Ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, Roger Mosey examines the relationship between the monarchy and the media. This piece is taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British monarchy’, co-published with the Constitution Unit.
In a message in February 2022 to mark her 70th anniversary on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II noted that it was her “sincere wish” that the former Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles would become known as Queen Consort when her son Charles acceded to the throne. The media reaction to what could have been a controversial move showed the deferential and unquestioning tone that characterises much media reporting of royal matters. ‘Camilla WILL become Queen,’ proclaimed the Daily Mail, calling it a ‘surprise announcement’ that would see ‘the former royal mistress’ become the woman who constitutionally represents the nation. It was a surprise because the Palace had previously said that this would not happen; Camilla would be known, they had said, as Princess Consort.
This significant change to the role of the King and his Queen was overwhelmingly treated by most of the media as a pleasing family touch by Elizabeth on a special occasion for her, and it even took The Guardian many paragraphs before they got to a commentator describing the announcement as ‘extraordinary’. Debates on broadcast media were vanishingly few, though Jack Royston – royal correspondent for Newsweek – said on ITV’s Good Morning Britain that “the public don’t want it. The numbers are really clear.” The programme’s presenter said that their audience response supported that.
The long-term goal of Charles and his courtiers to secure acceptance for Camilla is a perfectly understandable human wish, but it has not been achieved by an open debate facilitated by the media about the monarchy. In October 2022, Tatler reported that even the word ‘consort’ was, as they put it, ‘to be quietly dropped’ from Camilla’s title. Yet the instinct of many journalists is to present this as the latest twist in a high-quality soap opera rather than about the way we as citizens – or maybe ‘subjects’ – are governed. There are some exceptions to the royal conformists: a Guardian journalist fought a lengthy battle to uncover Charles’s interventionist memos to ministers, and The Sunday Times exposed bags of cash being handed over by questionable donors.
However, it is overwhelmingly what we might call ‘The Crown’ narrative that wins out. The real-life drama of the Windsors delivered some of its most compelling episodes when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex left the United Kingdom for their new life in North America, via Oprah Winfrey and Netflix.
There were high viewing figures in the UK and record book sales. This points to the greatest attraction of the Royal Family for newspapers, radio, television and the rest: they are box office. Most of us avidly consume the gossip. The late Queen is reported to have said “I have to be seen to be believed” and now that can be achieved by internet clickbait more effectively than by a royal visit to Barrow. This can of course be hurtful to the humans at the centre of the story: Harry and Meghan seem to offer an example of not being able to live with – or without – it.
It would be a mistake to see the Royal Family as neutral players here. They, naturally, want to preserve the institution. To support that, they have a large team of professional media advisers and have used high-profile consultants on the trickiest assignments. Indeed, Prince Harry’s central allegation is that he was sacrificed by ‘the machine’ to bolster others. When a significant death occurs, there is a media plan. The tributes are filtered out: first from the then Prince of Wales, and a day later the Princess Royal’s words about her late father the Duke of Edinburgh were posted by the Palace on Instagram. Princess Eugenie brought up the rear.
The Royal household can be vigorous in defending its interests. The BBC lost its exclusive production rights on the Queen’s Christmas broadcast when it was thought to have displeased the Royal Family in the 1990s. I was editor of the Today programme on Radio 4 between 1993 and 1996, when the chairman of the BBC was Marmaduke Hussey – spouse of Lady Susan Hussey, who was a ladyin-waiting. By whatever route, the displeasure of the Palace at two of our royal items – I was told that Hussey wanted action taken against me personally – was made known. Happily, the management ignored the chairman. A few years later, as head of television news, I had a lovely, civilised drink with a courtier who asked me to replace one of the journalists assigned to a royal visit because of the dislike for them “at the very top”. We did not comply.
The broadcaster David Dimbleby summed up the continuing tension in comments at the Henley Literary Festival in October 2022. He told how the Palace sought to control every aspect of the televised funeral of the Queen: “There was this complete list of things that no broadcaster could show because the copyright belongs to Buckingham Palace. I think that’s wrong, just wrong. It’s just interesting how tightly controlled monarchy is.” He went on to list items that most journalists rarely challenge, such as the royal ability to change tax legislation or avoid capital gains tax on the Duchy of Cornwall. After the Queen’s death, there was very little coverage of the constitutional issues raised by the transition to a new monarch; only Channel 4 ran a peak-time programme. When a correspondent tried to raise questions in a news report, he was criticised by politicians. The Conservative Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said “the BBC should really not be introducing the independence debate into the Queen’s death. There’s no link.” That is not what David Cameron had said about the Queen’s intervention in the 2014 referendum campaign.
This fits into a pattern in which the media are much more interested in personalities than they are in what they see as dreary process stories. I and others have charted the risk that trivia overwhelms what really matters. With the Royal Family the characters are particularly vivid and the narrative is sometimes irresistible. But they represent our country’s government too and cement our national hierarchy and define our global image. It is hard to contend that the media has lived up to its role of scrutiny here, which is both a journalistic failing and – in the case of the public service organisations – risks an injustice to the millions of people who dissent from the monarchy.
By Roger Mosey, Master of Selwyn College Cambridge and former Editorial Director, BBC.
This piece is one in a series of articles taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British monarchy’, co-published with the Constitution Unit.