Tuning in - or out?
Al Jazeera English (AJE), the 24-hour satellite news channel launched in 2006, is widely agreed to have ‘come of age’ this year through its coverage of the Egyptian revolution and the ongoing unrest across the Arab world.
And yet tomorrow, AJE will temporarily shift its gaze from the streets of Damascus, Misrata and the Pearl Square, where brutal leaders are doing battle with their people, to focus on an event organized by another undemocratic institution which will also draw massive crowds onto the streets: the British Royal Wedding.
Like all news networks, AJE recognizes that the Royal Wedding is a story that commands massive global interest. Unsurprisingly, they do not have a Royal correspondent, so they have drafted news anchor Felicity Barr to present on the day from outside the Buckingham Palace. I will be joining the team as a ‘presenter’s friend’ to help decode some of the more curious aspects of the British Royal family and Britons’ relationship to them.
It’s easy to forget what a strange view of Britain and the British the rest of the world has. This view, re-enforced by countless films and costume dramas from The King’s Speech to Four Weddings and a Funeral, meets its apotheosis in our Royal family. While many Britons view the Royals as an unproblematic but largely irrelevant part of modern day Britain, many outsiders see them as the embodiment of our nation with its amusing accents and unfathomable class system. So fascinated are they by our Royals that the nuptials of our future King are expected to attract a TV audience of two billion.
Much of the ‘view from abroad’ we hear about in Britain focuses on the Royal Wedding hysteria sweeping across the United States; it has reportedly colonized their TV schedules, including even the Weather Channel. But what about other countries? Will Al Jazeera’s viewers, particularly those in Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia, be tuning in on 29 April and if so, how will their expectations differ from those of the British audiences?
It is clear that no other monarchy captures the global public imagination like the Windsors. In other parts of the globe, royal weddings are national occasions but they seldom attract much international media coverage. This is perhaps just as well in the case of the King of Swaziland, Mswati III, who has 14 wives.
In the Arab world, where there has been little build-up to the Royal Wedding, interest is expected to swell partly due to the fact that a large number of Middle Eastern potentates – including the King of Jordan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Sultan of Oman, the King of Saudi Arabia and even the King of Bahrain – are thought to be on the guest list.
The wedding of Jordan’s Prince Ali in 2004 – an understated private ceremony – took place with a singular lack of fanfare; moreover, in a move that some cash-strapped Britons might eye with envy, Prince Ali distributed the money that would have been spent on a big reception to hundreds of Jordan’s poorest families.
It sometimes seems that in Britain, most people are only looking forward to the Royal Wedding because they get an extra Bank Holiday (day off) and extended pub opening hours; so it’s hard to comprehend the anticipation felt around the world. From India, where reality wedding shows are a televisual staple, to Thailand, where the monarchy is revered, from Brazil, where‘frenzy’ has been reported, and across the Commonwealth people will be gathered around television sets.
Although AJE’s team will be on the ground all day, the amount of coverage the channel will devote to the Royal Wedding is likely to depend on what else is happening around the world. With the wedding taking place on a Friday – the Muslim day of prayer which has become the peak day for protests across the Arab world – it’s possible that other big news stories will challenge the Royal Wedding as the day’s top item.
In addition, as national and international networks clear their schedules in order to cover the British Royal Wedding, 29 April is no doubt seen by many people in power as, in the immortal words of New Labour spin doctor Jo Moore, ‘a good day to bury bad news.’ News teams therefore must be alert to some big stories – from unpopular policy announcements to embarrassing statistics – being slipped passed them in the haze of confetti.
So despite the Royal Wedding, significant events around the world will not stop happening, even if a third of its population will be watching telly.