David Willis, Allison Hope Weiner, Giles Harrison, Blair Berk, Rob Nelson
More accurately, last Thursday night’s panelists vigorously discussed and debated the question of celebrity “news” and the “stalkarazzi”, but I do love alliteration. Officially titled “HOLLYWOOD GROUND ZERO: Where Celebrity, Paparazzi and the First Amendment Collide”, the event was sponsored by the LA Press Club and PR Newswire and took place at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood.
Moderated by BBC World News correspondent David Willis, the panel consisted of Blair Berk, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney whose client list includes numerous A-list celebrities; Giles Harrison, top-earning paparazzo of London Entertainment/Splash News; Rob Nelson of KABC-AM790 and E! Entertainment THS Investigates; and Allison Hope Weiner, a Los Angeles based reporter for The New York Times (who is currently covering the Anthony Pellicano story).
The evening began with a ten minute viewing of the E! channel’s hour long program THS Investigates: Paparazzi. Hosted by panelist Rob Nelson, the investigative story covered the current state of celebrities and the paparazzi in Los Angeles and the legal issues involved. Two of the panelists had appeared in the story: Berk was interviewed in her office, and Harrison took Nelson with him one day as he drove around in his vehicle, on the job as a paparazzo. In one scene of Nelson’s story, we see Katie Holmes with baby Suri emerge from a building and arrive at the sidewalk. As the paps lunge for her, they practically knock down the woman next to her–Tom Cruise’s mother. Another issue is that car chases become commonplace on the highways when the paparazzi spot a celebrity in their car, knowing not only the type of car they drive but also the license plate number. In another scenario, Jude Law leaves his house with his children. When he spots the cameras on them, he crosses the street to where the paparazzi are standing, blocks the TV camera lens with his body and in a very angry tone of voice threatens to turn in the photographers for being pedophiles if they don’t take their cameras off his kids. End of scene.
After introductions by the panelists, Willis got the discussion going by asking the important questions: Do the paparazzi go too far? Should the press and/or the paparazzi be regulated? Who are these people? He called on the expertise of each panelist and asked for their take on the situation. Panelist’s positions were clearly defined: Weiner was opposed to any press regulation, defending a free press and fearful that trying to regulate the tabloids could lead to putting a stranglehold on all press. Berk defended the rights of celebrities as individuals who deserved a degree of privacy and spelled out the personal and public safety issues of paparazzi gone wild. Harrison tried to create a more balanced view of the paparazzi, reminding the panel and audience that they are not all aggressive stalkers, including himself. Harrison, who prides himself on his forthright behavior as a paparazzo, was introduced as someone who had once spent time in jail for an incident early in his career.
Why all the paparazzi madness? With the proliferation of supermarket tabloids and the pressure for lurid stories and photos, there is more money than ever for the photo agencies and the swarms of paparazzi have increasing competition for the high-paying scoop shots. “Reality” TV shows also feed into our voyeuristic culture, often including celebrities who expose far too many details of their private lives. At the same time, there is the growing mainstreaming of an industry of “celebrity news”, for example AOL owned TMZ.com. But is it really “news”–stories about actual events? Or just old-fashioned gossip–innuendo, hearsay and outright lies?
After the much publicized car crashes of Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson (see “Scarlett Johansson Crashes Car While Fleeing Paparazzi”), both of which were caused by being chased by paparazzi, as well as the actions of an aggressive photographer at the Disney theme park with Reese Witherspoon and her children, Democratic Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez introduced a California state bill aimed at the paparazzi. The bill, which became law on January 1, 2007, triples the damages celebrities can claim from paparazzi if they are assaulted while being photographed. Further, the bill prohibits photographers from making money on any photographs taken during an altercation.
But, commenting on this new law Thursday night, lawyer Berk deemed it virtually “useless”, as it calls on celebrities to press charges and file lawsuits, which most are reluctant to do since that only draws more attention to the situation and then creates …another tabloid story!
Nonetheless, Gov. Swarzzenager was more than happy to sign the bill. As reported on MTV.com “When Schwarzenegger was an actor, he testified against two photographers who used their cars to surround his as he was picking up one of his kids from school in a 1998 incident. At one point, Schwarzenegger had suggested creating a buffer zone between paparazzi and celebrities.” In fact, it turns out that panelist Harrison was one of those photographers.
This particular incident was mentioned in today’s Sunday LA Times West Magazine cover story by Robin Abcarian, which profiles the owners of the X17 photo agency. X17 is noted for hiring amateurs, including former waiters and valet parkers, and “it is considered to be something of a rogue.” According to Abcarian’s story: ” X17 is understood to be the Britney Spears specialist, with a seven-man team devoted just to her. She is their bread and butter…Each morning, MBF [name of the Britney team] arrives at Spears’ doorstep off Mulholland Drive around 10 a.m. and follows her around town until she retires for the night.”
Sounds like stalking to me.
The problem, of course, is that the celebrities don’t mind a little of this; they want to be noticed in a positive light at least and seen in the tabloids for the free publicity. But the relentless chase for photos has gotten to the point of being non-stop, excessively invasive, overly aggressive and overtly dangerous. As Berk says on camera in Nelson’s THS story “It’s not a matter of if, but when” someone is going to get killed. Commenting on her onscreen prediction, she said at the panel that she believes it won’t be another celebrity, like Princess Diana; it will be the innocent bystander on the street or someone in a car who is driving nearby on the highway.
For an example of this paparazzi pandemonium in the streets, see the video here posted by TMZ.com on February 21, 2007. Britney Spears is mobbed by paparazzi as she steps into a car, which is being driven by a friend [?]. (Be sure to listen for the number of camera shutters you can hear clicking away). A police car comes to their rescue (did they dial 911?), disperses the paparazzi on foot in the street who are blocking the car and other traffic, and, over a foghorn, instructs Britney and friend to make an illegal and potentially dangerous right hand turn from the left lane and around the other cars stopped at a red light in front of them.
Throughout the panel proceedings, Willis would ask Harrison his opinion on issues brought up by the other panel members. Harrison would invariably preface his answer with the caveat “Well, I don’t do that but…” Finally, unable to contain his skepticism or curiosity any longer, Willis asked Harrison directly, if he was saying that he had never done anything wrong? Harrison admitted only that one early altercation, for which he spent 39 days in jail, but since then he adamantly maintained that he has been as rigorous as he can in “not crossing the line”. Willis then asked to what did he attribute such a high degree of professional integrity. Without taking a breath, Harrison replied “39 days in jail.”