By DENIS MULLER
Seventeen minutes they gave it on Channel Seven’s evening news. A one-fact story: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have given birth to a boy (later named George), who will be third in line to the British (and Australian) throne. Well, alright, three facts.
But how the media stretched those out. Public reaction, official reaction, political reaction, family reaction, commentary from “experts” in parenting. And finally the endless speculation: when would we get our first glimpse of the baby? What name would be chosen? Would he visit Australia?
All standard stuff for what the media know to be a big story. But why is it a big story? To find the answer, we need to rummage around in a collection of instinctual, semi-rational, occasionally rational and sometimes magical artifacts called “news values”. The royal baby story generates quite an array.
The first is “cultural proximity”, allied in this case to “fame by being royal”. This is a mighty powerful combination. They are the ingredients in the alchemy that creates the editorial gold of royal births, weddings, break-ups, love affairs, scandals, anniversaries, deaths and funerals.
Cultural proximity is a bloodless term for something that is really very warm-blooded. It is about the closeness we feel to people with whom we closely identify, who are like “us”.
We feel we know them well, even at a distance. We feel we understand them and they understand us, and no words are needed to explain why. We go back a long way. We share interests and traditions. We share important values. We share ties of blood.
Cultural proximity between Australians of Anglo-Irish descent and Britain and Ireland is close. It is why, for example, the terrorist attack on the London underground in 2005 that killed 52 civilians received more extensive coverage in Australia than a similar attack on the Madrid train service in 2004 that killed 191.
“Fame by being royal” is a sub-category of a bigger news value – prominence – that has to do with power, authority, prestige and celebrity. The royal family embodies all these. Seen in this light, the attention given to the royal baby has a rational aspect: it concerns Australia’s head of state, since he is an heir to that position. But it would be a mistake to think that this was any more than a third-order factor in news decisions about the Prince of Cambridge.
Of greater importance by far is the media’s instinctive understanding of the emotional investment that many Australians still repose in the British royal family. This amplifies the cultural proximity effect many times over. We know this emotional investment exists because of the addiction to royal stories by women’s magazines, an addiction that derives entirely from circulation. It’s not as though the royal family are big advertisers.