A panel of journalists, academics and media commentators displayed an uncharacteristic level of candor in acknowledging the prime role played by the media in sustaining the British monarchy at a recent debate at the Bishopsgate Institute in the heart of the City of London.
Chairing the Media and Monarchy debate - part of the institute’s Monarchy and Republicanism series - was Stephen Bates, most recently of The Guardian. Joining him on the panel was Express royal correspondent Richard Palmer, Professor Neil Blain who heads Stirling University’s media department, and prominent publicist and media commentator Mark Borkowski. The previously billed Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine, had unfortunately withdrawn.
The debate proved insightful, describing in some detail the workings of the palace PR machine and its relationship with the press, and how this axis serves to manufacture a degree of public consent. And while I encountered some green shoots of change, I was troubled by the seeming unwillingness of some to see this critical role of the media acknowledged in royal reportage. There was also the all too familiar spectacle of the media - and its commentators - believing its own hype about the monarchy, which jarred with its apparent new-found self-awareness.
This was accompanied by criticism of the republican movement and its methods over the years - some of it deserved - and a clear frustration with a perceived lack of progress from the more sympathetic panelists. Some of this was useful to hear but as usual there was the depressing absence of a roadmap, of concrete ideas for progress.
Perhaps the most marked change in the monarchy over the Queen’s 60-year reign has been that from that of an institution which didn’t need -and largely ignored - the media to one which is acutely media-savvy (especially since the death of Diana Princess of Wales). An institution which recognises that it now needs the media as much as the media has always needed it and one which is increasingly good at manipulating and exploiting the media as a media long-versed in extracting maximum news value from royalty. As Stephen Bates observes, 60 years ago the Queen could rely upon a least “a third of people [thinking] she was divinely selected” to reign over us. Now she and her family at least have to do a bit more of a job convincing us that they serve some purpose.
The likeable - and frank - Richard Palmer gives the example of how Clarence House is already discussing and planning for Charles’ accession to the throne. In particular how he can “continue to explore his interests” as king. Under discussion, he has been told, is the establishing of a “King’s Conference”.
He also points to the sometimes shameless mining of royal history by the royals themselves such as displayed in one of the current exhibitions at Hampton Court Palace: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, which among other things focuses on the “debauchery” of the late Stuart court. It was rumoured, he says, that it was the original intention to call the exhibition Sex and Power in the Court of Charles II.
The royals are now “buying off the great unwashed with public holidays” and have a “young and glossy” brand in the form of Kate and William, according to Mark Borkowski, at a time when some of “our trusted brands have diminished”. He cites in particular politicians and bankers. This is an idea that has found some currency is the press, notably in the wake of the scandals surrounding MPs expenses: that we should - and indeed are - turning away from politicians and towards our royals in search of trust. While the press may wish us to do this, there is no suggestion I have gleaned that the public is buying it. But if the idea continues to form part of the media’s current royal blitzkrieg, there’s no telling if it may eventually be won over. Certainly Borkowski believes that leading royals can do no wrong at the moment, saying that Prince Harry was lauded as much for wearing a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party as he was for his clown-like antics when meeting 100m record holder Usain Bolt in Jamaica.
Popular period TV dramas such as ITV’s Downton Abbey, says Borkowski, are doing much to present a “rose-tinted” view of aristocracy in general as something essentially benign - even benevolent and beguiling (in the modern sense of the word).
Bates describes the royals as currently riding “the crest of a wave”, while Palmer calls them “the ultimate A-listers”. The public, he says, “cannot get enough of Kate”, before adding that “we have a new generation after years of it being quite dull”. He says simply that “the media is giving the public what they want”, before going onto qualify this somewhat.
Blain is alone, it seems, among the Bishopsgate panel in questioning the public’s appetite for the current volume and tone of royal coverage. “There’s too much coverage, more than people would wish for,” he says, raising concerns over the effect of royal coverage on the quality of news output, which he believes is bringing about a level of “infantilisation”.
“When Kate is on TV she’s displacing something else,” he observes. “What’s not getting covered as a result?” Is a story about Kate being “relaxed” on her first public engagement really news, he asks.
