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Incredibly, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. The incident, which is forever etched in our minds, took place on Aug. 31, 1997, in Paris, when the princess and her partner, Dodi Fayed, were in the back seat of a car attempting to outrun a group of paparazzi. Henri Paul, deputy head of security at the Hôtel Ritz Paris, was at the wheel when the vehicle lost control and crashed at a high speed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. While the French police investigation cleared the pursuing photographers of being directly linked to the tragedy, British authorities cited both Paul, who was reportedly driving under the influence, and the paparazzi as largely to blame.
It was a ruthless reminder that some paparazzi will do anything to get “the shot,” even if it involves putting themselves or celebrities in harm’s way. But did that fateful night have any impact on how paparazzi can operate in this era? Twenty years later, how much has really changed?
The immediate response
Following Diana’s death, the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission (later replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organization), a voluntary regulatory body for publishers that investigates complaints from the public, added the following clause to its policies as a means of preventing future paparazzi-provoked accidents:
“i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment, or persistent pursuit. ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing, or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.”
Here in the U.S., politicians also took note, as Jill Stanley, an attorney and founder of the celebrity legal news site Proof With Jill Stanley, tells Yahoo.
“The incident also inspired Dianne Feinstein and Orrin Hatch, two senators in federal government, to propose legislation that would make it a crime for photographers to use reckless or dangerous tactics that result in injury to their subjects while they were in pursuit of a photograph,” she says.
The Protection From Personal Intrusion Act and Privacy Protection Act of 1998 was never passed, but the death of the Princess of Wales did ignite a conversation about the tactics used by paparazzi.
“Everybody was up in arms about it — the United States especially because we have so many celebrities here,” explains Stanley.
California takes a stand
In 1998, California passed California Civil Code 1708.8. “They were the first ones to really act legally in response to the Diana situation,” says Stanley. “And it makes sense because of the fact that they have so many celebrities in Hollywood.” The law established that a person is civilly liable for invasion of privacy when he or she is trying to capture a physical impression of another person.
Daliah Saper, an attorney at Saper Law Offices, explains, “Under this law, photographers are forbidden from trespassing on private property.” Per the statute, violators can be fined anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000.
California then passed California Vehicle Code Section 40008 in 2011. “That is a criminal code that says if you interfered with a driver and you follow too closely, you make it difficult for them to drive, you act recklessly because you are trying to capture an image or a recording for a commercial purpose, you have committed a misdemeanor,” Stanley explains.
Punishment is up to six months in jail or a $2,500 fine. In 2012, freelance photographer Paul Raef was the first to be charged under the law when he pursued Justin Bieber at a high speed on Highway 101 in Los Angeles.
Saper notes that in the early 2000s, there was a huge market for photos of celebrity children. “With regular magazine features, the demand for photos of kids like Suri Cruise and the Jolie-Pitts soon rivaled that of their A-list parents.”
But in 2013, celebrities such as Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner were instrumental in helping to get Senate Bill 606 passed. As a result, a paparazzo who intentionally harasses a child who has been targeted based on his or her parent’s employment (e.g., an actor, performer, reality star) can be sentenced to up to a year in jail (as opposed to the pre-bill maximum of six months) and fined up to $10,000 for a first violation, up to $20,000 for a second, and up to $30,000 for a third.
To further hammer home the point, Kristen Bell hopped on board to campaign for an initiative to prevent publications from posting photos of children without parental consent. She even went so far as to refuse doing interviews with magazines that didn’t support her stipulations.
For the most part, the kids’ law has had an impact.
“It’s like a social contract,” say Drew Sherman of ADLI Law Group. “The paparazzi will respect not snapping the kids so long as the celebrity plays the game and lets them earn a living by snapping a couple of photos. It really has contributed to a more ‘professional’ type of environment, at least for those celebrities that have young children. Otherwise, it’s still dog-eat-dog. In that case, the real game is who is going to make the wrong move and be the defendant in a tort litigation: celebrity or paparazzi.”
Steven Tyler Act
In 2013, after intrusive photos of Steven Tyler and his family enjoying a vacation at his Maui home were published, the Aerosmith frontman was furious. He teamed up with entertainment lawyer Dina LaPolt to create the Steven Tyler Act.
“This proposed Hawaii legislation would have created civil causes of action for invasion of privacy and constructive invasion of privacy with the intent to capture visual images, sound recordings, or other physical impressions,” Tyler’s lawyer explains.
“The bill passed in the Hawaii Senate but died in the House, unfortunately,” says a disappointed LaPolt, who would like to see harsher consequences for aggressive paparazzi. “Many places in Europe have implemented stronger privacy laws. France has strong privacy protections against paparazzi — they will actually punish a paparazzo with up to one year’s imprisonment and a €45,000 fine,” she notes.
Things are getting better — and worse
While paparazzi harassing stars continue to be an issue, the laws implemented in the years following Diana’s death do seem to have had an effect. Stanley notes that her paparazzi friends have told her that the child regulations have likely had the greatest effect. “They are very careful with the children. They won’t stand on a car and shoot over a fence,” she notes.
A New York-based paparazzo, who wishes to remain anonymous, notes that sometimes the risk isn’t worth the reward. Many media outlets, including Yahoo, won’t use paparazzi photos of children.
“I don’t submit photos of Kristen Bell’s kids because no one wants to buy them. The threat of a lawsuit, even one that she would lose, isn’t worth the few dollars that shots of her kids are worth,” he explains.
