The Wedding Dog That Barked

27 April 2011

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.

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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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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Thought is good.

  • Brigid Courtney

    I admit it I loved the Royal wedding, it was like a fairy tale, and my inner child enjoyed it

  • Jen

    “…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.”
    I think you meant “hereditary monarch WITH…”

  • Gerry

    Americans perceive the British Royals as representative of ALL royals. Having grown up in a monarchy myself (Netherlands)I can categorically say that this is about as false as is the fact that the Queen is the head of State. She is NOT. Britains head of State is the Prime Minister. The Royals are mere figure heads (known as the Firm) and are told what to do and when, without any power whatsoever. The Queen of Holland, a Constitutional monarch, on the other hand, is a part of the Dutch Government and does have a say.So does the King of Belgium, although they are doing their level best to get rid of him.
    The Queen of Holland has long understood that Monarchies are by and large no longer relevant in todays society. She therefore works very hard to make her presence relevant, and she succeeds. Therefore she is highly esteemed, loved and respected. She holds, like her mother and grandmother, a Constitutional Law degree and is an expert in the field. The British Royals are a dysfuntional lot, arrogant, womanizing and not particularly endowed with much between the ears. They are, to folks on the European Continent, the laughing stock. They are known as the Peyton Place of Royals.
    So why anyone should be interested in what will surely become the next British debacle is beyond me. There is no reason to believe that William does not fit the mold in which he was raised or why he should be breaking a pattern so prevalent amongst the British royals. If there is one Royal family that the world would not miss it is the Windsor Alias von Sachse-Coburg Cotha. They are a drain on the British purse.

  • Andrew Fletcher

    Britain as Heritage Theme Park

    Economy flatlines but at least there’s the Royal Family to cheer us all up gawd luv em

    I think the old saying is right, “As Germany looks happily into the future, Britain looks comfortably into the past!”

  • Fergus Pickering

    You will doubtless be delighted to know, Ian Walker, that you have lighted on W.H. Auden’s recipe for government. Poets know, you know.

  • Ian Walker

    go to bed at noon: go a step further – have someone from the jury list picked at random to be head of state – perhaps a five-year training period, followed by a five-year appointment.

  • and I’ll go to bed at noon

    I’m all on board with constitutional monarchy in the abstract; the ceremonial duties of state should be as separate as possible from party politics. I just wish we weren’t stuck with this monarchy. The Windsor family, with one or two honourable exceptions, are a shower of repressed, neurotic, graceless philistines whose obscene, unearned privilege is a living insult to the British sense of fair play.

    I propose the Buckley-esque solution of picking a family at random from the general public and giving them the crown. Could hardly do worse than the status quo.

  • Alan Scott

    It would be interesting to know what the full-and I mean full-cost of one of these Multinational Junkets in Switzerland or New York, as compared with the Royal Wedding; and to make a cost-benefit comparison. Junkets many times a year; Royal Weddings say on average once every 10 years?
    Note that I give both events the favour of Capital Letters.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Snobbery is all-embracing. We are a nation of snobs. Modern snobs revile the Royal Wedding because it is common, to use a word common in my young days.

  • Anthony Zacharzewski

    @revolution aggressive posturing and name-calling about something irrelevant to the main event? You’ve summed up 90% of the media coverage in one bilious phrase.

  • revolution

    The best news so far is that Tony the phony Blair and Gordon the clown Brown are not invited.

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