Seeing the Diana crash through a new lens

Far from being in bad taste, the Channel 4 documentary about the paparazzi at Princess Diana's death scene brought home the importance of press freedom.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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Last week, 3.8million people watched Channel 4’s Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel. It showed some virtually uncensored stills of the scene of the 1997 car crash in Paris in which Diana, Princess of Wales, Dodi Al Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul, died, and bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was injured.

The programme was preceded by hyped-up accusations that it would show gruesome photos. The press secretary for Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, wrote to Channel 4 demanding that certain images be removed. Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton told the channel: ‘I must ask you not to broadcast those photographs that depict the crashed car whilst the princes’ mother lies dying in its wreckage. These photographs, regardless of the fact that they do not actually show the princess’s features, are redolent with the atmosphere and tragedy of the closing moments of her life. As such, they will cause the princes acute distress if they are shown to a public audience, not just for themselves, but also on their mother’s behalf, in the sense of intruding upon the privacy and dignity of her last minutes.’ (1)

Conservative leader David Cameron also got involved: ‘Channel 4 should take a long hard look at their responsibility. Are they making a serious programme or is it just prurient? Is this in the public interest or is this prurient? If they conclude it’s prurient – and I rather suspect it is – they should pull it.’ (2)

The hype was unjustified. The images included several of the crashed car while Princess Diana was still in the wreckage, but she could not be seen. There was also an image of a medic administering emergency treatment to Diana where Channel 4 had obscured her face. Many of the black-and-white images came from the ‘French Investigation Dossier’ but they were so dark that they looked like bad photocopies. The programme makers went out of their way to offer a documentary that acknowledged some images were too sensitive to be shown and, unusually, even showed the princes a version of the programme before transmission (3).

It wasn’t the first time the images had been shown in the British media. The Sun published the one with Diana’s face obscured in 2006; an Italian magazine published the photo without hiding her face, a version which is available on the internet (4).

Images of car crashes and other disasters shouldn’t be censored. For all the talk of voyeurism and Channel 4 reaching a new low by being ‘macabre and intrusive’ for broadcasting the photographs (5), and the claims that viewers were mere ‘gawpers’ (6) or suggestions that the programme ‘was so little warranted’ (7), ‘illuminated nothing’ and that the subject ‘doesn’t need any more speculation’ (7), there were good reasons for making the programme. If anything, the programme makers were over-cautious.

Much of the material used in the programme has been in the public domain for some time; yet the way it was weaved together provided the audience with a chance to see the other side of the Diana death story. Although the photographers were cleared two years after the crash, paparazzi and news photo-journalists continue to be stigmatised – and that is bad for press freedom.

In the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death, a spokesman for the French Interior Ministry insinuated that six French photographers and a photographer’s driver following her car were the cause of the crash. In the documentary, the photographers described how the French police carted them off on the night as if they were automatic suspects just for being there. These events weren’t the only cause of the post-Diana culture of blame-the-photographer, but they helped feed a hysterical reaction.

Shockingly, the French photographers were strip-searched, forced to stand naked in front of all the police and held for two days in cells which were impossible to lie down and sleep in. They faced five years in prison for manslaughter and non-assistance to persons in danger. The French authorities seized 20 rolls of film (which could have helped prove their innocence right at the start) and have never returned them. A news blackout was imposed on the night and the managers of photo agencies were told that they faced three years in prison and a £30,000 fine if they sold any photos of the event. The finger of blame was pointed firmly at the messenger, at those who recorded the event or who were simply present at it.

As some of the French photographers talked calmly, sadly and angrily of their experiences on the night, the images shown on Channel 4 confirmed their testimony. One photographer refused to hand over his film to the police and ruined his reel in defiance instead.

Far from causing the crash, Romauld Rat, the first photographer to arrive on the scene by motorbike just 30 seconds after the crash, tried to help the injured. Even when one photographer tried to take photographs inside the car, others told him to get back. One eyewitness said some passers-by yelled at photographers but it wasn’t clear what about. It might have been simply because they were taking photographs.

Soon after, a French doctor, Frederic Mailliez, chanced upon the scene and started to treat Diana as best he could. In the documentary, he confirmed that at no time did photographers ‘hamper me from doing my job’. Ten years after the event, it was moving to hear those who’d been demonised finally have their say on British television.

