Prince William has gone and now is the time for segments of the Australian media to sit back, perhaps smoking a cigarette, and consider their relationship with the royal PR machine. If they are honest with themselves, perhaps they will feel a little tawdry. Maybe they will blow out a puff of smoke and start to see that they were used and a bit cheapened by a rapturous week-long love affair with a slick, smooth and debonair foreign PR outfit. An operation that came, conquered without any resistance, and went away without even a parting word.
The relationship got off to, frankly, a weird start when a reporter from Channel Nine’s Today was busted by Aunty ABC handing out “I love William” flags to casual bystanders when only a dismal dozen people waited to welcome the prince at the Auckland Airport arrivals gate. Oh dear; scary and needy.
Then, when William arrived in Australia, he was met at Sydney Airport by scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania. Just kidding. Actually, depending on who you believe — the ABC or Caroline Overington from The Australian — between two dozen and 40 people greeted William at Sydney. This didn’t deter Overington from breathlessly reporting every disappointing second on Twitter.
And for the rest of the tour, the biggest crowd William had at any stage was about 4000 when he went to see the Victorian bushfire victims. At Redfern, there were about 1500. At another walk around: about 2000. On each occasion, undeterred by the small turnout, television footage simply resorted to showing tight crowd shots mostly of the same few people. Just to put this in perspective, a couple of days before William arrived, on the January 17 more than 100,000 fans turned out to see cycling legend Lance Armstrong in the Adelaide CBD. For some reason, this was not widely reported.
By any standard, what we were observing was sensationist media hype. Much of the popular media wanted to portray the tour as significant and William as being loved by Australians, and so that’s precisely what most of them reported. Journalistic principles of perspective, accuracy and balance were shunned in favour of promoting a story that was cheap and easy.
Thankfully, not all media types operate this way. Experienced and savvy reporter Mike Steketee was not so easily won over:
“Even if William revives interest in the monarchy — and despite the hype the Australian crowds were modest — we have a while to wait until that translates into King William, Australia’s head of state,” he said in The Australian.
In Crikey, the subject of the week’s Wankley awards for journalism (not a prestigious award) went to the media’s treatment of William’s visit: “The Australian media’s ‘We Willy willy like you’ response to Prince William’s visit left the Crikey team with little doubt as to what the topic of this week’s Wankley would be.”
Let’s be real, this was a visit by a mid-ranking Royal, who isn’t even next in the line for the throne. So, did he really deserve a four-page souvenir edition spread in the Herald Sun, including hard-hitting analysis of the tour by Jason Donovan (thankfully no relation), who in his piece incisively described William as “… the cool kid on the block that everybody wants to hang out with”.
Well, the future of the monarchy is safe then.
The ultimate winner of the Wankley was, of course, Caroline ‘I love Willy’ Overingon, who doggedly stalked William for his entire tour.
This was the memorable anecdote that eventually won her the prize, writing about William visiting Redfern:
“Imagine for a moment that you are a nine-year-old indigenous girl, and you’ve been told that a handsome young prince is coming to visit you. What would you ask him about?
Little Peneloppee McGrath, who met Prince William on day one of his three-day Australian tour in Sydney’s Redfern yesterday, didn’t hesitate.
“Does your grandmother live in a big castle?” she asked.
“She does,” replied the prince.
“The exchange was one of many that will linger long in the memories of more than 30 delighted indigenous children, and hundreds of other Australians, who met Prince William at the Redfern Community Centre yesterday.”
But what should give all Australians cause for pause is the universal portrayal of Prince William as Prince Charming. With a few exceptions, including the Australian Women’s Weekly and Mx magazine, who refused to cover the tour, the Australian media uniformly portrayed William as charming. In return, Prince William was so charmingly enamoured of the Australian media that he wouldn’t allow them to come within 50 metres of him. His minders were issued with instructions to keep all media behind the barricades and that under no circumstances were they permitted to ask him any questions.
We did but see him walking by …
Now, maybe I am a downright fool, but I would imagine it is really rather difficult to determine if someone is a real charmer unless you actually have some sort of discourse — y’know, a few words — with the person in question. But this didn’t deter our credulous old Australian media contingent, who were quite content to faithfully report how gosh-darned super-terrific William was on the basis of not much. Careful analysis of what they found out about William comes down to the two means. First, they scratched up a few fleeting second-hand words, relayed to them from the handful of well-wishers or VIPs who actually had some contact with William. Other than that, they made judgements on William’s charm entirely on the basis of body-language. Yes, it appears William had very charming body-language.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the media are willing to forego balance, objectivity and perspective when faced with celebrity. It is, after all, an easy story to write, with generally attractive photos or vision, and is sure to appeal to that that segment of society interested in movie and rock star romances and break-ups, drug binges and driving misdemeanours. Royalty slots easily into this genre.
