It is not unduly cynical to suggest that the media world, more than most, will be mourning Diana, Princess of Wales. Quite how much money she generated for the global publishing industry has never been calculated – indeed is, literally, incalculable.
But the business will undoubtedly be the poorer for her passing, just as – in a less material sense – will be those people who met her and will never forget the occasion.
Diana, like no one else in recent times, could sell newspapers and magazines by the thousand. Publishers would purr that they could guarantee a large increase in sales whenever her picture was on the cover.
Some say without her, Hello! would never have succeeded in Britain, where readers hadn’t taken to a photo format title since Picture Post fell victim to TV in the Fifties.
She could be equally compelling on TV. When she gave that interview to Panorama, I took part in a BBC phone-in that followed. The response of listeners was almost entirely in her favour, won over by her apparent vulnerability and her frankness in talking about problems. And when the viewing figures came through the following day, EastEnders and Coronation Street were left standing.
Yet it was this power to make people watch, and buy the publications displaying her pictures and stories that made her such a target for the paparazzi. They knew just how much money they could make from the right picture because they knew that, properly marketed around the world, it would make even more for their customers – the magazines and newspapers without which the photographers would have no business.
This week the media have pulled out all the stops in their coverage of what is undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of recent times. And, just as the irony has been noted of the part the press seems to have played in the death of the Princess, chased by those who had most to gain by her existence (though this has now been tempered by the knowledge that her chauffeur was twice over the legal alcohol limit), so there is an irony in the fact she would rarely have sold more newspapers and magazines than she will have this week.
For all the controversy over the role of the press in the events in Paris – and any changes that should be made to the regulatory system in the UK as a result – the bulky black-bordered tabloids on Monday morning formed a significant part of the nation’s tribute.
And, as several journalists and photographers have pointed out, those who buy the publications that carry revealing and intrusive photographs must take some share of any blame to be allocated. Newspapers that have tried to take a stand by refusing such stories and photographs have seen circulations fall.
The fact that photographs of the Princess trapped in the wreckage of her car were being offered for sale to newspapers on Sunday demonstrates that even an event of these proportions cannot change the attitudes of some people in this market. The News of the World said it had been offered to them by a French photographer for 200,000. The National Enquirer said in the US they were on offer for 600,000.
The presumption as I write is that no British publication would touch them, particularly in view of the emotional statement by the Princess’s brother Earl Spencer, who said he’d always believed his sister would be killed by the press. With a Government reluctant to bring in a privacy law and looking to the press to show they can put their own house in order, I doubt any publisher would court such controversy.
And some papers are already preparing the ground for a new toughening of the Press Complaints Commission code of practice. Monday’s Mail, admitting to having used paparazzi pictures in the past, said it recognised the need for a tough new and effective code.
But there is also a widespread feeling that a new law – even if the Government wanted one – would founder on the question of detail. How exactly do you define the limits of what is acceptable without infringing fundamental liberties and the freedom of information? It’s been pointed out that France has the most restrictive privacy laws, yet that didn’t prevent the weekend tragedy in Paris.
It remains to be seen whether the death of the Princess is, as the former heritage secretary David Mellor suggested it might be, a “defining moment” that would bring all editors and proprietors to the view that what has been seen as acceptable is so no longer.
Ultimately, the decision lies in the hands of the readers, as The Sun discovered when it outraged the inhabitants of Liverpool with its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. Unfortunately it is less easy to identify such a phenomenon if a boycott is conducted on a more global scale.
Have sales of The Mirror fallen because readers disapproved of some aspects of its coverage under the editorship of Piers Morgan? He was criticised for the manipulation of a photograph of Princess Diana and Dodi early last month. Did The Sun suffer after it swallowed the hoax video of the Princess, which was rapidly proved a fake? I suspect not.
Tragically, the events of the weekend proved not to be a hoax.
For Diana to have been killed in a high-speed car chase, in Paris, accompanied by a rich new companion, with half a dozen photographers on her tail, was so much the stuff of fiction most publishers would have rejected the synopsis as too improbable, even for the tabloids.
Now, though, Diana will be remembered forever in her prime. And the world’s media will have to look for someone else to keep the public flocking in such numbers to their pages and airwaves. They will not quickly find one, which may be no bad thing.