Phony Diana photo reignites debate on internet postings
By AMY HARMON, c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service

The publication on the Internet last week of a photograph purporting to show Diana, Princess of Wales, as she lay dying in the back of a crashed Mercedes -- and its publication on the front page of a French newspaper -- has set off a new controversy over the ease with which inaccurate information can be disseminated over the global computer network.

But the incident may say as much about how traditional media outlets around the world handle the Internet's speculative information as it does about the network itself, some critics say. And it underscores the public appetite for information about Diana's death regardless of its source. The princess died after a car accident in Paris on Aug. 31.

The Internet image, which showed firemen at the scene of a car wreck wearing uniforms that did not remotely match those of Paris fire brigades and a truck marked with an emergency number that would not work anywhere in France, was immediately dismissed as a fake by French authorities. Headlined "Purported Accident Photo" on the World Wide Web site, it shows a bloodied blond woman in a mangled heap of metal. France-Soir, a broadsheet that plans to go to a tabloid format early next year, noted in an article on Friday that the photo had "not yet been authenticated." But that did not stop the newspaper from printing the image at the top of its front page, in color. The picture was also distributed by the Italian news agency Ansa and television channel Canale 5.

Rotten Dot Com, the Mountain View, Calif.-based group of anti-censorship activists who published the image, said about 75,000 visitors a day sought a peek at the picture on their site. Reforma, a major Mexican newspaper, e-mailed the group with a request to purchase the photograph, a representative said. In a statement broadly critical of attempts to regulate the Internet, the group noted that it had never claimed the photo, which it received via e-mail, was real. "We've known for a long time the image does not show Diana. But this site is about censorship and making people think, and it has succeeded in that regard," the group said on the Web site, which is billed as "an archive of disturbing illustration."

A representative of the group declined to be interviewed by telephone but replied to a reporter's questions by e-mail. The representative, who insisted on anonymity, said the year-old organization had previously published photographs of the O.J. Simpson crime scene, Queen Elizabeth with her finger in her nose, and various scenes showing dead people.

"The site shows the whole world that censorship that tries to `sanitize' is impossible," the representative said.

Even for the Internet's more fervent libertarians, publishing a fake picture of the dying Princess of Wales might seem a stretch as a statement of political principles. At least one major Internet service provider, GeoCities of Santa Monica, Calif., removed the photograph from its site, a spokesman told C-Net, an online news publication.

And the photo raised the ire of many Internet users. "In the U.K., we are still reeling from the loss of Diana," one of them wrote in an e-mail to C-Net. "The Internet shows its dark side and starts producing this rubbish."

Photographic hoaxes, of course, have been around as long as photographs and air-brush artists. And no computer network was needed in 1986 for bogus news footage purporting to show a smoking, crippled Chernobyl power plant (it actually showed an Italian cement factory) to find its way onto network news programs in America.

Still, it comes as no surprise to even casual Internet users that the network, which enables anyone with a computer and a modem to broadcast information to a global audience cheaply and instantly, often carries bad information.

Last year, federal officials investigating the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island felt compelled to hold a news conference to deny a report by a former ABC reporter, Pierre Salinger, that a missile had downed the plane.

This summer, an address supposedly by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and circulated by e-mail to thousands of Internet users turned out to have been penned by someone else entirely. Electronic images, which can be copied and manipulated easily, are notoriously suspect.

But the Diana photo underscores the public's apparent eagerness to give the Internet's indiscriminate electronic press the benefit of the doubt. Or at least its tolerance for the often sensational appeal of material it carries. Critics of France Soir's decision to publish the photograph said it was simply a predictable attempt by a financially struggling paper to sell more papers.

Still, others -- including France Soir itself -- prefer to blame the Internet itself. On Saturday, the paper carried an article lamenting the lack of legal restraints on what can appear on the network and noting that the picture set off "a vast polemic."

"Not very adroitly, perhaps, we did it to put a spotlight on the excesses of the Internet," the paper's editor in chief, Claude Lambert, said in an interview this weekend. "There were heated arguments about the decision in the office on Friday, and not everybody on the staff agrees we executed it properly. Maybe the headline should have said `Diana, the Phony Internet Photo,' but we still would have gone ahead and published it," Lambert said.

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