HONG KONG – So, quite quickly, we learned the name of the new British Prince of Cambridge. He is George Alexander Louis, or a boy named GAL — an interesting thought. Rarely, maybe never, in the ages of media commentary has so much empty hot air been expended by so many people over something so insignificant.
I am referring specifically to BBC World television coverage of the arrival of George Alexander Louis, which was wall to wall with gush and coo and mush, morning to night, for hours and days before the 8-pound-6-ounce (3.8 kg) boy emerged, and then rejuvenated for days after his birth with mindless prattling about what he would look like when he finally appeared. Would he look more like Kate or William (surely that is lese majeste to talk of the duke and duchess as if they were the BBC’s own children).
It was a disgrace. Lord Chris Patten as the chairman of the BBC Trust should call in Lord Tony Hall, the director general, show him a world map and point to the insignificance of the United Kingdom in the global scheme of things. He should urge him not to squander the reputation of BBC World by pushing parochial British matters.
“The eyes of the world are on London,” trilled one newsreader.
What total garbage: Tens of millions of people in Brazil were more interested in the visit of Pope Francis; Indians were anxious about the safety of food being fed to their schoolchildren; Japanese were wondering how Shinzo Abe will cope with his new power as prime minister with a parliamentary majority; Chinese were worried about their precarious economy; millions in the Middle East were trying to stay out of harm’s way; and several billions of people were preoccupied with their daily survival in turbulent economic times.
“There is only one story,” claimed another newsreader, ignoring the fact that The Guardian had another political story on its front page; and that the Financial Times thought that the admission by GlaxoSmithKline that some of its executives may have breached China’s laws was of much more moment than the birth of a baby who in 50 years time may get the lead role in a 300-year-old fancy dress pageant.
It was not the first time that the BBC has lost its sense of reality. The wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher were other recent occasions when the corporation forgot the rest of the world to play host to the British pageant of pomp and ceremony that means nothing to the real world and less still to the rest of the world. But on those occasions there was something to see — good music and beautiful people as well as the opportunity to watch the crocodile tears of Thatcher’s opponents, who at least saw her off.
This time, there was nothing to see — just empty stages outside St. Mary’s Hospital and outside Buckingham Palace filled with hundreds of hungry news hounds speculating on when the baby would make an appearance, what sex it would be and what it would be called. They were kept waiting for four hours after the actual birth to receive the public announcement so that the royal couple could practice their bonding with the newborn.
At least BBC reporter Simon McCoy had the grace to admit after seven hours of the farce that “Plenty more to come from here of course, none of it news.” He paused then added, “… because that’ll come from Buckingham Palace. But that won’t stop us.”
Yes, the British royal family has a big following, not only in the U.K. but also in the former colony of the United States. The sight of hundreds of people gawping and taking pictures of an easel just inside the railings of Buckingham Palace with a single piece of paper and four indecipherable signatures on it, testifies to how royalty fills a gap in too many empty lives.
Experts on branding say that the British monarchy is worth £53 billion, and the birth of the new prince may add another billion or so to the British economy this year. That shows the power of marketing and the gullibility of too many people. But for most of the coverage, there was no prince; and even when he appeared, it was a brief not even a walk-on part with no speaking lines. In the fullness of his years, the prince will not command armies or make momentous political decisions. Few people will bless him for their daily bread or rice.
Perhaps by broadcasting endlessly on BBC World, the domestic BBC was able to push some of the costs of coverage onto the global channel. Shame on both.
Patten should surely be worried for the reputation of the BBC. The BBC is the last still sparkling jewel of a vanished empire, but it is losing its luster. The coverage of the prince was at the extreme of two tendencies: the assumption by domestic editors that the rest of the world cares about parochial British events; and the determination of editors to chase fire engines with little thought or coverage of what caused the fire.
It would have been obvious but interesting to compare and contrast the lives and prospects of the new prince with another baby born on the same day in India or Ecuador or Ethiopia or the West Bank, but it did not occur to the BBC to tear its cameras away from London.
Even in normal times, BBC World coverage is fixated on shortsighted short-term events. They just want to be there without considering what they are really looking at or the implications or background of momentous events.
Like all journalists they go for crash-bang-wallop events, earthquakes, bombs, crashes, terrorist activity that win the epithet “news,” while momentous economic and social movements do not get attention. The prime example was the bombing of the Boston Marathon, where the breaking news came with Tweeting; the old media television crews were left talking to the air.
Even on a normal day, BBC World television coverage is shallow. Its business commentators cheer if markets go up — that is a good day — or lament if markets fall. A market is a market, for heaven’s sake, and it goes up or goes down according to the whims and fancies of “investors,” who these days are computer-driven funds with the attention span of a gnat and the social understanding of a computer.
At the weekends, when news editors, along with doctors, dentists, bankers and bureaucrats, believe that the whole world has the luxury of two days off and nothing is happening, BBC World offers a mix of reruns of old news and soft “think-piece” features (some of which are reruns first shown months ago) offering the world’s problems solved in simple salami slices.
It is not good enough. The best result that could come out of the shameful waste of expensive hot air over the little prince would be an outcry urging the BBC to rescue its reputation with a better product befitting a complicated and fragile world.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.