Plus ça change!
Despite the uproar following Diana’s death, France’s paparazzi continue to stalk the rich and famous
By Tom Sancton
Paris, August 26, 2017
No one can forget the night of August 31, 1997. Pursued at high speed by a relentless pack of paparazzi, the black Mercedes bearing Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed struck the 13th pillar of Paris’s Alma tunnel and crashed into a concrete wall. Fayed was killed instantly. Diana, despite a heroic effort to save her life, died on the operating table four hours later. Blame focused immediately on the paparazzi who had chased the couple on motorcycles then crawled all over their smashed vehicle snapping photos and jostling one another for position. Ten photojournalists were arrested that night and later charged with manslaughter and failing to aid persons in danger.
But another factor soon emerged: an autopsy of the Mercedes’s deceased driver, Ritz Hotel security chief Henri Paul, revealed that he was drunk and under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the crash. If that fact relieved the photographers of the legal responsibility for the accident—all charges against them were eventually dropped—it did little to change the public perception that these camera-slinging cowboys had hounded the Princess to her death.
Despite widespread calls to rein in the reckless methods of the paparazzi, little has changed in the intervening 20 years. The French celebrity press—magazines like Paris Match, Voici, Gala, and VSD—continue to thrive on stolen images of the rich and famous, and daredevil photographers keep shooting them. “The paparazzi calmed down for six months after the accident, then they started back up again,” says Alain Toucas, Diana’s former lawyer, who currently represents the royal family of Monaco. “We hoped the situation would improve, but in fact it’s gotten worse.”
Even before the death of the Princess, France had one of the Europe’s strongest laws against invasion of privacy. The French civil code states that “everyone has a right to respect of their private life” and accords to each individual the right to control his or her own image. The problem is that the celebrity magazines continue to publish paparazzi photos and, when they are sued, simply pay the fines and make up for the cost through boosted sales. Though the law is strict on paper, it has little deterrent effect. “I continue to pursue all those who violate the private lives of my clients,” says Toucas. “But our efforts have little success. We receive minimal damage payments, but we have failed to put an end to these abuses.”
Bruno Mouron, one of France’s best-known paparazzi, agrees that the celebrity stalking continues unabated but laments that the business has changed since he started working in the 1970s. For one thing, it is nowhere as lucrative as it was in the pre-Diana days when a single photo could fetch six figures. “The prices are ten percent of what they were 20 years ago,” he says. “Now you’re lucky if you can get $5,000 for a photo.”
Mouron attributes that precipitous drop to a number of causes. “With Instagram and Smartphones, everyone can be a paparazzi. Celebrity photos are all over the Internet.” Another factor is that the so-called “people” magazines increasingly organize their own photo shoots, often with the express or tacit cooperation of the subject. Then there is the precarious state of print journalism in general: more and more publications are closing down and there is less money to spend on photos and reporting. Finally there is the competition of young, hungry photojournalists attracted by the adventure and willing to work cheap. “You don’t need a diploma to be a photographer,” Mouron grumbles. “With today’s digital cameras, the photos take themselves.”
Mouron waxes nostalgic about the old days. “It used to be a princely profession,” he says. “Travel, grand hotels, fancy restaurants. To photograph celebrities, we had to go to the same places they did. Now it’s a profession for bums—kids riding around on motor scooters and eating fast food. If I was 20 years old today, I’d never choose this profession. It no longer makes one dream.”
Alain Toucas is unmoved by such complaints: “Maybe it is less lucrative for the paparazzi—that’s not my problem—but it is just as bothersome to the people they stalk. And I am afraid that, one day, we will be confronted by another tragedy like Diana’s.”
Tom Sancton and Scott MacLeod's 1998 bestseller is now available in an updated 20th anniversary edition.
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“A solid piece of work…Every eyewitness is interviewed; every lead followed up; every theory is explored.”
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“The definitive book on those final moments, days, hours, minutes and seconds of Diana’s life.”
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