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Princes William and Harry serve as Princess Diana’s living legacy in more ways than one.
USA TODAY

“It’s like living in a goldfish bowl with all these people coming to look at you and you’re just there swimming around in circles with no escape.” Princess Diana on the paparazzi to her friend and natural healer Simone Simmons

The paparazzi did it: They killed Princess Diana.

It wasn’t true but people believed it in 1997, especially her young sons, thanks to the pap pack’s relentless pursuit of lucrative pictures of the princess who beguiled the world.

It didn’t help that Diana’s brother, the Earl Spencer (“Editors have blood on their hands!”), and stars such as George Clooney (“You should be ashamed!”), explicitly blamed the media in general and the paparazzi in particular for Diana’s death in a Paris car crash. 

“In the immediate aftermath, they were the villains, they were blamed right away,” says Christopher Andersen, royal biographer and author of the 1998 bestseller The Day Diana Died. In fact, nine French photographers were arrested and charged with manslaughter, although the charges were thrown out in 2002.

Twenty years later, as fans and observers prepare to mark her death Aug. 31, what’s changed, if anything, about the paparazzi business, and how did Diana’s death affect it?

Some things we know for sure: The public is as obsessed with celebrities, especially young royals, as ever. There are more celebrity-focused media outlets than ever, and mainstream publications, such as USA TODAY, pay more attention to celebrity news. There are more paparazzi than ever, in part because anyone can take a picture and post it on social media, including the celebs themselves.

Some paparazzi argue that their business is in trouble nowadays for economic reasons having nothing to do with Diana. Competition from the internet and social media has hurt them, their pictures sell for comparative peanuts lately, and photography subscription services (such as Getty Images) have signed up more publications.

“Editors stopped buying them because of the internet and subscription deals,” says photographer Frank Griffin, a partner in the Bauer-Griffin paparazzi agency. “We’re just surviving now. Most of our pictures are ‘sightings,’ pictures of (celebrities) walking across the street after coming out of Starbucks.”

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Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to Queen Elizabeth II who’s now a royal commentator, says he’s not sure Diana’s death changed the paparazzi game around the world. 

“We’re living in the 21st century when everyone has a smartphone, they all have cameras and that makes everyone a potential paparazzo,” he says. “If anything, it’s gotten worse, not better.”

The wreckage of Princess Diana’s car is lifted onto a truck in the Alma tunnel of Paris, Aug. 31, 1997. (Photo: AFP, AFP/Getty Images)

Example: When Prince Harry was snapped in the nude while playing strip pool during a private trip to Las Vegas in 2012, the pictures were taken on a cell phone by someone who was there and later sold them. They were published online (on TMZ, for instance) but only one major British tabloid published them.

On the other hand, Arbiter says, the paparazzi business in the United Kingdom is “not as virile and versatile” as it once was, it lacks clout, and mostly has to sell pictures outside the U.K.

“The paparazzi threat to the famous has undoubtedly been considerably lessened by the blame attached to them for Diana’s death by the public, and fewer sources will publish their photos,” says British PR consultant and royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams.

“They’re certainly not pursuing it the way they used to,” adds Victoria Arbiter, Dickie’s daughter, royal contributor for CNN in New York, who spent her teen years living in a royal palace where Diana lived. “When we lived at Kensington Palace, there were always photographers at the gate flashing as she zoomed in and out in her car. Every single picture sold. It’s not that way for Will and Kate and Harry.”

Editors and publishers, at least in Britain, are more circumspect about how they cover young royals, in part because of Diana’s death but also because of subsequent misdeeds — phone hacking — in the 20 years since.

“The British national papers did cut back on paparazzi pictures, and when it comes to royals, they won’t touch them,” Dickie Arbiter says. “They know the icing on the cake is (the young royals) and they don’t want to upset them for fear of being left out of something in future. So what we saw in the 1990s, the pursuing of royals, does not exist in 2017.”

Meanwhile, Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, are bolder in pushing back against coverage they dislike: Surreptitious photos of Prince George, 4, and Princess Charlotte, 2, elicit instant condemnations from palace press staff . Aggressive stalking of Harry’s girlfriend, Meghan Markle, provoked the prince himself to issue an extraordinary statement charging some in the media with sexist and racist behavior.

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