Baby names: the royal child and the unknown asylum seeker

The extensive coverage of the birth of the royal baby when compared to children drowning off our shores says much about Australian news values. EPA/John Stillwell

Seventeen minutes they gave it on Channel Seven’s evening news. A one-fact story: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have given birth to a boy (later named George), who will be third in line to the British (and Australian) throne. Well, alright, three facts.

But how the media stretched those out. Public reaction, official reaction, political reaction, family reaction, commentary from “experts” in parenting. And finally the endless speculation: when would we get our first glimpse of the baby? What name would be chosen? Would he visit Australia?

All standard stuff for what the media know to be a big story. But why is it a big story? To find the answer, we need to rummage around in a collection of instinctual, semi-rational, occasionally rational and sometimes magical artifacts called “news values”. The royal baby story generates quite an array.

The first is “cultural proximity”, allied in this case to “fame by being royal”. This is a mighty powerful combination. They are the ingredients in the alchemy that creates the editorial gold of royal births, weddings, break-ups, love affairs, scandals, anniversaries, deaths and funerals.

Cultural proximity is a bloodless term for something that is really very warm-blooded. It is about the closeness we feel to people with whom we closely identify, who are like “us”. We feel we know them well, even at a distance. We feel we understand them and they understand us, and no words are needed to explain why. We go back a long way. We share interests and traditions. We share important values. We share ties of blood.

Cultural proximity between Australians of Anglo-Irish descent and Britain and Ireland is close. It is why, for example, the terrorist attack on the London underground in 2005 that killed 52 civilians received more extensive coverage in Australia than a similar attack on the Madrid train service in 2004 that killed 191.

“Fame by being royal” is a sub-category of a bigger news value – prominence - that has to do with power, authority, prestige and celebrity. The royal family embodies all these. Seen in this light, the attention given to the royal baby has a rational aspect: it concerns Australia’s head of state, since he is an heir to that position. But it would be a mistake to think that this was any more than a third-order factor in news decisions about the Prince of Cambridge.

Of greater importance by far is the media’s instinctive understanding of the emotional investment that many Australians still repose in the British royal family. This amplifies the cultural proximity effect many times over. We know this emotional investment exists because of the addiction to royal stories by women’s magazines, an addiction that derives entirely from circulation. It’s not as though the royal family are big advertisers.

After so much gush and adulation, it was a rude shock when the television news channels moved on to the next story. In the case of SBS and the ABC – each of which gave seven minutes to the royal baby – that next story was about asylum seekers. It brought irresistibly to mind the fate of another baby, a one-year-old lying in the Christmas Island mortuary, about whom the administrator of Christmas Island, John Stanhope, had spoken publicly a week ago.

Stanhope lamented the government policy of not naming asylum seekers.

I wish that in our discourse we would not look at asylum seekers as a bulk but as individual human beings that have hopes and aspirations and dreams and feel the same pain as each of us.

We have a one-year-old baby in our mortuary, and I wish we named him. We don’t name the deceased publicly and I wish we humanised them.

It’s hard to think of anything that more starkly illustrates the difference between the cultural proximity Australia as a nation feels towards Britain, and the cultural remoteness it feels towards peoples from where these asylum seekers are coming – the Middle East and south Asia. It is striking to observe how this translates into attitudes and policies.

An infant asylum seeker is carried from a boat by Indonesian police. What does the death of another very young asylum seeker at sea tell us about ‘cultural proximity’? EPA/STR

It is also striking to reflect upon the very different news values that govern news decisions about asylum seeker stories. The main news values here are negativity – bad news is usually a bigger story than good news - and conflict, as a story that generates controversy is usually a bigger story than one that does not.

And there are other news values at work here too. One is the value of clarity – where the good guys and the bad guys are easily identifiable and the story line is simple. The other is consonance – where we are told a story we already know, a story that reinforces our existing understanding of the world and our prejudices.

It is these two news values that blend to create media stereotypes which political message-makers then exploit to manufacture slogans. These in turn become part of the discourse of conflict and negativity that generates new headlines and keeps the cycle rolling on.

If we humanise asylum seekers, as Stanhope wishes, it complicates this process. Clarity is replaced by ambiguity. It is no longer so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Asylum seekers begin to look more like us. Cultural remoteness shrinks a little.

Consonance gives way to dissonance. Perhaps this isn’t quite the story we thought it was. Might our prejudices be unfounded?

The headlines and slogans lose a little bit of power. Who knows where that might end?