakeup call for Britain’s press. A Gallup poll conducted in 1997 found that 43% of the U.K. public held photographers “extremely” responsible for the fatal smash, whereas 33% of the country found the chauffeur to be equally culpable. Rodgers, who was working for the BBC at the time of Diana’s death, described the public displays of emotion at her funeral as “incredible.” “You saw people weeping openly in the streets in a way I had never seen before and that was a real change,” he said. “If anyone asked me when Britain’s stiff upper lip ended, I would have said then.”

The public mood turned against paparazzi and the media, and as a consequence, British tabloids the Sun and the Mirror recorded their lowest sales figures since 1962. Eight days after Diana’s death, presumably in a bid to retain popularity, the Daily Mail pledged to ban paparazzi photos from its pages – a promise which is not reflected in the paper and its affiliated website 20 years later. “I am, and always have been, an admirer of Diana, Princess of Wales, and nagged my editors to protect her so far as they could against powerful enemies,” wrote Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust at the time of Diana’s demise.

Anger continued to be directed towards those the public held responsible for Diana’s death during the second half of 1997. “For months after Diana’s death, I wouldn’t mention that I worked for a magazine that published paparazzi pictures because we were the lowest of the low,” Mark Frith, the former editor of several celebrity-focused publications including Smash Hits, Heat! and Now, and the current editorial director of Radio Times, told TIME. “That feeling certainly lasted for the rest of that year.” Tim Rooke, who has been an official royal photographer for 25 years, experienced this hostility firsthand. “There was a lot of animosity,” he said. “I went to take photographs outside Buckingham Palace the day after she died and got abuse from members of the public who didn’t realize I was an official photographer. It was quite a shock.”

Privacy and protecting the princes

Things changed dramatically for Britain’s press and photographers after Diana’s death. “People accepted that what happened to Diana was wrong and, as a consequence, new notions of privacy which had been historically alien to us were applied,” said Mark Stephens, a media law specialist with the firm Howard Kennedy, who represented James Hewitt when allegations of his affair with Diana first emerged. Laws of personal privacy prior to Diana’s death “did not exist, except in exceptional circumstances,” he added. “Privacy only existed in places like a doctor’s surgery, a confessional, a marital bed or the death bed.” The Protection from Harassment Act (PHA) was introduced the year Diana died, and the areas of the act that may have helped her “did not come into force until June 16 1997, two and a half months before her death and, for all practical purposes, too late,” said media law specialist and barrister Robin Callender Smith. Only after Diana’s death did the PHA become the “go-to celebrity remedy against the paparazzi and the media generally.”

After Diana’s death, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) beefed up its Editor’s Code of Practice to create what it called the “toughest set of press regulations anywhere in Europe.” From January 1998, the use of long-lens photography “to take pictures of people in private places without their consent” was deemed “unacceptable.” In addition, it defined precisely what constituted private places – “public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy” – for the first time. The revision also included a clause which stated that an editor would be held responsible for publishing material obtained through persistent pursuit, “regardless of whether the material had been obtained by the newspaper’s staff or by freelancers.”

The most significant – and the strictest – amendment to the Code concerned the protection of children’s privacy, “introduced simply because of the way in which Harry, and particularly William, were being pursued while they were at school,” Mike Dodd, the Press Association news agency’s in-house media law specialist, told TIME. The protection of the Code was extended to all children while they were in education, rather than just those under the age of 16. A requirement was also added, which stated: “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 spite of the colossal public interest following the death of their mother, photo agencies knew better than to take unofficial photographs of William and Harry, then aged 15 and 12, and risk damaging relations with the palace. “We weren’t going to jeopardise that relationship. The princes were totally off limits and understandably,” said Christian Barrett, the production manager at Rex by Shutterstock who was working at U.K. Press, a small, royal-focused pictures agency, at the time of Diana’s death. “It left a huge gap in our market though, and as a company we suffered. Without access to Diana, William or Harry, things changed enormously.” As a consequence of the Code tightening, very few unofficial photographs of William and Harry can be found during their teenage years and some of the best-known snaps – William cooking a chicken paella at his Eton boarding school or Harry posing with his housemaster’s dogs – are highly staged.