Photographers in Paris got on with their job and took photographs at the scene, like they would do following any public tragedy. British editors had to get on with their job in London, too, and decide whether to publish them. That’s how we can see photographic evidence of news events, whether it’s the car crash in Paris, the London bombings or 9/11. Unlike some other European countries, in Britain we don’t normally show images of the dying and the dead in the mainstream press. But it’s not necessarily tasteless to do so. They are images of life and death as it happens.

In 1997, a trend was emerging in public life, one which dampened criticism, scrutiny and a free exchange of ideas in the name of protecting privacy and sensibilities. Some called it the ‘Diana effect’ – and this effect continues to haunt the way the media works today.

In 1997, the traditional media refused to publish any photos of the crash with Diana at the scene. News audiences received only the officially sanctioned images of the events. There was a groundswell of support by some journalists and others in favour of clamping down on photographers and in support of a privacy law to control the press. There were far too few people like James Whittaker, a royal reporter for the Daily Mirror, who wanted to reserve judgement on what had happened. The documentary showed Whittaker speaking on BBC News a few hours after the crash, acknowledging that the authorities in Paris at that time didn’t know what had really happened. He argued against assuming the photographers were guilty by saying that a ‘driver [referring to Diana’s chauffeur] doesn’t have to drive in such a way that an accident is then caused.’ He was certainly a lone voice at the time.

The response to Diana’s death amongst the media prompted me to launch a campaign against a privacy law and in support of a free press. To counter the illiberal backlash that took shape after Diana’s crash, over 30 newspaper and magazine editors, television producers, journalists, photographers and lawyers agreed to contribute to my campaign booklet Disclosure: Media Freedom and the Privacy Debate after Diana, published six months after the accident in Paris (8).

Today, the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act and the law of confidentiality have been developed to protect people’s emotional hurt following coverage of their personal life. The right to freedom of expression is now a right that has to be ‘balanced’ with the right to privacy. Informal pressures to protect sensibilities, like the efforts of press secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, are also common these days. Yet the right to determine what images, facts and versions of the story about news events should be made public shouldn’t be the privilege of royalty and victims’ families.

Victims’ families may feel strongly about things whatever the facts are. At the time of her death, Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, made a passionate speech at her funeral claiming that any editors who traded in photographs of his sister had ‘blood on their hands’. In an interview on Sunday, following the broadcast of the Channel 4 documentary, Spencer repeated his other point made at the funeral, that Diana was ‘the most hunted person of the age’ (9) as if the relations between her and the media could be reduced to a simple fairytale story about good (Diana) versus evil (the media). We can all sympathise with the distress of the bereaved. In a democracy, however, others have a right to tell their story and challenge prevailing versions of events, even if the recounting of events is painful or offensive to those affected.

It’s not surprising that relatives are distressed. But what is surprising is how many British journalists and commentators continue to talk about the images and debate what happened as if the public should be indefinitely protected from these things.

Images (even old ones) and the photographers’ testimony aren’t the whole truth. But they are part of the jigsaw that go towards making an objective assessment of what happened. Illiberal laws and a climate in which free and honest discussion is prevented will not only result in injustice for those involved – like the photographers in that Paris tunnel – it may also deny the rest of us the freedom to make our own minds up.

Tessa Mayes is the author of Disclosure: media freedom and the privacy debate after Diana (The LIRE media group, 1998) and the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age (2002). Email: {encode=”” title=””}.

Read on:

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(1) Channel 4 bosses defy princes’ pleas over Diana crash photos, This is London, 5 June 2007

(2) Ibid

(3) Letter from Channel 4 to the Private Secretary of Prince William and Prince Harry, 5 June 2007 [pdf]

(4) Copied image from Chi magazine shown on Kieren McCarthy’s blog

(5) Trampling on Diana’s grave, Daily Mail, 28 May 2007.

(6) ‘Phil Hogan on television’, Observer, 10 June 2007

(7) An edifice built on sand and hot air‘, AA Gill, The Sunday Times, 10 June 2007

(8) ‘Disclosure: media freedom and the privacy debate after Diana’, edited by Tessa Mayes, The LIRE media group, 1998.

(9) ‘Diana, the fight that never ends’, Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, 10 June 2007

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Topics Politics


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