Diana and the Media
by Daniel P. Younger
Notwithstanding the public rush-to-judgment against paparazzi following Diana's death, the widespread pleas calling for an end to the relentless pursuit of celebrities had merit. Such criticism — long in coming — had, of course, been uniquely focused by the unusual and tragic sequence of events on the night of August 31 in Paris. Still, one senses even in hard-hitting exposes a kind of lurid fascination with the lifestyles of the tabloid photographers and their aggressive and continuous access (if unwanted) to celebrity. '
Perhaps the most memorable revelation of Sarah Lyall's Diana's Hunters is that Diana's "hard-core" paparazzi employed terms of physical assault and sexual battery to their practice of stalking and shooting: to bang, to blitz, to hose, to rip, to whack. The reporting of such unapologetic bragging rights by those practicing this profession, while titillating to some, were probably loathsome to most. This had the dual effect of bringing this aspect of tabloid journalism into some focus, and at the same time, oversimplifying the problem.
Paparazzi in the immediate hours and days following Diana's death were the primary, if not the sole, targets of public enmity. Not surprisingly, the same level of illumination has not been cast on the tabloid industry — obviously a much larger and more powerful target.
Focusing upon the most extreme elements of celebrity photography in the aftermath of Diana's death implies that the practice and the industry that supports it can be neatly contained. While itself complex, under-examined and untheorized, tabloid journalism must be understood not as an isolated practice, but one thoroughly imbricated in the currents of mainstream media, popular culture, communications commerce and technology today. Over the past decade, the increasing tabloidization of the mainstream media — the corporate, bottom-line emphasis on voyeuristic and even violent infotainment — has been noted and decried in many precincts.
Daniel Schoor, the senior news analyst for National Public Radio (NPR), noted last September 21 in the aftermath of Diana's death that sensational media incidents are increasingly the rule rather than the exception. Schoor cited a handful of news stories that may be characterized at best as a kind of cross-over between traditional news content and more tawdry topics. Many cater to a decidedly prurient interest. We can all name our own examples. Most are so obvious that they need hardly be mentioned: the O. J. Simpson murder case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder case and the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding incident. All of these assumed lives of their own in narratives that easily straddled the supermarket tabloid and its counterpart, the television newsmagazine and so-called hard news outlets such as Time and Newsweek and national cable and network TV news programming.
Tabloid or not, Diana's death was apparently a defining moment for the Internet. The New York Times reported on September 8 that major news organizations on the Web such as MSNBC, CNN and ABC all reported a significant increase in the volume of user page views. In the aftermath of Diana's death, "traffic ... almost instantly quintupled," said Jeff Gralnick, head of <ABCNews.com>, the network's Web site. The Web's infancy as a medium coupled with an event the magnitude of Diana's death is compared in this article by Todd Gitlin with broadcast coverage of the marriage of Queen Elizabeth in TV's earliest years. The Times also reported that chatrooms were deluged with people who wanted to talk about Diana. Dozens of Web users began assembling their own memorial pages. The Web's interactive capabilities may only encourage the public's long-standing adulation and vicarious participation in the private lives of public figures. Although it is too early to conclude just how the characteristics of this new medium may play out, the contradictions for the personal userregarding the potential loss of personal privacy versus the gain in access to guarded information about others — both in and out of the public eye — are already apparent.
Discussions of the practice of celebrity photography growing out of Diana's death have been largely historical with a few notable exceptions: the observations this past fall of Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and frequent commentator on the PBS program, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. What is wanted today is a historical tracing of the relationship of British royalty and the medium of photography back to its earliest 19th century roots. Then we might better understand the present condition and mechanism of desire, possession and emulation — a powerful monetary exchange that has taken place between consumers and public figures since the inventions and commercial applications of the wet-collodion negative and paper photography in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The global dimensions of public fascination with Diana's life and death, while unprecedented, were foreshadowed in the era of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a time when the royal family established a strong official link with the then new medium of photography.
