Photo Finish? Paparazzi's Diminishing Influence Since Princess Diana

"My wife and I thought that we could go to France for a few days in a secluded villa ... and thus enjoy our privacy ... The clandestine way in which these photographs were taken was particularly shocking to us as it breached our privacy,” Prince William said in a statement.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are demanding about $1.6 million in damages from Closer magazine and the regional publication La Provence for images taken of a topless Kate in 2012 with a telephoto lens while she was sunbathing during vacation at a private chateau. William and Kate condemned the invasion of privacy and invoked the 1997 death of William's mom. The photographs “reminded us of the harassment that led to the death of my mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.”

August 31, 2017 will mark the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's untimely death. She was killed at age 36 in a Paris tunnel along with beau Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul. A French inquiry ruled that Paul, the security chief at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, was drunk and under the influence of prescription drugs when he lost control of their Mercedes in the Pont D'Alma tunnel and slammed into a pillar.

The prevailing narrative was that the People’s Princess was killed in a car accident while being pursued by paparazzi. Various celebrities placed the blame squarely on the paps and the media outlets who buy their work. In an inquest, the pursuing paparazzi were found to be a factor but not the cause of the accident.

For decades, behind the lens stood a bustling business of celebrity-sightings, snapping images of stars in compromising positions, profit-making by the news industry, and billions of readers consuming glossy photos. As a result, France passed some of the strictest laws against invasion of privacy. However, anti-paparazzi laws have produced mixed results. When the law cannot serve as a sword, why not fashion a better sword?

Twenty years after Diana’s death, social media has taken power away from prying paparazzi eyes. The rise of social media allows prominent figures to manage their own brand and distribute exclusive pictures and stories through new technologies. If you beat the paparazzi to the joke, or write the joke yourself, the paparazzi’s influence might not be as potent. 

Today newsmakers and nobility can shape their reputation to maximize their audience; market their movies, books, music, charities, and events; and minimize the impact of the paps. Via social media, stars have become stewards of their own brand.

In a series of posts and tweets, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge remarked they "have been delighted to share photos of their children and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead." The photo of Princess Charlotte ahead of her second birthday was tweeted by the Kensington Palace Twitter handle, with the caption, "The Duke and Duchess are delighted to share a new photograph of Princess Charlotte to mark her second birthday tomorrow.”

Kate Middleton has a flair for photography. The royals are accessible and communicative - on their own terms. Today social media allows celebrities to plug their projects and craft a curated persona through social media channels. YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, among other social networking sites, have made the paparazzi far less relevant and lucrative.

Luminaries like Beyoncé and Kevin Hart are the ones who are shooting first and breaking baby news or engagement updates, respectively, on social media. Yet the friction-filled relationship between famous people and paparazzi persist. Six people — three photographers, the owner and the executive editor of Closer, and the former publisher of regional daily newspaper La Provence — are on trial in the Paris suburb of Nanterre facing invasion of privacy and complicity charges stemming from the 2012 incident with Princess Kate.

The lawyer for the French magazine Closer argued to the court that the photos were not a breach of their privacy and cast the couple in a positive light. A representative from Closer called the accusations hypocritical. “Two billion people watched their wedding and we even have photos of them arriving at the maternity ward, leaving, and now Charlotte’s second birthday. It’s in the public interest to know that the potential future heirs to the throne have a solid relationship. It’s all part of the royal business.” A verdict in the case is expected in September.

Recently released audiotapes reveal Diana uttering the following: "I can't go out to lunch. I certainly don't go out in the evenings. I hide out in the back of cars to get out. I don't want to be in the newspapers ... It is desperate, hunting the whole time." Since his mother's death, the heir to the British throne has made no secret of his disdain for the paparazzi. Those feelings were further cemented by the publication of photos revealing his wife sunbathing topless in France. It is a case of déjà vu: Twenty years later, the royals are still asking the paparazzi for space.

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