But when William and Harry left school, media attention towards the princes became frenzied again, reaching a hysterical climax when William began dating Kate Middleton in 2003. Clandestine photos of the royals in private places began to make front pages around the world. In 2005, when Harry was photographed at a friend’s costume party wearing a swastika armband, the press did not hold back. “Harry the Nazi,” read the Sun’s exclusive front page, and the palace swiftly issued a statement saying the prince “apologized for any offence or embarrassment he has caused.” In 2012, Harry was involved in an equally notorious scandal when U.S. site TMZ.com published two pictures of him playing strip billiards in Las Vegas with six young women. “Well, they do call it close protection: Prince Harry pictured in Las Vegas pool party jacuzzi with a VERY relaxed bodyguard (who failed to stop girl taking naked snaps)” read MailOnline’s contemporaneous headline.

An arrangment of British daily newspapers photographed in London on August 23, 2012 shows the front-page headlines and stories regarding nude pictures of Britain's Prince Harry. Daniel Sorabj—AFP/Getty Images.Daniel Sorabj—AFP/Getty Images.

As media attention towards the younger royals hotted up, the palace upped their game in the fight for their right to privacy. On one occasion, this culminated in a literal fight; when Harry was 20 he was involved in a scuffle with photographers outside a London nightclub which left one with a cut lip. “Harry was constantly ambushed outside nightclubs,” Dickie Arbiter, royal commentator and author of On Duty With the Queen: My Time as a Buckingham Palace Press Secretary, told TIME. “He was looked upon as fair game, which was a great pity. There was a new breed of photographers and they certainly hadn’t learned any lessons from what happened to Diana in 1997.”

In winter 2009, the royals consulted with Gerrard Tyrrell, a senior lawyer specialising in privacy and media law. Senior aides then told the press that the family would no longer tolerate photographers using telephoto lenses to capture pictures of them in “private” situations, and warned that the royals would be prepared to take legal action against photographers conducting what they viewed to be “intrusive and unacceptable behaviour.” Over the same Christmas period, and following the family’s strict warning, the photo agency Rex agreed to pay £10,000 ($13,000) to charity in lieu of damages after it syndicated photographs of Middleton – then, William’s girlfriend – playing tennis at Restormel Manor in Cornwall, southwestern England. The pictures were published overseas, but not in the U.K..

In a similar case, six people went on trial accused of invasion of privacy and complicity in May this year after a French magazine published topless photos of Middleton on holiday in Provence, France, in 2012. William’s declaration, which was read out in court by the couple’s lawyer, said the images were “all the more painful” in light of his mother’s public battle with invasive photographers. A statement from St James’s Palace said the photos were “reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.”

Since 2009, the royals have annually issued an anti-harassment notice to the press and media photographers, reminding them of their right to privacy (last year, Harry’s communications secretary issued a strongly-worded statement regarding the harassment of his girlfriend, Meghan Markle). “I’ve seen a lot of changes during my time in the industry,” said David Taylor, CEO of Back Grid photo agency, formerly known as Xposure. “These legal rottweilers now come at us and say things like ‘we want this,’ ‘we want that,’ ‘we want to make sure you don’t publish this picture.’ You now have to be really careful that you’re not doing things deemed as harassment or surveillance.”

Diana’s sons learn to feed the beast

It can appear today as if little has changed. A stern letter published in 2015 written by royal communications secretary Jason Knauf thanked “British media organisations for their policy of not publishing unauthorised photos of their children,” but condemned actions of relentless paparazzi. They are “going to increasingly extreme lengths to observe and monitor Prince George’s movements and covertly capture images of him to sell to the handful of international media titles still willing to pay for them,” Knauf wrote in his letter, citing an example of an unnamed paparazzi who waited outside a children’s play area in the hope of snapping the prince, then aged three. Knauf declined TIME’s request for an interview.

At the same time, the media landscape has witnessed a remarkable shift; celebrities are increasingly turning to social media to control their own publicity brand, breaking their own news before the media has a chance to. “Social media has enabled celebrities to gain back control from the press,” said Frith. “It has given them the option to only post things that they want to post, and if they have deals with brands they can do it themselves – they don’t need the help of magazines and newspapers so much.”