What is surprising, then, is the way seasoned journalists have been taken in by the hype.
Andrew Dodd is one such reporter who you would think would be experienced enough to see through the hype, having worked — according to his bio — for many of the major Australian media organisations at one time or another over the past 20 years, as well as currently being a media lecturer at Swinburne University.
According to Dodd’s recent article in Crikey, Prince William’s visit to Australia has set Australian republicanism back years. And apparently, I didn’t help the cause when I was interviewed by the 7:30 Report.
“The cause was not helped yesterday by the performance of David Donovan from the Australian Republican Movement. I reckon he’s misread the mood and underestimated what he’s dealing with. Last night on the 7.30 Report he came across as one of those dislikeable backroom party branch stackers.
He said: “We don’t think Prince William’s visit is very relevant. I mean Prince William is not even the next in line to the Australian or English throne, him coming over here, we think, is really nothing much more than a PR exercise. This is a person who is only 27 years old. He has no real major achievements or experience in life that is of great benefit to Australians.”
He continues on to say that what I should have told everyone was how charming William was.
“Jack the Insider” in The Australian said something eerily similar:
“On the day that Prince William visited the fire-ravaged community of Marysville, media director for the Australian Republican Movement, David Donovan issued this thunderously stupid statement: “We don’t think Prince William’s visit is very relevant. I mean Prince William is not even the next in line to the Australian or English throne. Him coming over here, we think, is really nothing much more than a PR exercise. This is a person who is only 27 years old. He has no real major achievements or experience in life that is of great benefit to Australians.”
Way to judge the mood of the nation, Dave. Sure the visit was a PR exercise. That is what the Windsors do. And for the most part, I have to admit, they do it pretty well.”
He carries on to say that what I should have done is told everyone possible, well, how charming William was.
Leaving aside the obvious plagiarism (providing Jack is not actually Andrew Dodd) I tend to disagree, chiefly because the argument presented is a complete and utter load of old cobblers.
I am a part of the Australian Republican Movement, and it isn’t my job to applaud William for not falling off a boat, or not knowing how to barbie, or playing cricket poorly, or whatever part of his body-language it was that that so charmed the media. The last thing most people, surely, would want or expect is for me to join the love-in. I wasn’t rude, merely honest. Like most Australians, I don’t feel one way or another about William, I don’t think about him at all if I can help it and I’m not going to engage in media spin for the sheer disingenuous sake of it.
And if my statement was so “thunderously stupid”, and so galling to Australians, why was it that apart from these two articles, the only criticism I have received was one email from a fanatical monarchist. I suspect quite strongly that most Australians, being republicans, agreed that the attention William got from the media was galaxies over the top and may have appreciated some well needed context and a few salient points being added to the debate.
There was no call for me to add the overflowing drum of media hyperbole surrounding William. Surely, as a republican, it would be better for me to calmly and rationally represent the views of the vast majority of the Australian population: republicans. These are the people largely unrepresented by the media while William was in Sydney and Melbourne.
The Palace PR machine, let’s make no mistake, calmly and deliberately set out to seduce the Australian media, was successful, and then attempted to use to it to influence Australian public opinion. I believe they were unsuccessful in the second part of their plan, but if this form of foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs is not an argument for a republic, then I’m not sure what is.
Dodd says the cause of republicanism has been set back for years by William’s visit. The truth is that we are in just the same position we were before the Australian media so eagerly disrobed. A Newspoll after the tour suggested that 44% of Australians were in favour of a republic, with 27% against and 29% undecided. I’m not sure what question was asked that resulted in such an aberrantly high undecided vote, but the margin between republicans and monarchists is wider than ever, according to this poll. Let’s not forget, in Australia we have compulsory voting, so if even half the undecided swing our way, which is conservative, that’s about 59% of the Australian public voting for a republic. In other words, this result is exactly what it was under the previous UMR polling done in October 2009.
Context: William’s visit was a visit by someone a famous person unfamiliar to Australians, not by someone most people would identify as their future head of state, or saviour of the monarchy. Hopefully, after its shameless and indiscreet display during William’s visit, the Australian media will be able to gather its self respect and look at the experience with the benefit of experience and move on.