7th September 1997


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The press and privacy

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Diana with sick childWhen news first broke of the accident that claimed Diana’s life, the public raged against the paparazzi. Their motorbicycle chase of the armour plated Benz carrying the Princess of Wales and Dodi al Fayed exemplified views that the press was harassing the princess far too much. The press it was that killed her, many felt with their obsessive interest in her private life. But as investigations progressed, and light was thrown on the fact that the driver was under the influence of alcohol the angry brickbats hurled at the press subsided. Now, recovered from their initial shock of her demise, people are looking at the scenario with a wider perspective. Did Diana flirt with the media, using them when necessary to serve her interests? And are public figures, like Diana, the mother of the future King of England entitled to a private life, when her actions would have a bearing on the monarchy? The Sunday Times spoke to a cross section of society for their views on the paparazzi’s involvement in Diana’s death, and whether public figures should lay claim to privacy. This is what they had to say..

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu

(Political Commentator):

I think, of course, that if there had been no high speed chase, this tragedy would not have happened. But the driver of the car also had a criminal level of alcohol in his blood. The blame lies all over. The media intrusion into Diana’s life has to be looked into in a broader sense. She, as a celebrity was also able to manipulate the press and use it to her advantage. Then there is the public. There appears to be a little bit of voyeurism in everyone, whereby people like these intimate tidbits of other’s private lives.

But it is particularly shocking that the photographers were seen to be clicking away at the scene of the accident after it happened without helping the injured. This shows them in a very dehumanised light, that they just do this for the money involved.

Certainly every individual is entitles to their private life- even if they are famous like Diana. But laws regarding privacy are oft useless because they are not implemented. It is dicey to balance the needs of a free press and public interest against draconian laws inhibiting reporters.

Prof. Bastiampillai


Personally I feel that if you are a public figure, a film star famous sportsman or royalty it makes you a newsworthy element- if you like it or not. That cannot be done away with that the public would want news of famous people. It is difficult to restrain the media by laws in an age when communications are so advanced. Public figures have to accept that they attract attention. If laws are going to to ensure greater right to privacy, they will create problems. Instead self regulation is the best way. News houses and agencies should exercise restraint and moderation. They could have their own codes of conduct because legally it is very difficult to lay the line. But in that case what happens to free lancing paparazzi who are not regulated by an institution ?

Vijitha Yapa

(Former Editor, The Island, The Sunday Times):

Diana loved the media. Though she said that she was harassed by them, she had a preferred lot of journalists to whom she was accessible. She used the media to her advantage when she felt necessary.

Of course it was wrong to pursue and harass her to this extent. But these photographers too had the right to get the best pictures of the couple. That is their job. These are not just paparazzi, they represent some for the most respected photo agencies in that region. And Diana herself made an statement about a month back that she would be making an important announcement and that kept the press very curious.

If you are a public figure I think you cannot clearly distinguish your private life from your public one. I don’t also think that any law is going to help ensure privacy of public figures.

In the accident itself, there are two things. Why did the car have to go so fast to avoid the photographers? Was it a thrilling escapade for Diana and Dodi- did they think they would simply give the press a chase?

Anyway I think that this was the best way for Diana to go. Now the world will remember her for her beauty, youth and figure. If she married Dodi al Fayed there would have been complications with the public and the royals. Now she will remain an icon. Like Marilyn Monroe.

Dinal Fernando

(Tea Taster- Forbes and Walker):

Diana used the press to help her in various charities and social work. These would not have survived if not for the publicity she generated. So one can say that she used the press as a positive means of promoting herself and her work.

But certainly she was harassed way too much by the media. She had the right to her private life. There were moments when she should have been left alone. The paparazzi even followed her to the gym just to photograph her thighs. That was too much. Nobody will like that kind of intrusion. But still I feel that she brought it upon herself- the paparazzi interest in her was fuelled by her own flirting with the media.

