20 Years Ago, Princess Diana Died After Being Chased By Paparazzi. Have We Made Any Progress?

“It was the wild, wild west out here.”

Twenty years ago, on Aug. 31, 1997, the cat-and-mouse game between public figures and the paparazzi took a dark and defining turn with Princess Diana's death in Paris. Her fatal car crash has been litigated and debated for years, but one thing is universally accepted; at the time of the crash, Diana was fleeing an aggressive pursuit by paparazzi intent on taking her photograph. Although later inquiries determined the car's driver was drunk, the paparazzi's behavior wasn't new or any less dangerous. During her life, Diana, a royal known for humanitarian work, was often chased and harassed by photographers intent on selling her personal life to the highest bidder.



The tragedy shocked England and the world, igniting a fiery debate about what paparazzi should and shouldn't be allowed to do legally in the pursuit of a photo. "Paparazzi," at least for a time, became a dirty word. But it wasn't always that way.

A collection of British newspapers reporting Princess Diana's death in September, 1997.
A collection of British newspapers reporting Princess Diana's death in September, 1997. Shutterstock / Lenscap Photography

The Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini is largely credited with coining the term paparazzo, which was the name of a character playing a photographer in his 1930 film La Dolce Vita. But paparazzo's real origins are from a word from a regional Italian dialect that, roughly translated, meant annoying buzzing insect. Over the years, the role of paparazzi has evolved from that of an annoying buzzing insect to something different, perhaps something more sinister. 

Karen Pinkus, a professor of Italian literature at Cornell, wrote a book about the paparazzi's birth in Rome. In the 1950s, Pinkus said, at the beginning of the paparazzi era, people were less perturbed about the prospect of being photographed. Photographers would take advantage of the public figures that frequented Rome and the outdoor nature of the city, which offered an abundance of photo opportunities.

"These reporters would go around and shoot pictures of them and then go sell them to these tabloid magazines that were very popular," Pinkus said. "That's how they would make their living."

Pinkus believes, particularly in those early days, that there was a symbiotic relationship between the photographer and the photographed. Nevertheless, it's clear that the symbiotic relationship grinds to a halt at some point, and the full-stop is closer to the red carpet than to that winding Parisian road. 

The paparazzi spread throughout Europe and eventually to the United States, where gossip magazines were already popular. But in America, the paparazzi were viewed less like annoying buzzing insects and more like aggressors wielding a weapon — the camera. And in the wake of Diana's death, public outcry set off a wave of momentum to reign in the paparazzi.

Douglas Mirell, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who specializes in First Amendment and entertainment industry lawsuits, has been on the front lines of battling paparazzi for the last four years. Mirell has been practicing law for almost 40 years, and has both defended celebrities and represented media outlets in court, but his newly formed law firm — Harder Mirell & Abrams — made waves by winning a controversial lawsuit against Gawker over the publication of a sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan

He also led the push for a Californian bill that criminalized the harassment of celebrities' children by the paparazzi.

"Prior to the Diana era, essentially, there were no laws that were specifically being used to try to target harassment by the paparazzi," Mirell said. "It was the wild, wild west out here."

The lengths some paparazzi go to just to get a photograph, like pursuing someone at high speeds in a car, are well-documented by public figures in the social media age. But it wasn't until 2015 that laws meant to reign in paparazzi were truly tested. That moment came after photographer Paul Raef's allegedly reckless pursuit of Justin Bieber down an Los Angeles freeway.

A younger Bieber strikes a pose in 2010. Music4mix / Shutterstock.com.
A younger Bieber strikes a pose in 2010. Music4mix / Shutterstock.com.

Police officers first pulled the fleeing pop star over, motioning for Raef to follow. According to prosecutors, Raef sped off instead, although police later caught up with him. The car chase made Raef the first person ever charged under a 2010 California law that prohibited reckless driving or traffic offenses committed while trying to "capture any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose." The law was widely described as an "anti-paparazzi law," and the charges against Raef sent it to the court for the first time.

The legal battle was lengthy, but in 2015, the Los Angeles' 2nd District Court of Appeals denied Raef's appeal against the misdemeanor, saying that the law was not unconstitutional and applied to "any driver who follows too closely, swarms in, or drives recklessly with the requisite intent and purpose, whether or not the driver is a celebrity photographer." Raef's lawyers tried to bring the case before California's Supreme Court, but the court didn't see anything wrong with the district court's decision.

