Global media’s other circus

By Rebecca Davis 8 July 2013

While preparations for a death continue to take media centre stage, preparations for a birth may yet upstage them. The baby to be born to Kate Middleton and Prince William is due on July 13, and whatever your feelings towards the British monarchy, you’ll likely not be able to escape the coverage of the event. REBECCA DAVIS reports upon returning from the UK, where the media frenzy over the impending arrival of a royal heir grows daily.

In London last week, a lone bunch of roses lay at the foot of the Nelson Mandela bust which occupies a plinth near the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank. Originally erected in 1985, it is not the most impressive Mandela monument in London, but it has an interesting history. Shortly after it was unveiled, Labour Party MP Tony Brand took to his feet in the House of Commons, wearing an ANC T-shirt, to ask erstwhile Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher if she would find time to visit the statue of Mandela. “No,” Thatcher replied brusquely. The statue lasted just over a year before it was destroyed, most likely by a racist gang. Upon the bust’s re-erection in 1988, its plinth was raised for greater security.

When Mandela dies, the foot of the Southbank bust will undoubtedly be strewn with flowers and cards, as will the more imposing statue of the statesman, which stands in the city’s Parliament Square. The UK media maintains a keen interest in Mandela’s health, as well as in the wider drama surrounding the family name. London’s popular free-sheet, the Metro – distributed gratis on the Underground, and thus guaranteed a healthy readership – has carried almost daily updates on the Mandla Mandela grave-digging saga. If the family’s “reputation management” agency hoped to confine reports of their internecine feuding to South Africa’s borders, that horse has very much bolted.

But the truth is that UK journalists are about to have a bigger (very small) fish to fry.

“If Mandela dies on the same day that the royal baby’s born, we’re all screwed,” a British journalist said gloomily over a pint last week.

From a South African perspective, in the eye of the media storm that is Mandela’s health, it may seem hard to imagine what story could take precedence over the fading vitality of Nelson Mandela. But it is equally hard to overstate the media attention currently building to a peak around the birth of William and Kate’s baby in the UK.

“It’s insane,” continued another journalist. “People are saying that [ABC host] Katie Couric’s being flown out for the birth.”

“Well, apparently [NBC anchor] Ann Curry is in South Africa to cover Mandela,” I countered, feeling weirdly defensive for no good reason. Hey, isn’t this meant to be our moment?

What Westminster Council is allegedly code-naming ‘Event SO601867’ – that’s the royal birth – will almost certainly be one of the biggest media events the world has ever seen. The last time a royal child was born with a decent stab at the throne was 1982, and the kid in question was Event SO601867’s father, William. 1982, it hardly bears stating, was a vastly different media landscape than today, before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, internet or social media. If you thought the media scrumming around the birth of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s baby last month was unseemly, the royal birth is likely to make the Kardashian-West spawning look like an Amish home-delivery.

The tone for the royal birth coverage was set back in December 2012, when hundreds of male news anchors around the world suddenly found themselves on first-name terms with the medical condition hyperemedis gravidarum. Essentially a severe form of morning sickness, it was this that sent the Duchess of Cambridge scuttling to hospital in the weeks before Christmas, and prompted a perpetual media vigil outside the medical facility in question. At the time, it was reported that a single American TV network had sent 11 staff members to camp outside the hospital, together with camera crews from as far afield as Mexico and Japan.

It was clear from the outset that this 21st-century royal birth would be no discreet stare-at-the-ceiling-and-think-of-England, bring-them-out-in-a-tweed-suit-when-they’re-eight-years-old affair.

Such is the power and influence of the royal foetus that it has already caused Commonwealth law to be changed. It took only 24 hours after the announcement of the royal pregnancy for the British government to state that legislation abolishing male primogeniture would be passed as soon as possible, ending the centuries in which it was impossible for a girl child to succeed to the throne. The same legislative changes mean that it is now also permissible, for the first time, for a royal in the line of succession to marry a Catholic. But just in case you thought all standards were being chucked out at once, it is still impossible for a Catholic to become King or Queen of England.

The royal couple has claimed not to know the gender of their child. But William and Kate are no match for the depthless cunning of the British tabloids! It has all but been accepted that the royal baby will be a girl, due to what was perceived as a critical slip-up by Kate while visiting the town of Grimsby in March.

