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The media is central to the monarchy’s survival. Will it also be its undoing?

OPINION: The royal family is buttressed by an institution that has changed beyond recognition since the 1950s

Laura Clancy
13 September 2022, 9.59am
King Charles is the first British monarch to begin his reign in the age of social media
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James Battershill/openDemocracy/Jane Barlow/Pool via Reuters/Pexels/Adobe Stock

The past few years have been tumultuous for the British monarchy and the media. Allegations that Prince Andrew sexually exploited a minor and his well-documented friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have taken a chip out of the monarchy’s armour.

The disgust and criticism that ensued following reports suggesting the Queen had paid Andrew’s settlement with Virginia Giuffre in a civil sexual assault case brought in the US, said to be as much as £12m, has led to calls for transparency in royal finances and tarnished Buckingham Palace’s reputation further.

Such upheaval characterised the last few years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and reflects the importance of media representations from her coronation until her death. The Queen reigned over rapid technological media expansion, from the emergence of television, through tabloid newspapers and paparazzi, to social media and citizen journalism. Her time on the throne spanned an era that has seen our relationship to media cultures change beyond recognition. One result of this is that we have more access to the monarchy than ever before.

In my book, I argue that the media is central to the monarchy’s survival. These changing media forms tell us something about our relationship to the visibility and invisibility of the monarchy today, and how this sets up the reign of King Charles III.

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The media monarchy

Royal history is a history of representations in different forms. For hundreds of years, the monarch’s profile has been depicted on banknotes, stamps and coins. Queen Victoria’s reign was represented in newspapers and by early film, and between the two world wars, monarchs used radio to speak directly to the nation.

The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was a cornerstone for change. It was the first royal event to be televised live, at a time when television was still a relatively new invention and a rarity in British homes. Many bought their first set for the event. To go ahead with live broadcasting was not a straightforward decision, and reflects royal, government, and public discomfort with changing media technologies. Prime minister Winston Churchill, for example, argued that “modern mechanical arrangements” should be banned from the coronation, and “it would be unfitting that the whole ceremony, not only in its secular but also in its religious and spiritual aspects, should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance”.

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The ability of television and other new media to help the monarchy appeal to audiences had yet to be discovered. Rather, this anxiety over presenting the monarchy on television speaks to broader, classist concerns about ‘trashy’ popular culture and its potential to ‘dumb down’ the population, as described by cultural theorists like Raymond Williams.

Television coverage of the coronation was a huge success, and UK TV licence holders increased from 1.45m in March 1952 to 3.25m in 1954. The sheer scale of the coronation makes it a watershed moment in the history of television, further mythologising the relationship between the monarchy and the media.

Over the next few decades, the monarchy continued to experiment with developing media forms. The 1969 BBC/ITV documentary ‘Royal Family’, commissioned by Buckingham Palace, was essentially an example of early fly-on-the-wall reality television, with cameras following the royals for a year. It showed intimate moments such as family mealtimes and a family barbecue. Despite its popularity, the programme was controversial for allowing too much access to monarchy. The palace has since redacted the 90-minute documentary, forbidding all but short clips to be aired.

Visibility vs invisibility: a balancing act

The controversies over the coronation and theRoyal Family’ documentary reflect what I see as one of the most important debates about contemporary monarchy: the balance between visibility and invisibility. Some elements of royal life are hyper-visible: royal ceremonies, royal weddings, royal babies, charity visits. Other elements are entirely invisible: the royals’ wealth, status, and connection to global corporate power, for example. The monarchy’s survival relies upon this balance. It needs to be visible to be believed, otherwise it remains an intangible institution and the public won’t invest in it. But it can’t be too visible, or its operations are unmasked and questions raised about its purpose in contemporary Britain. What we see most of the time are tightly choreographed representations, such as the Cambridge family Instagram account, which documents family holidays and outings. These might suggest voyeuristic glimpses into royal life, but what we’re actually seeing are staged performances of intimacy.

This is what has made these last few years so interesting. While she has given plenty of scripted speeches, the Queen was well known for never giving a full-length interview. We rarely knew her opinion on matters beyond horse racing, and knew very little of what she was actually like as a person. The Cambridges have followed the same model.

What we’ve seen recently, however, is some royals giving more personal interviews, which have (albeit for very different reasons) complicated this neutral framing.

Their discussion of racism and sexism within the royal family and in the British press drew attention to the monarchy’s history of colonialism and white supremacy

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2021 was a watershed moment in contemporary British history. Their discussion of racism and sexism within the royal family and in the British press drew attention to the monarchy’s history of colonialism and white supremacy. This history had previously been obscured by benevolent representations of family and charity work. Harry and Meghan’s exposure of the inner workings of royal life, including Meghan’s alleged mistreatment by senior members of the Queen’s household, is vital to understanding how these institutions work beyond the shiny, staged media representations.

Meanwhile, Prince Andrew’s 2019 Newsnight interview, in which he attempted to defend himself against accusations of sexual exploitation, served to illustrate the privilege and patriarchy at the heart of royal life. His self-aggrandisement and total lack of sympathy for Epstein’s victims eventually led to his dismissal from public life.

Just like Princess Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995, this was a moment when the monarchy’s visibility and invisibility contract was temporarily fractured, exposing its inner workings. It is in these moments that the importance of PR and media strategy to the continuation of monarchy is revealed.

The future of the media monarchy

While the Queen honed a neutral media personality throughout her reign, King Charles III is a very different story. Much is known about his political opinions and values – he has, for instance, reportedly called Priti Patel’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda “appalling”, and has long campaigned on climate change. The extent to which he will be able to maintain the visibility-invisibility balance remains to be seen, particularly when this equilibrium is already precarious.

He has also had quite a different relationship with the press. He was caught on a hot mic referring to BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell as “so awful” in 2005.

But he has used the press, too: there were reports, for example, that both Charles and Diana had allowed stories to leak to journalists supporting their own positions on their divorce, to try and curry public favour in their corner. Just days before the Queen’s death, Charles guest-edited an edition of Black British newspaper The Voice. This is directly opposed to the general public relations strategy at Buckingham Palace, which – as royal correspondents have told me – usually revolves around saying very little.

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One thing that seems to be emerging already, however, is that King Charles’ monarchy can continue to rely on the mainstream media in Britain for support. The wall-to-wall coverage on the BBC since the announcement on Thursday lunchtime that doctors were ‘concerned’ about the Queen’s health has been nothing but effusive towards Charles, repeating that he must feel pressured by the ‘burden’ he now bears. Even those who have formally been critical of Charles as an individual despite supporting the monarchy, like GB News’ Dan Wootton, seem to have made a rapid U-turn in recent days to declare ‘God Save the King’. As monarch, Charles represents a status quo and stability that right-wing politics relies upon for legitimacy.

King Charles is the first British monarch to begin his reign in the age of social media. While people panicked over the potential intimacy of live television in 1953, such debates are unthinkable now. The coronation of King Charles will be mediated in thousands of different ways by billions of people, as we have already seen with his accession. The monarchy has always been reliant on mediation. But, in an age of democratic participation and citizen journalism, perhaps in the reign of King Charles III it will be more obvious than ever before that the monarchy needs the media more than the media needs the monarchy.

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