I'm told that there's a wedding in England today. I'm not at all interested but, under duress, am now in possession of too much information about guest lists, dress designs and security measures. The media – print, broadcast, online – are full of it, and there's just no escaping the electronic tentacles of a fully-blown Media Event.
I have a professional interest in these spectacles, and it can be nice work if you can get it during the World Cup or the Olympics, but the combination of insufferable reverence, appalling class pretension and popular banality makes British Royal Weddings especially hard for this (British by birth and identity) media scholar to stomach. But intellectual duty must be obeyed.
In their well known book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz deconstruct the different types of global media spectacle of the television age. There are, they argue, three main Media Event scripts – Contest, Conquest and Coronation. An example of a Contest is a live football match, with its uncertain outcome and noisy, colourful crowd participation, while a Conquest is something like a moon landing, with the whole world watching the epochal crossing of a frontier on behalf of all humanity.
The Royal Wedding is clearly a case of Coronation, with its intricate ritual display, telegraphed symbolism and obsession with protocol. Not everyone reads the script in the same way. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy can hardly contain its excitement, and is shamelessly using its Website to push some Wills and Kate memorabilia, while the Australian Republic Movement wishes them well – and well away from the Australian constitution.
For some – and the gender lines are strongly, if incompletely drawn here – it's all about the Princess narrative and, especially, 'The Dress', while for others it's a piece of harmless pantomime and television wallpaper, with a touch of postmodern irony on request. Criticising the event tends to cast one in an unflattering light – either as overly earnest and cerebral, or curmudgeonly and embittered, the type who'd boo Santa and shoot Bambi. But it's a mark of the Media Event to submerge politics while being profoundly political, and to marginalise critique precisely when it's most needed.
So somebody has to do the dirty job of pointing out that all that pageantry is pushing copious amounts of important news and debate out of the public arena. The Royal Wedding, then, is a Contest after all, and a game that is rigged in favour of the team already deemed to have triumphed before setting foot on the sacred flag-stoned 'turf' of Westminster Abbey. It is also a Conquest – of an unseemly proportion of the news and current affairs agenda for several weeks. The ABC's resort to a wedding-eve House of Windsor documentary and Q&A on Australia and the Monarchy should not be misconstrued as an indicator of laudable media openness and diversity. It is a concession that the game is up, and that the only option is to reproduce Royal nuptial dominance while trying to subvert it from the sidelines. In this regard, even sooling the Chaser onto the Royal Wedding was baulked by the Palace and a worryingly compliant BBC.
But what is the latent content beneath the surface glamour and the 'all the best to the happy couple' bonhomie, with a hint of sadness that Lady Diana couldn't be there? It is old-styled imperialism with a newer, fresher face. The reason that we are watching this couple at this time, by almost every available media means, is not because of what they have achieved. It is because of the lineage of one and the capacity of the other's family to use private school educational mobility to make the match. The main beneficiaries are the institutions of privilege that surround them, effortlessly reinforced by a photogenic couple, a gorgeous film set, and a slavering media who discarded their watchdog role for a tummy tickle from the hand of patronage.
The main recourse for those of us objecting to a gratuitous advertisement for a hereditary elite is to retreat temporarily from a media world that has capitulated to monarchical flummery and missed the main story of the power play beneath. When normal service is resumed, and well before the next scheduled Coronation (be it investiture, funeral or wedding), the Media Event makers of Australia must return to first principles. Their primary role is to record and scrutinise spectacle, not reinforce its most corrosively seductive myths.
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