Tabloid Press Quietly Mourns Its Biggest Star
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 2, 1997; Page A10
LONDON, Sept. 1—Britain's raucous tabloid newspapers were uncharacteristically quiet today, as reports that pursuing photographers might have contributed to Princess Diana's death led to talk of tough new privacy laws, curbs on electronic eavesdropping and other strictures on the press.
Usually blustery and bellicose, many tabloids opted for lyrical, subdued language this morning. The Sun dawned with "Good Night Sweet Princess" across its front page. By evening, the Standard was describing the plans for "A Unique Funeral for a Unique Person." Its coverage included, however, a tearful James Hewitt, who had kissed and told in a book about his affair with Diana, gushing about how he "loved her and missed her terribly."
The Mirror displayed a luminous Diana surrounded by a black border and the headline: "1961-1997." The Express wrote about "The Saddest Homecoming," with a color photo of a somber honor guard hoisting her coffin high.
Perhaps more significant, however, the tabloids had nothing to say today regarding the allegation that their hunger for photos of Diana and boyfriend Dodi Fayed set the stage for Sunday's tragic accident.
Photographers were chasing the car Diana and Fayed were riding in early Sunday when it crashed in a Paris tunnel, killing the couple and the car's driver. The London tabloids have been among the best clients of such intrusive photographers, or paparazzi, sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars for candid or embarrassing shots of celebrities -- and no one was more of a celebrity than Diana.
"He hasn't done any interviews so far, and as far as I know he's not planning to," said a spokeswoman for Stuart Higgins, editor of the Sun, Britain's largest-selling tabloid and arguably the most aggressive over the years in pursuing the Diana story.
"We don't think this is the right time to talk about some of the press issues you're probably interested in," said a spokesman for Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, the Sun's major competitor in chronicling the lives of Diana and the other British royals and the paper that broke the story of her relationship with Fayed.
The circumstances of the accident gave fodder to critics who claim the tabloids routinely go too far. The chairman of Britain's Press Complaints Commission, an exercise in press self-regulation, said he intends to launch an urgent review of paparazzi practices.
Martin Bell, a BBC reporter who covered the Bosnian war and now is a member of Parliament, said he expects the "tremendous" public outcry will generate interest in laws that could restrict more extreme coverage.
Bell said British lawmakers could consider a law similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, to ensure press access to certain public records, and another that he referred to as a "non-harassment law -- for a press that has proved to be unable to regulate itself." For years, critics of the tabloid press have complained that the papers routinely invade the privacy of celebrities, politicians and other public figures.
There is nothing in American daily journalism quite like the British tabloids. With daily circulation figures in the millions, the tabloids portray themselves as unabashedly working-class newspapers, as opposed to the "quality" papers, such as the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent. Instead of weighty analysis, the tabloids offer a steady diet of sensation and scandal, with as much titillation as they can muster. The Sun, for example, is famous for its scantily clad "Page Three Girls."
The tabloids aggressively pursue politicians they suspect of having affairs and think nothing of staking out a suspected mistress's apartment or using telephoto lenses to peek through windows. They unapologetically trumpet their political views -- the Sun is a Conservative Party paper, the Mirror a Labor Party paper. They compete against one another fiercely and do not hesitate to pay for news if they think they have to.
For the tabloids, day in and day out, no story is bigger than the royal family. All the tabloids employ royal-watching reporters, some of whom have become celebrities in their own right, often with six-figure book deals, because of their royal scoops. Among the most prominent are James Whitaker, who writes for the Mirror, and the Mail's Nigel Dempster, who has been at the game so long that he's generally considered the dean of the royal press corps.
Diana was the biggest royal story of all. It was the tabloids that broke the story of her disillusionment with her marriage, the story of her intercepted phone conversation with a close male friend and finally the story of her new relationship. Diana often complained about the coverage, recently saying that "any sane person would have left [Britain] long ago" to escape it. But the princess also used the tabloids, calling some of her veteran chroniclers to convey messages to the royal family and burnish her own image.
And so it remained until the end. Today, the Daily Mail ballyhooed the last exclusive interview with the princess, a two-page spread by writer Richard Kay. "When she rang me up Saturday evening, she was as happy as I have ever heard her," it reported in inch-high type and breathless prose.
Kay wrote that Diana was considering withdrawing from public life. "She was going to complete her obligations to her charities and to the anti-personnel land mines cause and then, around November, would completely withdraw from her formal public life."
The Mirror's Whitaker was focused more on himself today. Under a two-inch-tall headline that proclaimed, "I am crying as I write this. . . . I cannot believe Diana is dead," he wrote about how important Diane was to his life.
In the same tabloid, under a headline that said "I feel shame . . . and anger and an aching loss," chief photographer Kent Gavin gave his readers this insight: "She lived through the camera lens and she died because of it."
David Mellor, a former Conservative government minister who once headed the committee that dealt with press issues, said the tabloids set the stage for the disaster that happened this weekend.
Mellor shied away from calling for restrictions on stories written about public figures. But he said the editors and publishers of all newspapers should rebuff anyone who stalks the famous for a few quick snaps from the camera. "What we're talking about here is dawn-to-dusk harassment," Mellor said. "They only do it because they'll make money. And they only make money because editors agree to pay."
The Reuter news agency reported from Bonn:
Bild, Germany's largest-selling tabloid, published a photograph on its front page today of emergency workers trying to free Princess Diana from the wreckage of the Mercedes in which she was fatally injured. The photo showed two emergency workers wearing orange jackets trying to burrow their way through the twisted metal.
"The wrecked car with Di and Dodi in the tunnel of death," the caption under the picture read. "Rescuers try desperately to reach the trapped victims."
A picture editor at Bild said the 4 million-circulation paper's Paris office had bought the picture from a photo agency in the French capital. "But I don't know which agency or how much was paid for it," said Rolf Westing, speaking from Bild's offices in Hamburg.
The picture was taken from the rear of the car and faintly shows occupants under the car's interior lights.
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