And veteran paps like Rick Mendoza are doing their best to work within the law. “The game is the same. We just shoot with long lenses and 100 to 200 meters away — never up close, so that we do not startle the child. And that is what the law is: ‘Don’t startle the child,’” he explains.
Stanley notes that all these types of initiatives, even the failed ones, have succeeded in getting people talking about paparazzi issues. “This keeps coming up in discussions, and the more vigorous celebrities are about making sure that their constitutional right to privacy is protected, the more legislature will start looking more into this,” she explains.
Another thing working against the paparazzi game is the rise of social media. “It used to be that if you shot a picture of an A-lister, you would get a half page in the Daily News,” Stanley says. “But now it’s on the website, it’s sold to other people, pictures are being reproduced, there’s a whole different model. New media has drastically changed the paparazzi world.”
Social media has also created the amateur paparazzo
Though celebs may be a bit more protected from the lenses of professional paps, a new threat is popping up: the average smartphone user. “In today’s ‘look at me’ world, wouldn’t we love to be the one that gets the best shot of Kim Kardashian that no one else has the exclusive on? Wouldn’t we love to sell that and Instagram that and Snapchat that? Wouldn’t that bring people their Insta-fame that seems to be so sought after today?” says Stanley, who notes that we have now entered an era when social media users can easily endanger the lives of celebs in the hopes of taking a quick snap. “The need for social approval is so big in this day and age that people are willing to cross all kinds of lines in order to nab novel content.” She cites the Fresno, Calif., teen who recently live-streamed the car crash that killed her sister as an example of how far some are willing to go.
Despite recent initiatives, paparazzi remain a problem for many stars.
Earlier this year, Justin Bieber accidentally hit a paparazzo while exiting a church parking lot. George and Amal Clooney had photographers scale their fence, climb a tree, and take pictures of their twins inside their home. And countless accidents have occurred — Selena Gomez got in a fender bender in Los Angeles while a cameraman was chasing her, Niall Horan was dragged to the ground as a herd of paparazzi stormed him at L.A. International Airport, and Chris Brown totaled his car after being “ruthlessly pursued by paparazzi.”
And sometimes it’s the paparazzo who is in the line of fire. In 2007, Britney Spears was leaving a doctor’s office in a swarm of paparazzi and ran over Rick Mendoza’s foot in the process. He was out of work for six months; however, the incident hasn’t scared off the seasoned photographer. “I work the same way,” he tells Yahoo. “A news story is worth the cost. It’s what we do to entertain the world.”
What stars are doing to protect themselves
Some stars are moving away from L.A. and New York to places where they are less harassed. Shania Twain, for instance, calls the Swiss Alps home, and the Clooneys also have been raising their twins out of Hollywood. Other celebs are beefing up their security teams. (In LaPolt’s opinion, “Any star needs a full-time security detail” these days.)
Stanley adds that in response to intrusive tabloid photos, celebrities have also lawyered up.
“My paparazzi friends tell me that there are certain celebrities whose lawyers have reached out to them and made it very clear that ‘we are watching you. You’d better obey the laws as they stand because the minute you step even a toe over that line, we’re going after you.’ A lot of the paparazzi know who not to mess with,” she says.
Another popular tactic has been for celebs to drive the price of their own photos down by posting their new-baby photos on social media versus waiting for a paparazzo to be the first to snap and sell them.
Free speech vs. public interest
When it comes to the long-standing face-off between celebrities and paparazzi, there is a Catch-22. Celebs and their legal teams argue that human safety needs to come first, while paparazzi are adamant about protecting their constitutional right to freedom of the press. “The crux is that the First Amendment says you cannot have any laws that abridge freedom of speech or freedom of the press,” says Stanley. “But you have to balance that with privacy rights of individuals and their safety.”
Crisis and brand management expert Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, is in favor of laws that prevent “bodily harm or injury.”
“No one should lose their life because a couple of people want to shoot pics,” Schiffer says. “But wide-sweeping laws that stymie the paparazzi? No, it should not happen, not without a war over trimming fat off the Constitution. Our country empowers free enterprise and, more importantly, freedom of the press. They deserve to make a living. Though some people say the paparazzi may be to the media what personal-injury lawyers are to the legal profession, it’s un-American to limit the abilities of either to do their job.”
The irony of it all
In recent years photo prices have dropped; however, a paparazzo’s job continues to be lucrative. Mendoza notes that a “worldwide story” can still bring in thousands per photo. For instance, a photograph of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie out together while there is talk about divorce “is a money shot” and can rake in anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. “That’s a good payday,” he says.
As long as there is a demand, the paparazzi will persist. And Stanley notes that part of that persistence means pushing the boundaries in order to get a sellable shot. “Paparazzi are not known for holding back and being wallflowers. It’s an aggressive, competitive industry, and they are going to push it to the very edge of it,” she says. “It’s sad to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had another Diana incident on our hands down the line.”
Stanley notes that it’s incidents like the recent illegally obtained shots of the Clooney twins being sold to a French magazine that drive this all home. “It was the former editor of Voici magazine who after the death of Diana said, ‘We are going to handle things differently now; we’re going to be a little more respectful.’ And isn’t it funny that 20 years later, it’s Voici magazine that is standing and climbing fences to get pictures of Clooney’s twins? So really, have we changed?”
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