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Drawing a Line on Privacy Vexes Media

Paris tragedy leads 'the hunted' to call for limits on the press and the public's 'right to know.'

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Sixteen years ago, the demure, new Princess of Wales felt "totally beleaguered" by the press. Photographers popped out of bushes every time she emerged from her house in Gloucester, England.

At the queen's urging, her press secretary interceded, and British editors announced they'd reduce their coverage of the royal family's intriguing new addition. It was, in the words of former New York Post editor in chief Jerry Nachman, "a deal." The princess could get some privacy, and the press, when she was ready, a little more access.

"When I was a street reporter, we used to do deals out on the street," says Mr. Nachman. "Someone would say, 'What do you want, fellas?' And we'd say, 'This is what we need.' And the deals were honored; they were impromptu and ad hoc."

As the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for steamy, celebrity details feeds the competitive frenzy in the press, the old idea of the "deal" has broken down. Celebrities and the press have become the hunted and the hunters - and concerns about "privacy" reduced to a quaint notion in the face of the millions of dollars offered for a candid, unflattering photo.

But the deaths of the Princess of Wales, her companion, and their driver as their Mercedes was chased by paparazzi in Paris have fueled calls for new laws protecting public figures' privacy. That, in turn, has reignited the debate about how far the public's right to know extends into the private lives of public figures.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says "serious questions" have been raised about whether "aggressive intrusion" into Diana's privacy contributed to her death. France's cultural minister has called for an international law protecting privacy.

But pundits are quick to note that France has some of the toughest privacy laws in the world, and they didn't prevent Sunday's tragedy.

"I don't think you can base the laws of privacy on the needs of Princess Diana because she is unique, sui generis, or virtually," says Alex Jones, host of National Public Radio's "On the Media." "To pass a law based on her needs would be to skew what the public was entitled to know."

What's 'newsworthy'?


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