Leading article: The beauty who couldn't tame the beast

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Created as an icon by press photographs, she lived in the fizzing glare of flashguns, and now she lies dead, a victim of the insatiable lens. Behind the lens stands an industry, an apparatus of buying and selling, proprietors, profits, and, somewhere down that feeding chain, the silent millions of readers who added so handsomely to sales figures whenever Di stories appeared, and who flocked to the news-stands to see the latest blurry colour picture. Earl Spencer, her brother, was bitter about it all; she was murdered by the media, he said.

Was she? Certainly it seemed at times that the relentless pursuit of her image had driven her almost demented. Living as the harried subject of professional voyeurism is a form of modern mental torture which no one who hasn't experienced it, at least a little, can fully understand. Yet at other times Diana clearly revelled in her role as the woman that half the world wanted to watch, hear and follow. She was not mere victim. She could be a shrewd, even brilliant, exploiter of the media, both for herself and her charity causes; and it diminishes her to suggest otherwise.

All that said, her death ought to start a much-needed debate (which has to be international rather than just national) about the structure and appetites of this global industry of images and words which the public both adores and loathes. The media is omnipresent, and treated with the same mixture of enjoyment and dislike as other great powers. It was, of course, the reviled media to which people turned yesterday, unquestioningly, avid for the news.

Because of the circumstances of Diana's death, it will register as a calendar event, shocking in its suddenness. The strength of people's feelings about her are not to be doubted or slighted. "Although I am not a royalist..." How many times, yesterday, people prefaced their response with this formula, distinguishing the place she held in national life from their views about the monarchy.

To many people, it is as if a light has gone out. This flawed woman shone - Tony Blair found the right word - reflecting back to us the intensity of our interest in her looks, her clothes, her loves, her charity, her modernity, her representativeness. This upper-class English girl, so narrowly formed and so unrepresentative in upbringing, became our common creation, our national possession. Her death will be sincerely mourned.

Yet if we weigh the institutional significance of the Princess's death, the balance is curiously empty. Of course her departure matters for the House of Windsor. But the monarchy is not about to dissolve or to be abolished. Instead, it is the fourth estate that this death touches most closely - the news-producers, agents of the iconography of the modern world; and not just us, but you, the consumers of news, co-participants in this frenzied dance of public, stars and audience-maximising media.

The manner of her death raises a specific question about the harrying of superstars for their pictures. Few have ever been in Diana's league; the treatment of Hollywood stars may be bad, but they are in the image- selling business. "Paparazzi" - today's buzz-word - must not become too easy a herd of scapegoats. The photographers' relentless pursuit of the Princess occurred because there is a wide and rich international market for their work. It is hard to see how that could ever be regulated. In theory, agreement between proprietors might stick, but it is hard to see the American supermarket tabloids or Oggi ceasing to find good-looking royalty uninteresting.

Something practical might be done to make Britain a pursuit-free zone, either by making it easier for victims to obtain injunctions or by privacy legislation. This newspaper has supported for some time the principle of a law guaranteeing privacy, noting the absurd disjunction between the scope of official privacy (ie, for government information and officials) and a free-for-all for the rest of the world, mitigated by harsh and anachronistic libel laws. Nothing in Diana's death alters the already strong case for action on this front.

By the same measure, much in her life illustrates the reciprocal nature of media relationships: press and broadcasters need willing and co-operative subjects. The Royal Family decided a generation ago that it would manage the media. Until the late Seventies, it did so relatively successfully. Its nervous and half-embarrassed handling of the eruption of the heir to the throne's wife into superstardom was at best amateur. But there is no denying that the House of Windsor (mistakenly) chose to set out on the path that Diana subsequently followed deep into the jungle.

Of course, the media are not innocent carriers. Proprietors have agendas, editors have views of the world to propagate, reporters too often choose the lowest common denominator. But with the exception (to some extent) of the BBC, the media are commercial - we live and die by numbers. The public is well able to demonstrate its tastes in its purchases. The market for newspapers may be oddly skewed in terms of ideology, but it remains an open market; the British public does have other reputable media to choose if they are dismayed with mass-circulation newspapers.

Perhaps Diana was simply a one-off, someone whose extraordinary life since marrying Charles forbids generalisations. She grew from gauche nanny to hardened and emotional superstar in a spectacular way which lured some media people, like some ordinary Di-watchers, into a kind of insanity. She lived, and now has died, in the midst of a love affair with the public, during which her powers of seduction grew ever greater - and were put to good causes. But she was sucked up by forces which, tide-like, came to overwhelm her. Like some heroine of old, she thought she could tame the beasts - and was wrong. Some accidents have a force that feels like Fate. The smash in a Paris tunnel was one. Di, in whose life this paper was not greatly interested, enters a kind of pantheon, the princess-martyr, murdered by the media. A cult will follow. Things weren't quite like that. She was more complicated - and so is the media. But there is enough truth in the story for many - journalists and readers too - to hang their heads. The pursuit was a kind of madness. It was cruel, too.

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