I don’t post pictures of my kids on social media. Knowing how fiercely private my husband is, we figured at least one of our children might eventually feel similarly. I know that I wouldn’t want my entire childhood documented on the Internet, and our thinking was perhaps our children wouldn’t either. Thankfully our friends and family have been respectful of our wishes. We are grateful to have this option, knowing that the children of celebrities do not have the luxury of this kind of privacy.
Recently North West, toddler daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, let loose on a scrum of photographers who were crowding around the family trying to take photos. Paparazzi accompany the family around the world, selling the photographs they snap to celebrity gossip magazines and websites. North and her mother were walking to their SUV, trying to push against the tide of photographers snapping pictures and yelling their names. North responded forcefully, saying several times, “Stop taking pictures of me!” and “No pictures!” A few photographers apologized but continued to snap.
On August 31st of this year the world will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. The Princess died in a high speed car crash in Paris while her driver was attempting to avoid paparazzi. In his eulogy for his sister, Lord Earl Spencer discussed the role of the press in the Princess’s life, and death.
There were other contributing factors to the Princess’ death: the fact that the only survivor of the crash was the only one wearing a seatbelt, the intoxication of the driver, and where the victims happened to be sitting in the car. In the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the Princess’ death, however, the editors of all three major British newspapers shared the guilt they felt over her untimely passing. The Telegraph reported,
“The editors of the three biggest selling tabloid newspapers at the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales have disclosed for the first time their own share of guilt over the accident that killed her.
The editors of The Sun, Daily Mirror and News of the World have conceded that they had helped create an atmosphere in which the paparazzi, who were chasing Diana when her car crashed in a Paris underpass, were out of control.”
In death, as in life, the media obsessed over the Princess. Coverage of her death set new media records, according to the Independent, which noted that the death of Diana was the subject of more newspaper coverage than even the most dramatic events of the Second World War. According to a press-cuttings agency:
The assassination of President John Kennedy and shooting of John Lennon “pale into insignificance” in terms of column inches in the press, said Durrants Press Cuttings, which monitors 200,000 newspapers and magazines a year. No other subject in the agency’s archives, which go back to 1880, compared with the coverage devoted to Diana’s death, funeral and subsequent stories. “The nearest one can get to this level of media exposure takes us back to the 1940s and the Second World War,” said the Durrants managing director, Tony Law. “But while the war was an ongoing focus for Britain’s newspapers, not even the major events of the period—the outbreak of war, Dunkirk, VE-Day—achieved anywhere near the press coverage devoted to Diana.” Royal births, weddings and deaths of the 20th century achieved only a small fraction of the press attention.
Since her death, no one on Earth can compare with Princess Diana when it comes to media fixation. Editors and writers (like myself) know, however, that the Kardashian clan are among the biggest sellers of magazines and drivers of online traffic in the entertainment world. The British have the royals and we have the former stars of sex tapes. Nobody said life was fair. And indeed, at times the Kardashians are happy to expose their young children to media attention in order to garner publicity for themselves.
Yet, after the death of Diana, the British press were more tightly regulated and had to grant public figures like the royals some privacy, and they also engaged in some of their own self-policing. The space granted to the children of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William by the press is in large part because of the paparazzi’s role in the death of Diana.
Watching toddler North West try to navigate through hordes of photographers, these royal grandchildren of Diana’s came to mind. Testifying before the California legislature in 2013 about a bill that she hoped would rein in paparazzi, actress Halle Berry said,
“I fear and I feel fear for my child who is in strapped into my car,” she said. “I’m doing my part as a parent but at any moment I feel like a crash could happen and end her life my life and other innocent passengers driving in their vehicles. When I was pregnant with my daughter they forced me to crash my car, they forced me to fall down a flight of steps when I was trying to have a shopping day for my expected baby.”
The bill passed and was signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown, but did little to curb the swarms of photographers harassing celebrities like Kardashian daily. Hopefully Americans won’t require a tragedy—like the death of a celebrity or that of a child—to enact the kind of change that will end media harassment of celebrities and their children—and the way we thoughtlessly consume the result.