LONDON – Outside the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, the global media hordes on Royal Baby Watch have marked their turf with duct tape and stepladders like so many predators. But starved for material in a world where Mother Nature and Buckingham Palace are the last two holdouts from the 24-hour news cycle, loitering reporters trying to set a tone of breathless anticipation have resorted to interviewing each other.
Perhaps nothing could be more appropriate. As Prince William and his wife, Catherine , the Duchess of Cambridge — formerly known as Kate Middleton — prepare to carve out a new life for their budding family in the glare of the spotlight, the press is poised to be a major part of the story.
The scene here amounts to a déjà vu of June 22, 1982. Then, another young couple — Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales — stepped out of the same wing of the same hospital with an infant William and into what would become a stormy, love-hate relationship with the press (and each other) that would come to define palace politics for decades. Some — including, reportedly, William — still blame the media for Diana’s 1997 death in a Paris car crash during a chase with rabid paparazzi.
To be sure, the British tabloid press is a different beast today, as is the palace PR machine, with one more tame and self-restraining and the other far more professional and controlling. Nevertheless, the media and inquiring minds on both sides of the Atlantic might be in for a rude awakening as they clamor for a piece of the glamorous couple after baby makes three.
After a brief choreography for the cameras as the couple leave the lavish hospital wing with their newborn, royal watchers say they might disappear for while, or least try.
The move to escape the public eye as they set about becoming parents could mark the beginning of what observers are describing as an attempt by the couple to build a far more private life than the one constructed by William’s parents.
“This will be very different from watching William grow up, and it has a lot to do with the characters this time around,” said Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now a journalism professor at City University in London. “William hates the press and will show even less accommodation once the baby is born, and Kate, unlike Diana, is clearly very shy of doing anything that would breach palace secrecy.”
For the press, any retrenchment by the young couple couldn’t come at a worst time. Cover stories and inside montages of Shopping Kate, Official Kate, even Dog-Walking Kate have driven print sales and online hits in a manner not seen since Diana’s heyday. The feeding has been no less frenzied in the United States. Since 2011′s blockbuster royal wedding, the Duchess has graced the cover of People magazine more times than any other celebrity.
When innocuous and orchestrated — say, a Will-and-Kate wand duel at the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside London — that publicity is just what the doctor ordered for a House of Windsor looking to endear a 21st-century monarchy to the public. But royal coverage has, at least in the palace’s eyes, veered dangerously off course on occasion, suggesting the thin ice separating now from the days of behind-the-bushes press.
Think, for example, Unauthorized Photos of Topless Kate, as seen last year in the gossiping press from Paris to New York. Even British publications, cowed after Diana’s death and facing a massive public backlash from a phone-hacking scandal, have skirted the line. Recently, the Daily Mail sicked no less than three reporters on the Duchess’s home turf of Berkshire to sniff out details on royal-baby cravings that only the most lurid reader would demand to know. (Okay, okay. Sour candies and vegetable curry.)
The challenge domestically to keeping a lid on the helicopter flyovers and bugged baby buggies, said Richard Palmer, royal correspondent for the Daily Express, is the wild card of foreign competition at a time when the couple have reached beyond even Hollywoodesque celebrity.
Limits in Britain on reporting that a woman is pregnant before she reaches her 12th week, for example, meant that U.S. commentators were buzzing about the “royal baby bump” before the domestic press could seriously enter the fray. And in a world where European and American tabloids unbeholden to the palace don’t always play by the rules — and where everyone with a smartphone is a potential paparazzo — the British press is fearing the worst. Will the casual shots offered up by the palace of the Duchess walking Lupo, her black cocker spaniel, on the grounds of Kensington Palace be sharply cut back once she’s walking with a stroller instead?
“We’re treading a tightrope all the time with the royal couple, and that’s only going to get thinner with the baby,” Palmer said. “One of the things we worry about is that we’re very unlikely to run snatched pictures of the baby in the coming months, but what happens if the Australians and the Americans do? When readers can go anywhere now, how will that hurt us?”
In the search for privacy, Will and Kate might be swimming against the tide. Whereas the notion of a fairy tale and, later, a train wreck of a relationship drove public interest in Charles and Diana, the image of a modern young couple — at once accessible and a world apart, and seemingly able to do no wrong — appears to be driving the story. That interest seems set only to grow after the addition of the littlest Windsor.
Compounding that is commercial pressure for every detail of their life. A photo of the Duchess leaving a retail store with a white baby basket sent sales of similar items soaring. Ditto after the mere whiff of a rumor that she had chosen a sky-blue stroller.
Pundits have called on her to “set an example” to women everywhere by breast-feeding. And the hot story line is that she isn’t “too posh to push” — as some had suggested — and will opt for natural childbirth. The question, many here say, is where to draw the line between reasonable privacy and duty to chronicle the royal family?
In some ways, William’s upbringing might be a model for a modern couple who most view as wanting to follow a path similar to Diana’s — she fiercely guarded the privacy of her sons but also wanted them to grow up as normal as possible. She took them on outings to McDonald’s and Disneyland. And unlike Charles, who went to a boarding school in Scotland, she and Charles sent William to the closer, if still quintessentially highbrow, Eton College near London. While William was at Eton, the family struck a deal with the tabloid press: They would back off in exchange for periodic updates on his life.
But will those periodic updates be quite as periodic with the baby, who will be third in line to the throne, regardless of the sex? During William’s early years, Arthur Edwards, a dean of the royal press corps who works for London’s Sun newspaper and is credited with a number of the most famous shots of Diana, recalls regular press calls by the palace for photo opportunities with William. There was the baptism. The day he took his first steps. His first international trip. But while Will and Kate will need and probably want a photo documentary of the life of a child who would be monarch, Edwards and others believe those calls are likely to be fewer and farther between.
“I don’t think we will get quite that access,” he said. “I suspect they will be more private.”