LONDON – Outside the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary's Hospital, the global media hordes on Royal Baby Watch have marked their turf with duct tape and stepladders like so many predators. But starved for material in a world where Mother Nature and Buckingham Palace are the last two holdouts from the 24-hour news cycle, loitering reporters trying to set a tone of breathless anticipation have resorted to interviewing each other.
Perhaps nothing could be more appropriate. As Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge — formerly known as Kate Middleton — prepare to carve out a new life for their budding family in the glare of the spotlight, the press is poised to be a major part of the story.
The scene here amounts to a déjà vu of June 22, 1982. Then, another young couple — Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales — stepped out of the same wing of the same hospital with an infant William and into what would become a stormy, love-hate relationship with the press (and each other) that would come to define palace politics for decades. Some — including, reportedly, William — still blame the media for Diana's 1997 death in a Paris car crash during a chase with rabid paparazzi.
To be sure, the British tabloid press is a different beast today, as is the palace PR machine. Nevertheless, the media and inquiring minds on both sides of the Atlantic might be in for a rude awakening as they clamor for a piece of the glamorous couple after baby makes three.
After a brief choreography for the cameras as the couple leave the lavish hospital wing with their newborn, royal watchers say they might disappear for while, or least try.
"This will be very different from watching William grow up," said Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now a journalism professor at City University in London. "William hates the press and will show even less accommodation once the baby is born, and Kate, unlike Diana, is clearly very shy of doing anything that would breach palace secrecy."
For the press, any retrenchment by the young couple couldn't come at a worst time. Cover stories and inside montages of Shopping Kate, Official Kate, even Dog-Walking Kate have driven print sales and online hits in a manner not seen since Diana's heyday. The feeding has been no less frenzied in the United States. Since 2011's blockbuster royal wedding, the Duchess has graced the cover of People magazine more times than any other celebrity.
The challenge domestically to keeping a lid on the helicopter flyovers and bugged baby buggies, said Richard Palmer, royal correspondent for the Daily Express, is the wild card of foreign competition. Limits in Britain on reporting that a woman is pregnant before she reaches her 12th week, for example, meant that U.S. commentators were buzzing about the "royal baby bump" before the domestic press could enter the fray. And in a world where European and American tabloids unbeholden to the palace don't always play by the rules — and where everyone with a smartphone is a potential paparazzo — the British press is fearing the worst. "We're treading a tightrope all the time with the royal couple, and that's only going to get thinner with the baby," Palmer said.