Victoria's reign coincided with the mid-century fad for card photographs or cartes-de-visite. The queen herself embraced this new medium by example, collecting the hundreds, even thousands of celebrity photographs that suddenly flooded the marketplace. Significantly, the royal family made themselves newly accessible to the public via this new-age medium. Once Victoria and Albert commissioned and published portraits of themselves. Family albums commonly reserved equal space for photographs of the royals. Suddenly, with the imprimatur of the queen, royalty, statesmen, mercantile representatives, literary figures and theatrical personalities became known to the middle and working class alike — increasingly on the basis of their visage. In an age before photographs were printed in illustrated newspapers and popular journals, original photographs were mass-produced and published like newspapers.
Photographic studios became factories and were often unable to keep pace with the demand. Even at this early date, such photographic commerce gave privilege to class, dress, youth and beauty — what we have come to consider the modern hallmarks of media. While the nature of photographs manufactured for popular consumption has changed significantly since the 19th century, consumers engaged visually in the lives of the royals from the start — much as they do today.
Victorian studio portraiture was based upon aristocratic painted portraiture. This is a far cry from the proto-typical tabloid image that comes to mind today: the invasive telephoto shot of celebrities cavorting in semi-undress at exotic vacation spots. However, distinct parallels are to be found in the scale of the commerce in images — in the mass desire created among the public for photographs of figures in the public eye.
The early and unexpected death of Prince Albert in 1861 provides a most direct parallel to circumstances today. The brisk commerce in Diana memorabilia includes memorial issues of magazines, the Elton John Candle in the Wind CD and porcelain dolls. Similarly, the demand for portraits of the prince were unprecedented at that time. Approximately 70,000 were ordered within one week from one company. Moreover, the demand was not limited to Britain; one Paris print-seller claimed to have sold over 30,000 cartes of the prince in one day. Public sympathy for the queen translated into the sale of her portraits by the 100,000 — an astonishing number. Then and now, the ability of media to respond rapidly permits the public to memorialize and share in the grief of such tragedies.
Since the invention of the infinitely replicatible photographic negative and paper positive, commercial printing, related lens-based technologies (film, TV and video) and now the digitally-based Internet have grown increasingly adept at the almost instant transport of images to an increasingly global audience. Photographs from the very start were a medium (superseding first-hand experience) for conveying nothing less than the full visual residue of human information, experience, value and emotion.
To assert today that we live in a world constructed of images is to state the obvious. However, in spite of our postmodern sensibility, we admit that a public figure such as Diana is a personage composed primarily of images fashioned by a media industry. Max Frankel, in his September 21, 1997, Word & Image Sunday New York Times Magazine column, No Fix, No Di,states that, "It was our relentless exploitation of her [Diana's] image and invasions of her privacy that made her the Idol of the People." Frankel goes on to say that "she was just the Princess of Wales, almost a Windsor ... merely a royal highness."
Throughout this editorial piece, Frankel verges on concluding, as his title suggests, that simply put, without images, without the intense attention of the media, Diana as we knew her would
not have existed. As a measure of our general confusion and schizophrenia regarding the position of the media, Frankel's underlying thesis may be read as patently obvious or as refreshingly iconoclastic — possessing the potential for an almost radical challenge to the media industry, coming from within its own ranks. But the writer misses this opportunity, choosing instead to turn the object lesson against Diana. She is cast as the foolish royal, undeserving of the public's adoration. And if blame is to be assessed for the media's frenzied attention to her personal life, Frankel implies that the blame resided with Diana. As Frankel would have it, her own series of "soapy revelations" explain and justify the relentless pursuit of her. Concerted critiques of the tabloid press, growing out of the spectacle of Diana's demise, have been scarce. Neither did a challenge to the tabloid industry emerge from WGBH-produced Frontline documentary that aired on PBS last November. The Princess and the Press opened with night footage of the smashed Mercedes being lifted onto a flatbed truck as numerous camera flashes momentarily illuminate it. Earl Spencer’s charge that he “always believed the press would kill her in the end,” is countered immediately by the narrator’s claim that the “real story is far more complicated than first reported…and so is the real story of her relationship with the press.” Telegraphing its editorial slant, Frontline in the opening minutes of this 90 minute program, terms its documentary the “story of a beautiful, desperate woman.”
