When someone’s entire function is ceremonial, it can take on big significance if they change up even a small part of that ceremony. And so we turn our gaze to England, where the tabloid press is currently losing its collective mind over the fact that the next royal baby will not be dangled triumphantly in front of hordes of photographers.
The trouble started last week, when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—Harry and Meghan, that is—issued a statement through Buckingham Palace announcing that they “have taken a personal decision to keep the plans around the arrival of their baby private.” The couple’s first baby is due sometime this spring, although they have not announced a due date. Their statement said they will share the news of the baby’s arrival publicly “once they have had an opportunity to celebrate privately as a new family.” Presumably, the photos will appear on the couple’s new Instagram feed, which recently referred to “Baby Sussex” for the first time.
Blimey! As the British press was quick to point out, this change violates a tradition going back a generation. Yes, just one—Princess Diana started it, and Kate and William have kept it up—but still. The tabloids have grown accustomed to waiting outside the London hospital for the royal parents to make an appearance after the baby’s birth. The gussied-up family poses gamely for a few minutes so photographers can get their first shots of the new baby, and then the family escapes to a palace. Harry and Meghan are skipping the scrum and releasing news and photos on their own time. The Sun slammed the couple for “keeping the nation in the dark,” while a columnist for the Daily Mail called it “just a little rude to smother this wonderful moment in a layer of exclusion and exclusivity.”
The New York Times calls the ritual “silly,” but it does serve a certain purpose. It’s understandable that taxpayers who support them expect a peek at the next generation. The hospital display gives the tabloids a bit of chum to satisfy them while the family proceeds to nest privately with their newborn. It is a routine so simple and rigid that the slightest variations can be dissected for meaning: Kate’s visible postpartum belly (“brave”); her second baby’s backwards bonnet (“the newborn has unfortunately already made a sartorial slip-up”); a red, lace-collared dress reminiscent of her mother-in-law (and of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, whoopsy!).
The royal family’s only real output is their own image, and they have been drifting toward seizing the means of production for years. The 2015 birth of William and Kate’s daughter, Charlotte, was first announced on Twitter, although the announcement also appeared on the traditional easel outside Buckingham Palace. Kate took the first official photographs of her daughter, rather than hiring a photographer.
That didn’t take power away from the voracious British tabloids, however. Her photographs were still distributed through the usual official channels, and portrait photography doesn’t compete with the paparazzi anyway. Harry and Meghan are doing something different, at least on this occasion: shutting out the press in favor of their own social media accounts, which they can control completely.
In other words, they’re borrowing from the modern playbook of normal international—and perhaps particularly American—celebrities, for whom participating in traditional journalism feels increasingly unnecessary. Promotion cycles are changing, with albums dropping as overnight surprises instead of being rolled out with months of advance publicity. And above all, social media has given celebrities unprecedented control over their own images—and forced media outlets to play nice if they want any special access at all. Why pose for someone else’s camera when you could take your own photos and distribute only the ones you choose on Instagram? Why speak with a journalist, who will pluck out juicy and surprising and unflattering quotes, if the magazine will publish a gentler, more comfortable “conversation” with a fellow celebrity? “If the less fun part of an actor’s job is the part where they have to help sell a piece of work or product,” Vanity Fair wrote of the celeb-on-celeb format last year, “at least they can do it with someone they have a relationship with, who won’t push them on harder questions or ask them things they’re sensitive about.” At the highest rung of fame, the celebrity need not speak at all. In 2015, Beyoncé appeared on the cover of Vogue without granting the magazine an interview; last September, the magazine apparently granted her complete creative control of her cover shoot—and she still didn’t speak with a journalist.
The smile-and-wave in front of the hospital in London is not worth mourning for its own sake. Here’s the extent of what we’ll miss: Meghan and Harry’s baby will have a cute scrunched-up little face, and his or her mother’s hair will look great. As a symbol of the royals’ retreat from any kind of direct tabloid scrutiny, however, it’s arguably kind of a loss. Tabloids can be rude and invasive and even false; the British tabloids are particularly notorious for their rapaciousness. But they’re also irreverent and curious and reader-serving, and a celebrity’s approach to them is often a sign of their responsiveness to press and the public more broadly. No one would begrudge Harry and Meghan some protectiveness over their first few hours of parenthood. But if they manage to keep cutting out the tabloids, don’t be surprised if the ever-more-curated images we’re left with turn out to be just plain dull.