Comment: They'd gawped for years. Why would they stop now?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Is anyone surprised that photographs of the Princess of Wales lying in the wreckage of the car crash that killed her, have reportedly surfaced on the Internet? The page has been shown on Canale 5, a commercial television station owned by the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and a blurred image of the alleged crash site was published in the German magazine Bild. This turn of events has produced shock and outrage, yet it is the logical conclusion to a story in which almost no detail of the Princess's life and death has escaped public scrutiny.

The public appetite for information about her was never confined to cheerful snippets about the birth of her children or what she wore to carry out her duties as Princess of Wales. Readers showed little sign of boycotting newspapers which published photographs of her bursting into tears. And I don't think anyone would pretend there was a catastrophic drop in viewing figures when the BBC's Panorama programme interviewed her about her unhappy marriage and her bulimia.

Whatever people thought they were doing when they rushed into newsagents' shops to read the latest instalment of Andrew Morton's revelatory biography in the Sunday Times, their curiosity has always included an element of prurience. And I am not sure that the impulse to buy souvenir issues of magazines hurried out in the aftermath of her death, is constituted solely of reverence.

How many people will visit the Internet site? How many bought copies of Bild, knowing what was inside? Is their curiosity really of a different order from that of Diana fans who obsessively collect books and magazines which dwell on her blighted hopes and tearful collapses? (I have observed before that we like our icons in distress, as is evidenced by a best-selling biography of Marilyn Monroe, whose cover image shows the actress wiping away a tear.)

The worldwide fascination with Princess Diana which we have witnessed since her death does not strike me as healthy - far from it. So it has been a relief to discover, in letters from readers of this column, and phone calls from foreign journalists, to discover that this view is more widely shared than I imagined.

"In my comings and goings in the past two weeks I must have spoken on the subject to around 40 people of all ages and kinds," a reader writes from a village in West Sussex, "and not one of them has disagreed with me that the national reaction was excessive".

An artist who usually lives in Spain, and who happened to be in Somerset at the time of the Princess's death, wrote: "I have been afraid to have even an opinion on the Diana mania which is sweeping the country."

Almost everyone who got in touch complained about the media coverage. It is becoming obvious that many people, once they recovered from the initial shock, simply got on with their lives. They felt no urge to go to any of the royal palaces or sign books of condolence; they were perfectly well able to remember, as I pointed out last week, that the Princess had not been regarded entirely uncritically before her death.

What has happened here, ironically in view of the media's outbreak of self-criticism in the wake of the crash, is a culpable failure on the part of many journalists. They were so busy interviewing individuals in the crowds outside Kensington Palace or in the Mall that this transparently self-selecting sample was somehow transformed into the voice of a nation. I knew something was awry when I heard an uncritical radio interview with a man who had just had a 14-inch portrait of Princess Diana tattooed on his thigh. On his what?

It is harder work to get a full range of opinion. But I have been unable to square my experience, which is that I know almost no one who feels personally bereaved, with what I have been reading and hearing on a daily basis. And it is, I think, precisely because the reporting has been so one-sided that a rash of gruesome jokes has already begun to do the rounds - an uncomfortable reminder of the way in which humour, sometimes of the most macabre sort, functions as an outlet for suppressed feelings.

Meanwhile the debate about the press's role has focused on narrow issues, such as the use of paparazzi photographs, and ignored the equally important question of why it failed to reflect the reaction of so many people in this country.

One of the problems which arises is that there could scarcely be a worse example on which to base a privacy law - of which I am broadly in favour, so long as it is accompanied by a Freedom of Information Act - than Princess Diana. I have come across numerous references, in recent days, to her fear of and loathing of photographers. Yet, in a pile of magazines in my study, I have a copy of the July 1997 issue of Vanity Fair which contains "a stunning portfolio of Princess Di's new look by Mario Testino".

The cover shows the Princess with a new hairstyle, looking happy and relaxed, and the ten pages devoted to her include this account of the photoshoot: "She got into it, laughing and tossing her head back and throwing off the most incredibly languid looks." This confirms what we all know, if we are honest, which is that Princess Diana had an ambivalent relationship with photographers and the press in general.

A much starker example of invasion of privacy took place when the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition opened in London on Thursday. The most controversial exhibit, Marcus Harvey's huge portrait of Myra Hindley, was attacked twice and had to be removed for cleaning. Tom Phillips, chairman of the academy's exhibitions committee, was unrepentant: "Do people want to throw an egg at Myra Hindley or at that painting?" he demanded.

The point he seems to have missed is that Myra Hindley has spent more than 30 years in prison for her crimes. She does not, as far as I know, seek to be photographed and she is fully aware of the damage done to her by the ancient police mugshot on which Harvey's picture is based. As well as distressing the relatives of her victims, the portrait is bound to stir up yet more animosity towards her - but she is a murderer, and who cares about her right to privacy?

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