"As a result, I think that there have been a lot less problems along those lines," Mirell said. "California and Los Angeles is home to so many celebrities. Our state became kind of a focal point for this legislation."

More recently, though, the focus has moved from high-speed pursuits to the issue of paparazzi photographing the unknown children of public figures without their consent. That's something Mirell is intimately familiar with. 

After representing actress Halle Berry on a case about her likeness and image being exploited, Mirell asked her if there was anything else they could work on together. She told him that, as a matter of fact, there was: she said that the paparazzi constantly swarmed her 5-year-old daughter at school, the doctor's office, airports and even when they were just out on the town. Berry wanted to find a legal way to protect her daughter.

Actress Halle Berry on the red carpet in July, 2017. Ga Fullner / Shutterstock.com
Actress Halle Berry on the red carpet in July, 2017. Ga Fullner / Shutterstock.com


Mirell dug up a law that made it a minor misdemeanor to harass a child based upon the occupation of that child's parents. The law was actually put in place to defend the children of abortion doctors, who were often harassed by pro-life activists. So Mirell took that bill, drafted a more significant criminal penalty, and provided the legal analysis to California State Sen. Kevin de León to help create the resulting law. The re-envisioned bill would make it clear harassment could occur during the "capture or attempt to capture of a child's or ward's image or voice, or both, without the express consent of the parent or legal guardian of the child or ward."

In an interview with The Bench, the official journal of the California Judges Association, Berry said it was the first time she had ever engaged in any legislative advocacy, and was grateful for Mirell's experience.

"Initially, Sen. de León was somewhat skeptical about the idea of authoring legislation that would so specifically benefit the celebrity community," Berry said. "However, my representatives and I personally met with him and we showed him a TMZ video of swarming paparazzi at LAX who had literally terrorized my then-5-year-old daughter as we were returning from vacation."

After the meeting, León agreed to help on the condition that Berry would share her story with his colleagues and the public. And so she did. Backed by Berry and Sen. de León, the bill was signed into law on Sept. 24, 2013 without a single no vote. It officially made the kind of harassment Berry's daughter had experienced a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in prison or by a fine of up $10,000 for a first offense.

In the years since, the developments have been encouraging. The law has reportedly been such a successful deterrent that there hasn't been a single case filed against the paparazzi citing the law, although, of course, this doesn't mean the law has never been violated.

Also influential was also the advocacy work of actors Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, who campaigned to demand mainstream media and tabloids to adopt a no-kid policy, which essentially amounted to a vow that they would not purchase or publish photos of public figures' kids without their parents' permission.

Almost every major publication adopted the policy. Some publications feared that public figures like Bell would boycott their outlets when doing press, while Mirell believes others adopted the policy out of a desire to take the moral high ground and offer children the privacy celebrity parents requested

"That has resulted in a drying up in the market for these photos and has made the lives of famous celebrities with kids much, much better," Mirell said. "In large measure, it has really been a remarkable change in the environment… What has happened is that there has been an increased realization that privacy rights are extremely important."

Still, the battle is not over. In today's world, with cameras so accessible, almost anyone with an iPhone can double as paparazzi. Mirell, for his part, doesn't think a camera in every phone changes things too much. He knows for the average person to profit off of a picture they'd still need contacts in the industry, and even a few decades ago many Americans had Instamatic, Brownie or polaroid cameras, and most would happily take pictures of celebrities if they saw them. 

While new laws will continue to try to reign in the digital distribution of people's personal lives, Mirell feels confident the strides that have been made in regulating paparazzi will have a lasting positive effect, and that — aside from a few bad actors — "the field has been cleared." 

"Even if it is true, even if it is interesting, even if that's what you believe, you still have to consider the extent to which you were invading people's personal privacy," Mirell said of his takeaway from his previous legal battles. "If that's the message that comes through to the mainstream media and to internet outlets, well, that's a good thing, I think, from society's point of view."

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Mirell "lobbied" Senator de León. Mr. Mirell is not a lobbyist and instead provided legal analysis to help form the current law. 

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