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The Wedding Dog That Barked

27 April 2011

12:40 AM

27 April 2011

12:40 AM

That, Watson, was the remarkable thing about the Royal Wedding: the dog barked and still no-one heard it. You can scarcely open a paper this week without encountering yet another thumbsucker on the future of the monarchy. Most of these, such as this New York Times effort from John Burns, suggest the old ship needs urgent repairs. Frequently this will be accompanied by yet another piece complaining that the press is devoting far too much attention to the whole anachronistic palaver. Someone, somewhere will complain this week that they’ve yet to meet anyone at all interested in Prince William’s marriage. This will echo Pauline Kael’s complaint that she’d never encountered a Nixon voter. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that, at best, the show is being put on for elderly wurzels, corn chandlers and backwoodsmen none of whom could be said to be much "in touch "with what modern Britain is supposed to stand for. The whole show, with all its pomp and excess, is ridiculous only when it isn’t busy being absurd. That’s the impression given by some of the coverage anyway. (Christpher Hitchens’ splendid blast is also, it might be observed, dripping with snobbery.)

And yet actually and quietly and gallingly for some, the people are interested in the wedding. A Guardian poll this week, published with some misgivings one likes to think, tries to spin this interest away but is forced to concede that 47% of the British population plan to watch at least some of the television coverage of the wedding on Friday. That is, by any measure, a strikingly large percentage of the population.

In 1981 Charles and Diana’s wedding attracted a television audience of roughly half the UK population at the time. Their son’s wedding seems likely to do nearly as well and be by some distance the most-watched television event since Diana’s funeral. That’s quite something. Moreover, it means that as a "mass event" the wedding is only rivalled by general elections. Sure, voting requires more effort than watching a TV broadcast but, I repeat, there’s almost nothing or no other event that could command such an audience. Perhaps the only thing that could would be England playing in a World Cup final. Royal Weddings come along more often than that.

This being so, it’s daft to complain about too much coverage. The public is interested in this. To complain about the coverage is, in some sense, to make the case that journalism should only be concerned with matters that are in the public interest. But unless journalism also panders to – that is, serves – the things in which the public is actually interested there will be no "public interest" journalism at all.

In any case, the marriage of the future head of state satisfies both parts of the journalistic equation. Hitch cites Thomas Paine’s observation that a hereditary monarch is as absurd as a hereditary mathematician or a hereditary doctor. Nevermind that a) there are hereditary doctors (and hereditary plumbers too, now you mention it) and b) there’s all the difference in the world between a hereditary monarch will real political power and one in which that power has been diverted to parliament and the executive. Paine’s point has been ruined by history.

And by custom. Monarchy may not satisfy a keen rationalist but abandoning something that works simply because it doesn’t "make sense" doesn’t make much sense either. Nor, with the possible exception of Ireland, am I persuaded that any of the countries that have replaced monarchy have really come up with alternative arrangements that are vastly or obviously preferable. How could they when most often these arrangements are designed to offer the convenience of monarchy, only stripped of most of its advantages?

That seems to be a sentiment shared by many of their own people too. Sure, the American take on the wedding is, um, eccentric but it seems even the French are not immune to the fascination this whole show seems to command:

Since the engagement was announced in November, media coverage has been building. Point de Vue, a popular weekly magazine, has been focusing on little else. It normally sells 200,000 copies a week but its chief editor, Colombe Pringle, expects the wedding special this week to sell 750,000. Other rivals like Paris Match have also been publishing commemorative editions. Le Figaro, one of the most popular dailies, offered a 79-page special entitled: “So British.”
On French television, three major channels — TF1, France 2 and M6 — will show the ceremony live.
Olivier Debeugny, 37, who lives in the Paris region and works in insurance, said that his mother and aunt would be glued to their set at home in Lille on Friday. “I have no idea why,” he said, “and I’m not sure that they could tell you why, either.”

Quite. But they will and so will millions others. It’s a big world out there and there’s plenty of room for those who want no part of any of it and plenty of TV channels for them to watch too. But the suggestion, implicit in some of the commentary, that few people are interested in the wedding is not supported by the facts. On the contrary, few events are followed by as many people. That’s the real story and it’s a much stranger, more interesting, more human one than the idea that people aren’t or shouldn’t be interested in this.

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