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Royal wedding coverage reflects a changing British media

Not one, but two relationships have been making front-page headlines here in Britain this week, and they couldn't be more different.

The first is of a handsome young couple (yes, that one) on the verge of tying the knot before an audience of millions, whose courtship and wedding plans have been pored over by hundreds of overexcited news organizations that consider no detail too trivial for publication or broadcast.

The second is an extramarital affair between one of Britain's most respected TV journalists and an unidentified colleague. Their liaison ended several years ago but could never be publicly reported because of a court-ordered news blackout sought by the journalist, who broke his silence in a tabloid interview Tuesday.

Photo gallery: William and Kate's royal wedding

The hushed-up affair and Prince William's very public marriage to Kate Middleton are, in many ways, a study in contrasts. One event is receiving wall-to-wall coverage, while the other had no coverage at all until this week's revelation.

But both provide a window on how Britain's news media environment is shifting, for better or for worse, to use a phrase that will ring out from television sets around the world Friday. The boisterous tabloids obsessed with celebrity gossip and the "respectable" newspapers trying to do serious journalism are both dealing with new rules of the game that have changed the way they operate.

First: A Certain Wedding.

All the world's major news organizations (and some very minor ones) have flocked to London for the royal nuptials, led by American TV networks, whose armies of producers and correspondents are picking over every last bit of royal minutiae like buzzards over bones.

Yet talk to Brits who remember the wedding 30 years ago of William's parents, Prince Charles and "Lady Di," and many will tell you that the media and the paparazzi today have acted with comparative moderation.

"The buildup has been much more muted than the Charles and Diana situation," said commentator Roy Greenslade. "There was a feeding frenzy of immense proportions in 1981 and it's much, much less today, and there are no signs of intrusions into the life of the young couple now. The contrast is marked, in my view."

Much of that is owed to the death of Diana in a 1997 car crash in a tunnel in Paris while being chased at high speed by paparazzi. The backlash against the news media resulted in a new self-imposed code of conduct that ended such pursuits and that has affected coverage of the royals to this day.

For the most part, the news media have been much more respectful of William, 28, and his privacy, striking agreements with the palace on photo ops and the extent of their encroachment on his life as a teenager, a university student and now a young man in military service.

"They're very conscious of the fact that this boy is the son of Diana, and they don't want to be unnecessarily offensive," Greenslade said.

At the same time, the palace has learned how to run a tighter PR operation. The prelude to Friday's wedding has been a master class in providing a slow drip-feed of information to the media (Today the identity of the cake maker! Tomorrow a look at the royal carriage!) while preventing major leaks. Only the royal household, the Middletons and their confidants know, for example, the true cost of the wedding or who designed the bride's dress, which has become the object of almost fetishistic speculation.

To the irritation of the tabloids, William and his fiancee have proved extremely discreet throughout their relationship, making few missteps and surrounding themselves with friends whose discretion was tested before they were admitted to their inner circle.

Whereas the paparazzi went wild with "Shy Di," who was still a naive 20-year-old and a bit of a novelty at the time of her marriage, Middleton, 29, has been involved with William for nearly a decade and is a confident, college-educated woman who has kept a remarkably low profile for a likely queen-to-be.

Yes, the tabloids still resort at times to aggressive, even illegal tactics in their hunger for scoops; witness the scandal at the News of the World, whose former royals reporter hacked into the voicemail of palace aides.

Yet on the whole, commentators say, it may still be a media circus out there in anticipation of the big wedding, but it's a better-behaved bunch than in the past.

If the tabloids are showing a bit more self-restraint these days, at least as far as royalty is concerned, news organizations are also chafing at restraints being imposed on them from outside.

The story of Andrew Marr, the BBC journalist who in an interview this week acknowledged having had an affair, has put a spotlight on the growing controversy over court orders blocking certain information or allegations from publication.

Marr had succeeded in winning a so-called super-injunction against reports of his infidelity, which not only bans the content from being made public but forbids news outlets from even revealing that such a ban exists. In other words, it's a total media lockdown.

Super-injunctions are not new, but they are under greater scrutiny now after a spate of less restrictive gag orders that allow courts to suppress certain content or to prevent the media from naming the people involved. Super-injunctions go beyond that.

By their very nature, super-injunctions are secret, so there's no saying how many have been granted by the courts; the general estimate is that about 30 are currently in force. In one high-profile case, the commodities giant Trafigura was granted a super-injunction against publication of an internal report on toxic dumping, a gag order that was ultimately withdrawn after the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks published it online in defiance of the injunction.

But many, if not most, such cases are believed to involve rich and famous men accused of sexual shenanigans, leading critics to describe super-injunctions as means for one group of influential males (judges) to shield another (professional athletes, captains of industry) from embarrassment.

"If there is a law which is used by one gender only, we should surely be very suspicious of it," columnist Julie Burchill wrote in the Independent newspaper Thursday.

News organizations are calling for the use of such gag orders to be curbed. Even Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed unease over super-injunctions.

Marr told the Daily Mail that he decided to acknowledge the affair after another publication threatened to challenge his super-injunction in court. Critics have lambasted him for hypocrisy.

"I did not come into journalism to go around gagging journalists," he said. "Am I embarrassed by it? Yes. Am I uneasy about it? Yes."

Now, Marr says, it's time for a review.

"I know these injunctions are controversial, and the situation seems to be running out of control."

Photo gallery: William and Kate's royal wedding

henry.chu@latimes.com

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