Monday, May 27, 2019

Scorned British tabloids to Harry and Meghan: Show us your baby!

  • >>Ellen Barry, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-04-17 13:45:56 BdST

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Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex leave after the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, on Commonwealth Day, in London, Britain Mar 11, 2019. REUTERS

Of the various press rituals surrounding the British royal family, few are sillier than the vigil outside a London maternity ward, where squadrons of news reporters wait on the street, sometimes for hours or days, for a woman to go into labour.

What follows is bedlam: Bookmakers with blackboards, updating the odds on names, tipsy monarchists, and, for a crowd of exasperated journalists, the opportunity to photograph a few inches of exposed royal baby before the child is whisked away to a palace.

The only thing worse, it seems, is not being able to photograph the new-born at all.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, known more widely as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, last week announced that they were cancelling the traditional photo opportunity, and that they would instead share their own photos of the newborn, known in the business as “Baby Sussex,” after they had “had an opportunity to celebrate privately as a new family.”

This did not go down well with the press, which reported the decision as a departure from more than 40 years of tradition.

The Sun, Britain’s highest-circulation tabloid, chided the couple for infringing on “our royal rights.”

“Keeping the nation in the dark over details, even after the birth, is a bad look for the royal couple,” the newspaper’s unsigned editorial said on April 12. “The public has a right to know about the lives of those largely funded by their taxes. You can accept that, or be private citizens. Not both.”

In interviews, journalists were more raw.

“It’s the way Harry is at the moment, he’s just got this bee in his bonnet that all the media are to be ignored,” said Arthur Edwards, 78, a photographer for The Sun, who has covered the births of five royal babies, including Harry, at the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital.

“Harry used to be the best of all of them,” Edwards said. “We’d get together in a pub and we’d talk about everything, get it off our plate. It would be frank and open, and you never reported it. Now, it’s not even ‘Good morning.’ Nothing. He treats us just like telegraph poles now.”

The new couple’s decision to exclude the press from their baby’s birth is hardly a surprise to anyone who has been keeping track. Last year, Harry and Meghan allowed only one reporter inside St George’s Chapel for their wedding, which came as a crushing blow to publications that were giving the wedding saturation coverage.

This coldness toward photographers is understood to come from Harry, who was 12 when his mother was killed in a car crash, as her driver tried to escape paparazzi on motorcycles.

The trouble with excluding the press — rewriting the rules of an old, symbiotic relationship — is that the press has a way of getting its own back. By old tradition, coverage of the royals oscillates between sycophantic and brutal, avidly milking story lines about their laziness, profligacy, debauchery or low intelligence. And the ill will of newspaper editors, like the scorned fairy not invited to the princess’s christening in “Sleeping Beauty,” could hover for years around the family.

“This is the shattering of a tradition that goes back for decades,” said one senior journalist, who would discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity. “There is a price to be paid for that, and that price is mockery.”

Coverage of the Sussexes, in recent weeks, has not been kind. A Daily Mail columnist last week lampooned Harry for teaming up with Oprah Winfrey for a television series about mental health.

“Her homespun brand of half-boiled New Age spirituality, spiked with neoliberal politics and inspirational hokum, plays well with fridge-magnet philosophers like Harry and Meghan,” wrote the columnist, Jan Moir, who went on to pillory the couple, in more earnest tones, for refusing to display the baby to photographers.

“While a new baby is a deeply personal and private event, a royal baby is also a totem of national celebration, a beacon of British joy,” she wrote. “What is the point of royals unless we can celebrate their baby royals in a totally bonkers British orgy of bunting, popping corks and knitted bootees? Two or three days later, it just won’t be the same.”

Then she went in for the kill. “Perhaps Oprah has snapped up the exclusive first-look baby rights?” she inquired. “I wouldn’t put it past her. Or them.”

The beef with the press has taken on a trans-Atlantic tinge, with Markle’s supporters pushing back in frontal American fashion. In February, five of the Duchess’s friends defended her against “global bullying” in an interview with People Magazine, a move that reportedly surprised her royal handlers. Then, movie star George Clooney spoke up in her defence, telling a group of journalists that she had been “pursued and vilified and chased in the same way that Diana was and it’s history repeating itself.”

This charge rankled even the gentlest of the royal reporters. Valentine Low, who covers the family for The Times of London, derided these allegations as “utter fantasy,” and said many Americans fail to understand the traditional push-and-pull of royal coverage.

“The problem is that in some quarters, particularly in the US, any negative coverage is seen as racist,” he wrote. “To listen to some US networks is to gain the impression that the British media is racist, sexist, snobbish and determined to gang up on any outsider who has the temerity to join the royal family.”

Edwards, the Sun photographer, was more mournful than angry.

“I photographed Harry when he came out in Diana’s arms, and I would like to have photographed him when he came out with his own baby,” he said. “It’s a joyful occasion, with betting companies coming around with names on a board, it’s a rather big event.”

He said Harry remained extremely popular with readers.

“I feel a bit sad for him,” he said. “Because he’s becoming morose.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service