When presented with a teddy bear by an admirer, Kate reportedly replied: “Thank you, I’ll take that for my d…”

Tabloid journalists have hearing like bats, of course – that’s also how they see so well in the dark – and so the odds of the royal baby being female were subsequently slashed. You’ll get 4/7 for a punt on a girl at bookies William Hill now, and 5/4 on a boy. Most of the money is on the name Alexandra for a girl, which happens to be the current Queen’s middle name. But of course, the royal heir could change his or her name upon ascending to the throne, as has been quite common for British royals. When Prince Charles takes the throne, he may choose the regnal name King George VII, in order to escape association with the 17th century boozy womaniser Charles II. (My, but those Brits have long memories.)

CNN reports that Ladbrokes will give you 500/1 odds on ‘Elvis’ as a first name (fit for a King!). In reality, there has been a trend for minor royals to move further and further from the canonical royal names. Princess Anne’s daughter is named Zara, and there are two granddaughters within the same family called Isla and Savannah.

If betting on the royal baby’s name seems like too much of a crapshoot, British newspapers desperate for royal birth-related content have helpfully made other suggestions. “As the nation gets caught up in royal baby fever, why not have a bit of fun with our super sweepstake kit?” asked the Sun a few days ago. The tabloid helpfully provided readers with a set of slips, on each of which was printed a potential weight for the baby. Then it proposed you place all the slips in a hit – “if you are really getting in the spirit, you could even use a baby bonnet!” – and allow each participant to pick a weight at random. A few weeks after the birth, the Daily Mail will probably propose the same sweepstake to guess Kate’s weight gain.

The birth itself will happen in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where William himself was born. As you read this, photographers and journalists are already camped out day and night outside the hospital gates. Princess Diana famously brought infants William and Harry out to meet the press in front of the hospital, which is what photographers will be hoping for when it comes to this new arrival.

The media scrutiny won’t turn off magically when the baby is brought home, though the Palace is likely to try to broker some sort of “gentleman’s agreement” with the British press, as was done for William and Harry. Many column inches have been devoted to speculation on the “normality” of the upbringing that the child’s parents will strive for, though “normal” is likely here to be a relative term. US talk-show host Piers Morgan, former editor of British tabloid the Daily Mirror, once recalled an intriguing dinner held with Princess Diana and her 13-year-old son, the buck-toothed Prince William. Morgan was offered a glass of wine by Diana’s butler, and accepted, while Diana turned down the offer. William, on the other hand, jumped in: “What about me?”

“William, you know you don’t drink,” Diana cautioned.

“You know I do, mummy,” 13-year-old William responded.

Part of why the royal birth will receive such intense media coverage is because it’s being hailed as a (hopefully) “good news story” in a time of recession and austerity. But the royal baby is expected to have a more directly positive impact on the British economy: indeed, the little girl or guy is already big, big business. A spokesman for the Centre for Retail Research told Reuters that consumers were expected to spend the equivalent of R3,8 billion on royal-birth related gifts and celebrations, with almost a quarter of this going towards alcohol. The Palace is cashing in directly – the Royal Collection Trust website is already selling ‘Guardsman sleepsuits’ for babies, and the Buckingham Palace shop is reportedly also releasing a range of products post-birth.

But of course, not everyone is thrilled about the hoopla around the royal baby. Anti-monarchist groups have complained that in an age of austerity, not one mainstream politician has dared criticise the fact that £1 million of public money has been spent to renovate William and Kate’s accommodation, or the fact that the Queen recently received a 5% pay rise.

Pro-republic blog Left Foot Forward recently took a dip into the history books, to June 1894, when the future king Edward VIII was born, and the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie, had just been elected. Hardie told the House of Commons, on the occasion of the royal heir’s birth:

“From his childhood onwards this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score, and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over… and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill.” DM

Read more:

  • The royal pregnancy: the strangest stories so far, in the Guardian

Photo: Britain’s Prince Andrew (L), Prince Harry (2nd L), Prince William (R) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Trooping the Colour ceremony in central London June 15, 2013. Trooping the Colour is a ceremony to honour the sovereign’s official birthday. REUTERS/Paul Hackett


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