When news broke this week that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were involved in what they called "a near catastrophic car chase at the hands of a ring of highly aggressive paparazzi," echoes rang of similarities to the fatal 1997 car crash in Paris that led to Princess Diana's death, amid a paparazzi chase.
Throughout the years, the ethics around celebrities being pursued by paparazzi has been called into question, including moments like when paparazzi chased the ambulance when Britney Spears was being transported to a hospital in 2008. Jennifer Aniston famously sued a paparazzo for invading her privacy, using a telephoto lens to get topless photos of her in her home.
Other stars like Justin Bieber, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence, Hilary Duff, Sienna Miller and Jodie Foster have also been very vocal about the ethics of the lengths paparazzi go to, to get photos of celebrities, and their family, without their consent.
In analyzing and evaluating the circumstances of Meghan and Harry's latest paparazzi incident, there is a certain amount of responsibility that the public needs to take when it comes to how we consume information about and photos of our favourite celebrities.
“We absolutely have an ethical responsibility to, at the very least, address our fascination with celebrities, with people in positions that are visible, positions of power, people whose products we consume, the people whose art or artistry is connected in some way to our pleasure,” media, celebrity and cultural studies expert, Dr. Tamar Salibian, told Yahoo Canada.
Sometimes our pleasure has to do with the actual tabloid nature of it.Dr. Tamar Salibian, Media, Celebrity and Cultural Studies expert
“At the very least, that confrontation or that acknowledgement has to occur among consumers because we're consumers of culture, and we're also consumers of products.”
Conflicting accounts of crash begs question: 'Who shapes perception of what's going on?'
When it comes to the Meghan and Harry incident in particular, we're managing a number of different perspectives. Meghan and Harry are classifying it as a "near catastrophic" event. New York City Mayor Eric Adams indicated that it's "hard to believe" the car chase lasted for two-hours, like the couple's spokesperson claimed.
"But if it’s 10 minutes, a 10-minute chase is extremely dangerous," Adams said.
Taxi driver Sukhcharn Singh told The Washington Post Harry and Meghan were in his cab for 10 minutes, and said he wouldn't classify the event as a "chase."
“I don’t think I would call it a chase,” Singh told The Washington Post. “I never felt like I was in danger. It wasn’t like a car chase in a movie. They were quiet and seemed scared but it’s New York — it’s safe.”
Salibian noted that balancing these different perspectives is connected to the question of, "Who controls a narrative?"
“Who shapes the perception of what's going on?” Salibian said. “Of course, that also connects to this question of a hierarchy of power and who benefits.”
Remember that media is constructed and narrative is constructed. So in a story about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, we want to acknowledge that they felt a certain way, and they deserve to have their private life. At the same time, there is a sense of them trying to claim their agency over this story. If the cabbie is saying, it wasn't that bad. If another person is saying something else, there's always that level of narrative to consider and to think about. ... What does every angle aim to uphold?Dr. Tamar Salibian, Media, Celebrity and Cultural Studies expert
A particularly interesting aspect of this story is that concept of what someone feeling "safe" actually means. If in fact this particular incident wasn't almost catastrophic, comparing it to Princess Diana's fatal collision, are we saying that this sort of paparazzi chase is OK, even if Meghan and Harry have been adamant in their stance that they did not feel safe? It's hard to imagine that the bar for when paparazzi work becomes unethical should simply be connected to physical harm.
Salibian identified that our interest and fervor in the lives public figures does impact our "lowering the bar" of what is acceptable.
“If they almost get into a crash or if there's any sort of infringement upon their safety, why and how do we think that's OK?" she said. “That's something that we have to consider because I wouldn't want that for my friend, my neighbour, my family member."
"What we sort of take for granted from somebody who is in the public eye is something I think we need to think about. Especially as it relates to people we sort of idolize or people who provide some sort of aspirational feeling in our lives. People whose artistic products we consume. There is a really strange sense of, I own the right to their every waking moment. ... There is that sense of, [I] want to know what happened and if there is any sort of threat, then we lower the bar."
