As soon as the royal baby story hit the wires, up popped the “live coverage” feeds on the Guardian and Telegraph news sites.
It’s the “only story that anybody on the royal beat is going to be working on for the next nine months,” declared the Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner. He predicted “feverish” coverage of the pregnancy before pronouncing it “the most anticipated baby since Prince William himself.”
But even as reporters and camera crews huddled outside the hospital where Kate was being treated for extreme morning sickness, anxious for more news (William leaving the building was about as dramatic as it got), British MPs were busy debating a controversial plan to reel in the more zealous members of the press.
The Leveson report calls for greater scrutiny of the media through a new independent regulatory body, backed up by legislation. It stems from the Leveson inquiry, the government’s response to the British phone-hacking scandal. Prime Minister David Cameron has welcomed the idea of a low-cost body to handle libel disputes, levy fines and even demand apologies. But, wary of too much legislative meddling, he dumped the file onto the desks of Fleet Street editors. Come up with a plan, he warned them, or expect a new press law.
Into this “new era” of press regulation drops a royal baby. “Clearly the whole political background will have an impact on how this pregnancy is covered,” said Richard Palmer, royal correspondent for the Daily Express.
The royal family and the phone-hacking scandal are inextricably linked. In 2007, the royal editor of the now defunct News of the World and a private investigator employed by the paper became the first people convicted and jailed for phone hacking after they intercepted the messages of members of the royal household.
“The press has been more restrained partly because of the political climate here regarding the press and intrusion and privacy issues,” Palmer said.
But the public’s appetite for royal baby news hovers around the all-you-can-eat level, and the story marks a commercial conundrum. “There are topless pictures of the duchess of Cambridge published, and the reaction is: ‘This is outrageous. Where can I see those pictures?’ ”
As the elder son of Diana, princess of Wales, prepares for fatherhood, the British press is still “tarred with the brush of 15 or 20 years ago,” Palmer noted. “What’s stronger is a fear of the backlash from readers if your paper goes too far in this coverage, and that’s where Diana comes back into play. If any paper was perceived by the public to be doing what they did to Diana, that could have a negative impact on sales figures.”
The Queen’s former PR man said that so far, the press has used restraint. “Yes, they’re outside the hospital, but there is nothing to say and there is nothing to photograph,” said Dickie Arbiter, who was press spokesperson for the Queen until 2000. With the parade of morning-sickness experts and rumours of twins, the media is “pumping it up a bit.”
“They’re looking for a story, because there isn’t one.” (Aside from the fact that a new heir to the throne has been conceived.) “I think the media have gone easy,” he added. “They’re not intruding whatsoever.”
These, then, appear to be the “new” boundaries for Britain’s press: feel free to set up camp outside the hospital, just don’t walk inside, notebook hidden in a white coat, hoping to be confused for a doctor.
If and when a pregnant Kate makes a public appearance, she must expect clicking cameras. “All other times, she is entitled to her privacy,” said Arbiter, “and I think she’s going to get it.”