The royal family is similarly employing a potent social media strategy, turning to platforms including Twitter (where it has 3.15 million followers) and Facebook (where it boasts 3.8 million ‘likes’) to release new photographs of press favorites including the Queen, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. This redistribution of power has caused tension between the palace and the traditional media. “Kensington Palace thinks they can control it all themselves. They want to ignore newspapers — but the newspapers aren’t going anywhere. We’ll still be here when Twitter’s finished,” the Sun’s royal photographer Arthur Edwards told the Financial Times last year.

Prince George to attend nursery
Handout image provided by Kensington Palace on December 18, 2015. Kensington Palace/Getty ImagesKensington Palace/Getty Images

It’s not just the British royals who are reasserting autonomy via social media savvy. Rooke said his attempts to photograph the 50th birthday party of the Crown Prince of Greece in May were blocked by the Greek royals. “I phoned up the family to see if there was any access and they said no,” he said. “They then put out photos on Instagram, which magazines took and published for themselves.”

But while the royals’ aides would likely argue that the family is not afforded sufficient privacy, many in the press and the world of media law take a different view. In an op-ed for the Independent published shortly after the release of Knauf’s letter, Joan Smith, the former boss of Hacked Off, wrote that the royals expect too much protection. “What no one bothered to ask after the publication of Knauf’s letter is what harm the Duke and Duchess have actually suffered,” she wrote. “They are annoyed, but that’s different from being frightened, alarmed or distressed.”

Stephens believes the request of the royal family for privacy has in some ways gone too far. “We’ve experienced a pendulum effect in Britain,” he said. “We went from a position where there was no privacy law in effect in this country, to going completely the other way after Diana’s death. People realized the media had overdone it [and we’ve ended up] with highly restrictive privacy laws.” The U.K. has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world, Stephens added, especially in comparison to the U.S. “Pictures of celebrities on the Côte d’Azur appear regularly in American publications which can’t appear here,” he said. “There is this ridiculous double standard where you can turn up at a Hudson news stand at the British Airways terminal in New York and buy American editions of publications with images that are not compatible with English law.”

In the 20 years that have passed since Diana’s death an unseemly culture of media invasiveness still exists, but the battle lines have been redrawn. British press generally respect what Stephens dubbed the ‘red carpet rule’: an unofficial agreement that photographing the royals is fair game on official engagements, but an expectation of privacy reigns during the interim periods. Stringent privacy laws mean paparazzi are wary of snapping the younger royals for risk of receiving an IPSO warning or fine, so much so that unofficial photos of the family no longer have a market, according to Rooke. “These days, picture desks will ask photographers and newspapers will ask agencies certain questions about celebrity photos; the circumstances of how the pictures were taken, where the photographer was standing, what lens they were taken on,” said Down. “This process didn’t necessarily start immediately after Diana’s death, but evolved because of it.”

But the regular warnings released to the media by the palace, insisting that they respect the family’s privacy – whether that is George at school or Harry spending time with Markle – suggest things have not moved on as far as the press would like to believe. A source close to the palace told TIME that while the relationship between the media and the royal family “is obviously much better than it was in the 90s,” there remain “some things that haven’t changed as much as people think.”

At the same time, the proliferation of social media has indelibly altered the notion of privacy. When people independently choose to broadcast their most intimate moments, the lines between what is and is not acceptable media access becomes increasingly blurred. The media must operate within this ambiguous territory, without overstepping perceived notions of privacy, yet also serving the appetite of editors and consumers.

In his eulogy, Charles Spencer pledged that Will and Harry’s “blood family” would do all they could to protect the boys, and by repeatedly fighting for their privacy, the royals have adhered to that promise. Although certain members of the press and media law community may argue that the extent of the family’s expectation of privacy is unrealistic, by repeatedly demanding respect and decorum from photographers and taking action against those individuals who take advantage of their high status, the royals have helped impose a collective conscience on the press. That amongst many other things, is Diana’s legacy.

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Write to Kate Samuelson at kate.samuelson@time.com