'Who or what is trying to convince me that I need that kind of access?'
One thing to remember, as an exercise in media literacy, is, as Salibian describes, "everything exists within a context," and requires us as consumers to unpack the different layers of a story.
“I think what's interesting about contemporary culture is that sense of trying to boil things down and make things very one dimensional, when it's not," Salibian said. "There's Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, within the context of New York City, within the context of the question of safety itself, within the context of fame, within the context of shaping a narrative."
"While this may seem daunting to any person to unpack all of this, that I think is the way through. Is to continue to enjoy these public figures and what they offer, but at the same time remembering, through the process of media literacy and interrogating everything at play, that they're human beings. When it comes down to it, they're human beings and nobody should want anybody to feel uncomfortable, to have their safety infringed upon.”
Salibian also points to the concept of the "parasocial relationship," often a "one-sided relationship" fans enter into with celebrities. The concerning element in this transactional relationship is that we may be comfortable with public figures feeling uncomfortable, or even being in harm's way, if it gives us that unobstructed access to them that, we think, we want.
"I'd want anyone to ask is: Do I want the relationships in my life to exist at that level of transactionality? And if so, have I considered who or what is trying to convince me that I need that kind of access?" Salibian stated.
At the core of ethical questions around celebrity culture and paparazzi culture is the understanding that when someone is famous, there is a certain amount of attention they receive from the public, but that doesn't mean the public has the right to absolutely every single moment of their daily life.
[Meghan Markle] is an actress and she then moved into this world where Prince Harry has a role, it's not necessarily a job that he’s paid for, but he has a role. Famous actors and musicians, that's their job, it's not their entire existence.Dr. Tamar Salibian, Media, Celebrity and Cultural Studies expert
“We seem to forget that. I think that's something where, to me, it connects to that question of consent. They do not consent, necessarily, to have every moment publicized.”
'There's always a rabbit hole to jump into'
While previously in history, paparazzi photos had primarily been used to sell tabloid magazines, things have developed in 2023, particularly with social media allowing public figures (or people who represent them) to share images and information about themselves to the public. Additionally, anyone now has the ability to share a photo or a piece of information about a famous figure online.
When it comes to where we stand on our fascination with celebrities and desire to get access to them, Salibian categorizes it as an "evolving" situation.
“I think it's still evolving,” Salibian said. “I'm thinking not only about fandom or fan culture, but also about online social justice movements, and the way the internet has provided a platform and also an ability to connect to others.”
“At the same time, ... there's always a rabbit hole to jump into. It can very easily become just a series of rabbit holes where you're chasing another potential conspiracy after another one, after another one. So it takes a sense of discernment, I think, to be able to honour that sense of connection. ... We kind of have to be discerning in our approach and not get pushed and pulled by every distraction that's offered.”
Of course, one thing that's critically important to remember is that being paparazzi is a job. People are paid to get these photos, it's their livelihood. But there can still be changes made to create a system of more responsible media consumption.
“It definitely has to change, … we don't see that changing because ... [of] that sort of explosion of internet and access, and that sense of 'the world is at your fingertips, the world is your oyster,' any person can turn on their computer, if they have access to a computer, or a device, and have access to the world,” Salibian said. "That also affects content, that also affects sales. Not everyone's going to buy a magazine anymore."
That has sustained media and news outlets for decades, it doesn't have to be that way. It can be somehow different and not rely on chaos. ... I think everybody, media outlets, photographers, paparazzo, consumers, fans, … we need to continue to examine our role in things and our role in these processes. Our role in who we are upholding and supporting, whether it's with our money, what we pay for, whether it's with our attention, whether it's in sort of figuring out what's distracting us and what rabbit holes were being pulled into. Just really being more discerning moving forward.Dr. Tamar Salibian, Media, Celebrity and Cultural Studies expert