The Princess and the Press is, in fact, the story of the growth of the tabloid press from the late 1970s to the present as told by the writers, editors, photographers and publishers who pursued Diana. In respectable, executive settings, the men who set the tone for the tabloids' coverage justify and naturalize their evolution of a no-holds-barred policy with respect to coverage of the princess and the royal family. The symbiotic relationship between the press and Charles and Diana — at least the media's own self-important perspective — is revealed when a representative of the tabloids takes credit for the royal marriage of Diana and Charles! Documentation of Diana's complicit relationship with the media is cited throughout as justification for editorial and policy decisions within the tabloid industry throughout the 1980s. And her solicitation of the press leads the narrator to conclude bluntly over a shot of the funeral cortege, "She had played a dangerous game and she had lost."
If a lesson emerged from Diana's violent and tragic death and from her brother Earl Spencer's damning eulogy at the funeral service, an element of the media, namely the much-despised paparazzi and the larger tabloid industry, had gone too far in their pursuit of her private life. Although, at least some postmortems on Diana's life and death have been hardly so charitable. Celebrities' loss of privacy proves a special case that few of us experience. Certainly, the magnitude of Diana's relationship with the tabloid press was arguably unmatched by any other celebrity in history. Nonetheless, the cautionary tale that emerges from this episode may not be so easily confined to the celebrity category and to the peculiar dance of paparazzi and those in the public eye.
The loss of privacy, the blurring of boundaries between our public and private lives is a phenomenon increasingly affecting all of us. This loss is surely, in part, a product of the speed, volume and sometimes indiscriminate access to information afforded by interrelated communication technologies developed over the past 150 years. Printing, photography, telephone, audio recording, video and now the Internet all boast unquestioned salutary benefits to society too numerous to mention.
At the same time, the continuum of these technologies, particularly current advances in the digitalization of sound, image and text (the enormous storage capabilities and speed of conveyance of computer technology) have universalized access to information in ways that can often exceed our notions of the separation of the domains of public market-driven value of postindustrial revolution communication advances have long-superseded and outdistanced the establishment of ethical guidelines for their civic use and containment. Photography is the medium which had been the primary basis of our pursuit and intuitive understanding of Diana. Photography is also in one sense an example of one of the earlier of our current communication technologies — in fact the earliest, excepting movable type or printing.
Just a week before Diana's death, Time magazine (August 25, 1997) published a cover story, The Death of Privacy. With a cover photograph and illustrations by Matt Mahurin, featuring in common the element of the peering and disembodied eye, a hyperbolic subtitle reads, "You have no secrets. At the ATM, on the Internet, even walking down the street, people are watching your every move. What can you do about it?" The dilemma presented and the question posed in this article, strangely enough, mirrored Diana's own predicament. While focused primarily on privacy issues presented by a new technology, the Internet, the article suggests that through the surveillance cameras employed in the interest of security, most of us living and working in major metropolitan areas unwittingly submit to being photographed many times a day.
Of course, the last photographs of Diana and Dodi Fayed taken alive were taken by security cameras at the entrance to the Ritz Hotel. Key ethical questions raised by this article – Who owns it? Who controls it? Who protects it from abuse? – pertain to public information about private lives and may, of course, be applied equally to current tabloid, or even more mainstream media standards for the representation of personalities.
Daniel P. Younger writes frequently on media and culture. He is the interim director of the Olin Art Gallery at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and the former editor of VIEWS: The Journal of Photography in New England.
Author's note: While any rush to draw a direct causal relationship between the pursuit of the paparazzi and Diana's death must remain spurious, it is interesting to note that initial sentiments courageously challenged the press and thus the status quo. It would appear, however, that subsequent efforts to establish a history of Diana's legacy — subject as it is to behind-the-scenes turf wars and the viability of a powerful tabloid industry — maybe less than sympathetic, particularly since we now lack her own voice, and agents acting in her behalf are unlikely to possess the clout and money to counter a self-legitimizing, unapologetic bottom-line industry.
1. The New York Times,' Diana's Hunters: How Quarry Was Stalked (preceded the day before by the Times' fawning article,Fashion's Affair with the Paparazzi.