Taking The Tabs To Task

The Warlords of British tabloid journalism spent most of last week hoping the storm would blow over. It didn't-- and on Saturday, from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey, Diana's grieving brother delivered a stinging rebuke to the press. "I don't think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest...to bring her down" Earl Spencer said. "My own explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum."

Fleet Street--a tatty con-fraternity of some of the best world-flinched. "We don't feel the time is right to respond, while emotions are running so high," said a spokesman for one major tabloid publisher, the Mirror Group. Editors and executives for another media giant, Rupert Murdoch's News International, declined to comment; and Richard Addis, editor of the Daily Express, said only that Earl Spencer had given journalists "a lot to think about." The editor of Murdoch's Sun, Stuart Higgins, told The New Yorker that his paper had been besieged by callers who said, in effect, "You killed her, you bastards!" There was renewed talk of legislation to restrict the press, and the Press Complaints Commission launched an inquiry into the use of paparazzi. "British journalists for a long time have had difficulty differentiating between the public and the private," said Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian. "I think they're going to have to be more grown-up in the future."

In private, Fleet Street veterans argue that Princess Diana used the press just as much as the press exploited her. Diana in fact wooed key editors and reporters; last year she even went to a staff Christmas party for The Sunday Times. As Fleet Street saw it, she was adept at using the news media in her battles with the royal family. Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, says the princess could have "gone the Jackie Kennedy route [by saying,] 'I'm private, bugger off." But, Greenslade says, "she didn't. She told the press she wouldn't speak, only to speak to a select few. She said she hated photographers and then would pose for the paparazzi." Chasing her made the lucky ones rich. A single picture of Diana embracing Dodi Fayez, shot at St-Tropez in August, reportedly brought $720,000 when it was sold to the Sunday Mirror and two other British papers. The asking price for photos of the accident, which no paper dared to run, was said to be $320,000. (A London agency called Big Pictures admitted circulating the photos but said it had withdrawn them when it was clear that Diana had died. The agency also said that no money was discussed.)

None of that matters now. For Fleet Street, as for the battered royals, the real issue is whether Diana's death will make any lasting difference. The answer is, probably not: the tabs will find new targets, and few realists expect the Labour government to crack down on the press. The speculation currently centers on Prince William, Diana's elder son and heir to the throne. According to one publishing source, Diana had an informal agreement with editors and publishers to leave her sons alone, and it is likely that the press will honor that agreement for the time being. But William is only 15. "Until he's out of school, I think they will not bother him," says Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, former chairman of Britain's Press Council. "But give it another two or three years."