Sharni Jayawardena

(Communications Officer, Intermediate Technology Development Group):

Diana was always trying to escape the paparazzi. I think the press went beyond their limits regarding her private life. The moment you become a public figure there is no reason to give up all your privacy. When the news first came a friend said that ‘ the press has killed the goose that laid the golden egg’. But now it’s unclear who is really responsible for the accident. There was no reason for the driver of the car to go as fast as they had done.

I feel the media has to be more responsible in what they serve to the public. They should be proactive in promoting tasteful reading. Catering to the tastes and whims of the public is oft used as an excuse for the paparazzi. But the media can influence the thinking of the people.

Ravi Algama

(Attorney at law and Director of the Environmental Foundation):

Diana’s privacy was often violated by the press. She was entitled to a private life even if she was a famous citizen. But the blame must filter down to the inquisitive public also. If it were not for their appetite for this kind of news, the press could not price photographs of her so exorbitantly high. The paparazzi has caused her death- even though not intentionally. Their chase caused the driver to speed off and this is a natural reaction.

She was loved by the public. But they also had a great liking to have news and photographs of her private life. The blame lies there. The press also has a responsibility not to meet every demand of the public at whatever cost to the person involved.

Harin de Saram

(Former Private Secretary to the Minister of Transport and Women’s Affairs)

In a way the paparazzi was responsible for her untimely demise. But in a lot of ways -no. A public figure cannot lay claims to a private life. When news of you is hotly sold throughout the world it is difficult for the paparazzi to keep away. There is big money involved here. Exclusive shots of her fetch large sums. The tabloids in England sell massively on news and pictures like these. Even we read news of Diana when ever they are published here. So the public has to take a lot the blame.

If there was no sale for those pictures that the photographers were chasing after, they would not have gone to all that trouble.

Anne Perera * not her real name


I think the press definitely brought deah upon her. They were much too intrusive and did not allow her private moments. The media went overboard in their coverage and did not give her the right of freedom.

We all feel very sorry for her. Whatever her faults were she was a beautiful , sweet person and a great personality. People sympathise with those two children she has left behind. What about their future ?

This kind of paparazzi has to be curtailed. There should be laws to protects the private life of important people. Especially after such a drastic incident.

Shalini Senanayake

(Confidential Secretary):

All people have a fundamental right to privacy. The press went too far, clicking their cameras at her at every turn. She had no respite from the media.

Of course from the media’s point of view, she was a good subject and the public liked to read about her.. The pictures were also interesting to look at. But the paparazzi is not just fulfilling a journalistic duty. They do not provide useful information but sell the pictures for money. That cannot be justified. If the press is fighting for their own freedom, they must also respect other people’s rights too.

Kithsiri Almeida


There definitely should be a line between public and private lives. But who is to decide where to stop? It is very difficult to regulate the media like that. Definitely she should have had her own private moments. There should be laws to ensure that public personalities have their share of privacy.

The public demanded such news and pictures of her private life because the press provided them. If the press define what they should use in good taste, the public will have no say in it. It is upto the media to be more responsible.

K.C.P. de Alwis

(Commissioner, Press Council):

This is a very good example that goes to show that the press should respect the privacy of other people. Certainly laws and regulation are necessary to keep the press from prying into the private lives of people. Two factors contributed to Diana’s death and certainly the photographers who were pursuing her have to take some of the responsibility. Any person’s privacy must be respected. Diana is a private citizen, she should not have been hounded by the press like this. Editors and publishers have the responsibility of determining what should be published.

Gamini Fonseka

(Filmstar and politician)

I feel sorry for Diana and I feel she should have been allowed her privacy.

But why talk of Diana? Here too we have had instances of public figures driven to eath or exile by vicious attacks by the press. Take SSP Perera, who was accused of molesting his young servant. But the court later found that it was her own father who was guilty.Sections of the press in this country too act totally irresponsibly. They do not consider the repurcussions of an untrue story on the people involved.

Write in ...

Where should the line be drawn? Share your thoughts on the issue of the media coverage of public figures. Address your letters to :

The Press and Privacy
The Sunday Times
P.O.Box 1136, Colombo


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