You’d think we might have learned a lesson 20 years on from Princess Diana’s death – a death that many, rightly so, blame on a rabid paparazzi. As new SBS documentary Diana and the Paparazzi explores, a global outpouring of grief led to heated debate on the paparazzi’s dangerous intrusion on the lives of public figures.
And yet, it’s staggering just how much our fascination with the every movement of celebrities has grown since then as we live vicariously through the snapper’s lens. We’ve all been guilty of gossip mongering – no one’s above it, even if we’d like to tell ourselves we are.
As we increasingly live our lives online, and as stories and paparazzi images get shared and commented on ad nauseam across social media, our addiction is enabled like never before. Of course, we’ve had no control over just how online our lives have become, and that’s why it’s so incredibly easy to be complicit. Just one click is all it takes.
It’s all too easy to blame the media. I’m sure I’ve found myself, much more than I realise, shaking my head at the salacious headlines and accompanying imagery that often misrepresents the truth – whatever that is. How could they stoop so low? But then I realise, I’m the one ogling and judging the celebrity with the cellulite or beer gut, or cynically deciding that, yes, she has indeed had work, and yes, he’s definitely a prolific love rat. Because dammit, here are the images to prove it.
We can shoot the messenger, however morally bankrupt they may be, but the media is just giving us what we want. We’re to blame.
While celebrity gossip rags are in decline, you only need take a cursory look at audience figures for celebrity news sites to see that our interest in free 24/7 celeb clickbait with its vivid pap shots is booming.
But this is not a guilt trip, it’s just the state of play. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years. We’re actually sociologically geared to be celeb gossipmongers according to Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan.
"There's a few different reasons for that," Kruger tells LiveScience. "One is just learning what high-status individuals do so you might more effectively become one, and two, it's basically political. Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you'd be better able to navigate the social scene."
There’s also a science behind our celebrity obsession, which suggests it’s entirely normal for us to revel in hearing of stars’ juicy transgressions. In a 2015 study published in journal Social Neuroscience, Chinese researchers measured the brain activity of students as they were told of celebrities behaving badly and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the caudate nucleus, a pleasure centre of the brain, was particularly active.
Of course, we’re part of a much bigger, much grubbier picture. Some media outlets will always find new lows to reach. Daily Mail Australia infamously body-shamed Sunrise host Samantha Armytage and her “giant granny panties” late last year with an inane pap deck, although, after much criticism, reportedly pledged to stop “fat-shaming”.
Celebs will continue to tip off the media to their whereabouts, just as Diana did. The likes of the Kardashians will continue to flog their image and wares raw on Instagram because they’re addicted to fame and they’re making a killing out of it. And those bottom-feeding snappers will continue to goad and stalk the famous.
Even legitimate celebrity pics fuel the hunger – the selling of image rights to weddings and babies, and the official magazine cover shoots accompanied by the journalist-fawning “at home” puff pieces. There’s money to be made and clicks to rack up. We’re lapping it up so why would the media stop?
I’m not saying that we should abstain, or that we indeed can, from our consumption of celebrity gossip fuelled by the paparazzi. There’s no cure for it, and besides, it’s an upper in an often harsh world. But as we remember Diana’s tragic death 20 years on, we can’t dodge some responsibility for the monster it has become.
Watch Diana and the Paparazzi on SBS On Demand now: