British media taking it easy on William and Kate
Pre-wedding coverage tamer than past reporting on royals
As media around the world prepare to jet off to London this week to cover the royal wedding, it's worth noting that while substantial, press coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in their own country has been more subdued and gentler in tone than past reporting on royal goings-on.
Some attribute this change to the stricter privacy and harassment guidelines the British print media adopted after Princess Diana's death in 1997, which was largely blamed on a paparazzi pursuit in a Paris road tunnel.
Others see it as a product of the less antagonistic, mutually beneficial relationship that now exists between the palace and the media, who are fed details about wedding preparations and given occasional access to the couple in exchange for keeping their distance when it comes to their private lives.
U.K. media watcher Ben Dowell sees it as a combination of more media-savvy palace PR staff and the inherent blandness of the bride and groom.
"I don't think there's much of a story there," said Dowell, a freelance journalist who writes about media for the Guardian newspaper and other U.K. publications. "Even if you were looking for dirt, I don't think you'd find any. They're quite boring people. They're very conventional."
To date, the couple's handlers have made sure to give the media just enough information to keep their readers happy, but not enough to cause any blowback on the royals themselves.
"The people who are around the senior royals now are much younger and a bit more savvy than they were 10, 20 years ago," said Dowell. "I get the feeling they're playing quite a clever symbiotic game with the papers, in that they're giving them little sniffs of things."
That has meant most of the pre-wedding coverage so far has been highly speculative and lacking the bite of the royal stories of the 1980s and '90s, when, Dowell points out, the stakes were much higher for the royals, who were often pursuing the media as aggressively as the media were pursuing them.
'Persistent pursuit' discouraged
When they have dug a little deeper into William and Kate's private lives, the media have been promptly slapped on the wrist. Earlier this month, when photos of Middleton's mother and sister out shopping appeared in some papers, representatives of the Middleton family contacted the Press Complaints Commission, the print media's watchdog agency, to voice their concern about media harassment. The commission issued a reminder to media to respect the voluntary Editors' Code of Practice that governs their profession, although it stressed that the family had not lodged a formal complaint.
"We didn't take a judgment; we passed on concerns in a way that we would in similar cases, whoever it involved — from royalty right down to any commoner," said the commission's director of communications, Jonathan Collett.
Collett said the changes made to the Code of Practice after Diana's death have definitely affected how media cover the Royal Family, especially with respect to the use of photographs. The changes, brought in by the commission in 1998, expanded the code's harassment clause to include a ban on information or pictures obtained through "persistent pursuit" and underlined editors' responsibility to not publish such material regardless of whether it was provided by their own staff or freelancers.
"It's clearly making them think that they have an obligation to find out the origins and source of any photographs they might use," Collett said of the changes. "That was a significant strengthening [of the code], and it was clearly in the light of what happened in Paris."
The revised code also broadened the definition of what constitutes a private place to include both public and private spaces "where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy."
And while the code itself may be voluntary, the privacy and harassment provisions in it have largely been enacted into British law — with the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998 and the Protection from Harassment Act in 1997.
Middletons complain of harassment
It is with the strength of those legal protections behind her that Kate Middleton has on several occasions taken on the media over perceived breaches of privacy. Last year, she threatened to sue two photo agencies over harassment and breach of privacy after she was photographed playing tennis while on holiday over Christmas 2009. The photos never appeared in the U.K., but Middleton nevertheless won damages and an apology from Rex Features, the agency that syndicated the photos internationally.
She also lodged a formal complaint of harassment with the Press Complaints Commission in 2007, when a photo of her on her way to work was published in the Daily Mirror, and obtained a public apology from the tabloid. Earlier that same year, several U.K. tabloids stopped running paparazzi photos after receiving letters of warning from Middleton's lawyers complaining about photographers scrumming their client on her 25th birthday.
The chilling effect of those precedents and the fear of losing access to the couple partly accounts for the media's tame treatment of William and Kate, but equally important, says Dowell, has been a prevailing reluctance to spoil a "good news" story at a time rife with bad news.
"They've been quite well behaved and haven't snooped around too much," he said of the usually rabid British tabloid press. "I think they're not trying to detract from the kind of positive feel about it."
Newspaper editors are getting enough mileage out of the few wedding details they do have to not want to risk angering readers by digging for dirt.
"People are quite — surprisingly, to my mind — quite supportive of the whole thing," Dowell said of the public's attitude toward the wedding and surrounding hubbub. "There isn't the cynicism there. It may come in time."
It's also possible that the U.K. media have been chastened by the backlash over the phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World. The scandal erupted when it came to light that the paper's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, had hired a private investigator to hack into the voicemail of aides to Prince William and Prince Harry in 2005 and 2006. Subsequent investigations suggested the eavesdropping extended beyond the royals to possibly hundreds of celebrities, politicians and other public figures and involved several journalists at the tabloid — although only Goodman and the investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were ever convicted in connection with the affair.
The scandal led to the resignation of the tabloid's editor, Andy Coulson, several lawsuits and calls for a wider inquiry into and tighter regulation of media practices.
Only BBC to film inside Abbey
As restrained as the media may have been up to now, however, there is no doubt they will be out in force on April 29. About 8,000 TV and radio journalists and related staff are expected to cover the wedding. Most major news organizations are devoting significant resources and air time to the event, with many planning close to 24 hours of programming on the day of. The BBC will reportedly have 400 staff on the wedding beat, and CNN will beef up its London bureau by about 50 people for the occasion.
An estimated two billion viewers are expected to watch the wedding on television (although some skeptics predict viewership will be far below that and possibly not even hit the one billion mark). If the two billion estimate is accurate, it will far exceed the audience of 750 million thought to have tuned in for Prince Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981.
The entire ceremony, except the signing of the registers, will be broadcast from within Westminster Abbey although the bulk of the media won't actually be allowed inside. Instead, they will be getting their images and sound from pooled live feeds provided by the BBC, which will be the only broadcaster filming inside the Abbey, and the British commercial news networks ITN and Sky News, which will provide footage from the procession route between the Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Foreign broadcasters are reportedly paying dearly to access these videos feeds as well as other pre-packaged wedding content, local studios, editing suites and prime vantage points along the procession route.
There will also be print journalists inside the Abbey, although fewer than were inside St. Paul's Cathedral for Charles and Diana's wedding — about 20 to 30 compared to more than 100 for the 1981 ceremony, according to palace spokesman Paddy Harverson.
"That was at the request of Prince William and Catherine," Harverson said. "They wanted to accommodate as many guests as possible."
Most media will have their broadcast centres set up outside Canada Gate at Buckingham Palace where workers have been busily erecting scaffolding and clearing sight lines for weeks already.
The ceremony will be shown live on giant screens erected at Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square and streamed on the official royal wedding website. That site will also have instantaneous updates and supplementary information about what people are seeing as they see it, said Harverson. As soon as Kate's dress is visible, for example, the site will have information about its designer and other details, he said.
Other than those interactive elements, however, it will be business as usual.
"The blueprint for previous royal weddings is very much similar to what we're using for this," Harverson said. "Other than adapting the media situation with a lot more use of different forms of media — online, digital media — it's a very traditional British royal wedding."
Or, as Dowell somewhat less diplomatically puts it: "At the end of the day, it's a bloody wedding. People are getting married. It's not that interesting, is it?"