Not only does he seem to believe that the media is getting caught up in its own hype, it is also willfully misrepresenting public sentiment towards royals. Blain points in particular to the coverage of the aftermath of Diana’s death. “The outpouring of grief was repeated endlessly as historical fact,” he says, adding that there was a complete absence of empirical evidence to support this. He points to research showing that the sentiment on display was more akin to that exhibited when a soap character dies. Blain ultimately believes that coverage of the monarchy functions to distract from some very serious issues: a very stratified society and poor social and economic indicators. “One worries that the media provides a distraction function here for a society that has a lot wrong with it,” he says.
Blain goes on to make the point - as I have done previously - that as much as republicans dislike it - there is no general requirement on the media to report monarchy in a balanced way. But as many have noted the BBC has a governing charter which does demand this, and which, it is plain to see, it is not complying with. This, he says, is a “concern”.
Palmer perfectly illustrates the position that many royal correspondents find themselves in: far from being driven by ideological zeal the motivation is quite mundane: “It’s lots of fun...I’m getting lots [of stories] in the paper...there’s a desire for more at the moment”.
He says like many attracted by journalism, he was initially driven by the desire to provoke and to challenge, but that royal reporting isn’t, as he sees it, “an area where this happens so much”.
Acknowledging that “without the media ,monarchy would wither and die” he says there is scope for scrutinising the royals, even at a royalist paper like the Express. “The press should be a watchdog...the monarchy should be held to account as much as any other institution.”
Indeed when it comes to the royals’ right to privacy verses the public’s right to know he’s clear which side he stands on: “Why shouldn’t we write about them, especially when they are funded by the taxpayer. The royal household does use its private life to promote what it is trying to sell us”
Palmer highlights Prince Andrew’s business dealings as an area that should have come under greater scrutiny.
It is clear that the Express has highlighted an unease over the finances of the royal family, yet it - and its peers in the wider media - have not adopted anything like the “watchdog” approach advocated by Palmer. Furthermore, I question how such as role would be balanced with the desire to use the monarchy as “a bit of glitter to lighten the load” as Palmer puts it.
Indeed, the Express royal correspondent seems pessimistic about the outlook for greater scrutiny of the royals. He believes that the effect of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics has been to make the media “quite timid” in their approach to investigation. Press intrusion is now seen as “too much hassle”.
On the current state of republicanism and its future, much of the Bishopsgate panel also seems to a degree pessimistic. As with its ideas on the current popularity of the monarchy, this appears to be formed with little reference to the current state of polling, which seems to offer much to encourage republicans.
Borkowski, who describes himself as “a lapsed republican...drowned by apathy”, says republicanism should be “vital and interesting”, but has “lost its way”. “It’s a shame, there’s a real opportunity,” he adds.
Yet his prescription is vague. He talks about the need for “charismatic” leadership, “a figurehead” for the movement, but fails to elaborate on what this might mean in practical terms.
Borkowski is slightly better when he talks about the power of satire and the need for a new format like TV’s Spitting Image in the 80s which displayed an irreverence towards the royal family and politicians which has scarcely been repeated. He also talks about the need to be able to conduct the debate - at times at least - in the form of soundbites.
Palmer identifies the real problem when he talks about the almost complete absence of elected politicians establishing a critique of monarchy, with Bates suggesting that a media campaign focusing on abolishing the rule which prohibits debate around the royals in parliament could meet with some success. Nevertheless, Bates says previous republican campaigns at The Guardian, such as its bid to challenge the Act of Settlement, have met with abject failure.
Bates also says that republicans are too often seen as being against things, people who simply say “I do not like that”, rather than projecting a positive alternative.
Blain says the problem is fundamentally historical and therefore quite intractable : “There has been very little discussion of our constitution in history.” Again, little is offered up by way of remedy, other than asserting that change can happen quite quickly and unexpectedly, and noting that the Nepalese monarchy disappeared four years ago without the involvement of republicans.
All seem to agree that the best hope for republicans lies in a series of elderly monarchs. Charles will be old when he accedes to the throne, as it seems likely will be William is the consensus.
This was a depressing way to end what had been a lively and interesting, if sometimes frustrating, debate. And it is a view I wholeheartedly disagree with. It completely misses the point about what is so obviously intellectually objectionable about monarchy and it is a view which just kicks any serious and open debate into the long grass.
This all begins and ends with the media accepting some responsibility for its role in sustaining the monarchy and reforming its practices. For for its own sake, if not that of the country’s.