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Media soul searching

BBC's Nick Higham
The Day Diana Died was not a comfortable one for journalists. Initial reports of the crash blamed paparazzi for Diana's death. The public needed someone to blame. The media was the answer.

Reporters and photographers were jostled and shouted at. People remembered the Panorama interview in which the Princess described the photographers who plagued her day and night. They conveniently forgot that she herself often courted their attentions.

Even the red-top tabloids were shocked by the public reaction. The result was a bout of media soul-searching and promises to do better.

The press says it has turned over a new leaf. Diana's legacy, editors say, has been a complete revision of the way newspapers go about their business. The old days of pursuit and harassment have gone.

But have we entered a new era?

A famous rock star cavorting on a public beach with his topless girlfriend is still fair game. So too was Paul Gascoigne, England's greatest football star, when an enterprising student journalist snapped him guzzling kebabs in Soho at 2am less than a month before the World Cup.

Nevertheless, editors such as The Mirror's Piers Morgan maintain that times have changed. Photographers no longer stalk celebrities in private places or catch them in clinics. If freelances offer photographs - like those of the comic Rik Mayall recovering from a serious accident - Mr Morgan says the Mirror asks permission before publishing them.

Mr Morgan cites the example of a famous celebrity's 14-year-old daughter, hospitalised with anorexia. Two years ago, he says, Mirror photographers would have door-stepped the hospital in the hope of getting pictures. Now, he says, the policy is to ring the girl's mother, make it clear the paper knows the story (from which she may conclude that other, perhaps less scrupulous, news media may also have it) and suggest publishing with her co-operation. If she refuses, the Mirror won't publish.

Eamonn McCabe, picture editor of The Guardian, agrees that the rules have changed. Where children are concerned - especially royal children like Princes William and Harry - photographers and camera crews have backed off.

And yet intrusive photographs of celebrities still appear - many taken abroad. The Mirror has published pictures of Nicole Kidman leaving hospital after an operation and Farrah Fawcett leaving a clinic after cosmetic surgery.

Potentially intrusive stories are also still widely published by tabloids and broadsheets alike.

A Mail on Sunday profile of Prince William suggested that his potential girlfriends were being vetted. And a surprise 50th birthday party William and Harry were organising for their father was spoilt when a newspaper got hold of the story.

Though such stories intrude into the Princes' private lives, newspapers know their readers want to hear them.

The benchmark of whether anything has changed will lie in the treatment of Prince William and Prince Harry. In Britain, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has demanded more than once that the Princes be left unmolested by the media. The quid pro quo: a sequence of stage-managed photo-opportunities provided by the Palace.

But the real issue is journalists themselves. Many don't take easily to obeying. Photographers, says Eamonn McCabe of The Guardian, are hungry animals. They are motivated not only by money but the adrenaline that comes from getting the big picture on the big story.

Only when that next big story comes along will we know if anything has really changed.