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Platinum Jubilee: Dragged along by the fourth estate

27 May 2022

As the media have changed, the royal family has been forced to make itself more accessible, says Stephen Bates


Press photographers take pictures of the Duke of Cambridge, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they arrive at Westminster Abbey for the Anzac Day service of thanksgiving and commemoration, in April 2018

Press photographers take pictures of the Duke of Cambridge, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they arrive at Westminster Abbey for the Anzac Day ...

IT IS fair to say that no aspect of daily life has changed more in the past 70 years than the media, and the Queen and the royal family have been pulled remorselessly — and, occasionally, protestingly — behind it. For an institution whose entire existence is predicated on not changing — at least, not visibly or dramatically — it has had to change a very great deal, and arguably not always for the better.

When Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, a largely deferential public still obtained most of its news from newspapers, the BBC Home Service on the radio, or cinema newsreels. Television was still in its infancy, and the internet and social media were still decades away.

While it is not true to say that the monarchy was never criticised previously — you only have to read The Times’s obituary of George IV in 1830 to see that: “What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?” — the succession of a young, glamorous Queen, a mother of two small children, was greeted with near joyous relief after a century of staid and ageing monarchs. There was a level of obsequiousness that is almost impossible to imagine today; she was “the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV”, in the words of the historian Sir Charles Petrie.

The media echoed this. The Manchester Guardian, for instance, gushed: “All may have confidence that she will wear the Crown nobly.” When the same paper printed a slightly mocking cartoon by Low on the day after the Coronation, showing a family suffering a hangover from the celebrations, it received 400 letters of complaint. “The gentlemen behind the Iron Curtain must be rubbing their hands with glee,” wrote one correspondent.

Even at that stage, though, things were changing. The decision to televise the Coronation was fiercely contested at the Palace and in government. The Prime Minister, 78 year-old Winston Churchill, was strongly opposed, the Queen ambivalent but passive, as she would often be when innovations were suggested, but her husband, Prince Philip, was strongly in favour — again, as he would often be.

Ultimately, the decision to allow cameras into Westminster Abbey was vindicated, and the number of televisions, albeit with only one channel, broadcasting in black and white and costing £70, the equivalent of two months’ wages, increased dramatically. More than 56 per cent of the population watched at least some of the ceremony. Within three years, the BBC would be challenged by ITV, which gradually introduced a less deferential approach to interviewing and news coverage.

FOR the first 15 years of the Queen’s reign, however, the Palace’s press relations were in the hands of Commander Richard Colville, an ex-Naval man, who saw it as no part of his responsibilities to communicate with the media. His disinclination to offer any sort of statement or guidance on any subject — “I am not what you North Americans would call a public relations officer,” he told one Canadian journalist — earned him the title of the Abominable No Man among the press. It was his habit to retire in mid-afternoon to a home without a telephone.

The Queen, he told the Press Council, “is entitled to expect that her family will attain the privacy at home that all other families are entitled to enjoy”. To this the Council replied: “The private lives of public men and women, especially royal persons, have always been the subject of a natural curiosity. That is one of the consequences of fame or eminence or sincere national affection. Everything therefore that touches the Crown is of public interest and concern.”

This was not a new message: Queen Victoria’s future Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, had warned her during her retreat from public duties after Prince Albert’s death that “seclusion is one of the few luxuries in which royal personages may not indulge . . . loyalty needs a life of almost unintermitted publicity to sustain it.” Even now, it is a message that has been slowly and painfully learned.

The press’s natural curiosity was first aroused in the mid-1950s by Princess Margaret’s desire to marry the royal equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a man with an impeccable military record, but the dual handicap of being a commoner and a divorcee. She decided ultimately that other considerations outweighed her love. The decision arguably ruined her life, and she was the first modern royal to suffer media obsessiveness.

BY THEN, however, criticism of the monarchy’s hidebound, precedent-suffused life was growing, and would get louder as the 1960s progressed. It started in 1957 with the journalist John Grigg, himself a member of the peerage as Lord Altrincham, attacking the Queen for sounding like a priggish schoolgirl — he found himself attacked in the street for that — but it was not until the late 1960s that the royals attempted to counteract their stuffy image.

After Colville’s retirement, and largely on the initiative of Prince Philip, a documentary about the family was filmed in 1968. Anodyne, stilted, and staged as it was — the Queen, again, ambivalent — it was nevertheless shown in 126 countries. Though it has never been repeated in full, other documentaries have followed.

The Palace’s press operation was beefed up in the 1970s with the recruitment of professional journalists — the ex-BBC royal correspondent Ronald Allison was one — just in time for burgeoning media interest in the next generation of royals.

Prince Charles’s agonising and prolonged search for a bride was naturally a focus of intense attention — his long affair with Camilla Shand, later Parker-Bowles, was little known about — and his eventual proposal to Lady Diana Spencer — who, if not royal, was at least aristocratic — was the subject of prolonged fascination, especially once their engagement was announced.

If it was Diana’s misfortune that she had little in common with her husband, scarcely knew him, and had no preparation for the obsessive and intrusive coverage that would follow, it was made even worse that their story came at a time of fierce tabloid rivalry in Britain.

The marriage, in 1981, was greeted with enormous public enthusiasm, reflected in the media coverage of what was thought to be a fairytale romance of Camelot proportions, not only because it was a heart-warming story, but also because it was a distraction for a country engulfed in economic gloom, high unemployment, and rioting.

The intensity of scrutiny continued with the birth of two princes, and then, as the marriage eventually buckled — the Princess not only emotionally damaged, but also a shrewd manipulator of the press — ran rings around her husband. Media intrusiveness into royal relationships was not new, but the deference that had characterised an earlier generation’s failure to publicise Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs Simpson in the 1930s, at the behest of the Palace and the Government and with the acquiescence of the press barons, was now entirely abandoned.

THE awful outcome of Diana’s death in 1997 made the British media, for a time at least, more discreet; but the intensity of public interest in the royal family, not only in Britain but around the world, especially in the United States, meant that the royals would always be newsworthy. Editors who had thought that her death would mean that her absence from their front pages would cause sales to drop soon discovered that was not the case: her photograph still sold papers.

Now, Princes William and Harry, both damaged by what happened to their mother, face similar pressures, as representatives of the next generation, of the insatiable royal soap opera. It goes with the job, and they have learned different coping mechanisms: William, the heir, grins and bears it; Harry has ducked out completely and moved to California with his American actress wife, where they exploit commercially their royal connection, and have shown a propensity to sue. The old stoical royal mantra — never apologise, never explain — has been largely abandoned in their case: they don’t apologise, but they do explain, repeatedly, their sense of victimhood.

But the royals have, inevitably, been forced to make themselves more accessible. The innovation of walkabouts at public events, chatting briefly to members of the public, revived in the 1970s, was wildly popular, providing an incentive for enthusiastic crowds to turn up whenever they appeared.

Even the Queen’s stoicism and manifest sense of duty into old age enhanced her popularity. During her family’s vicissitudes — divorces, scandals, the fire at Windsor Castle, Prince Andrew’s entanglement with the American sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Harry’s retirement to America — the Queen was seen as a beacon of probity, reticence, and dedication. Her famous broadcast statement on her 21st birthday in 1947 — “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service” — has been borne out daily.

IN THE age of the internet, royal communications are unimaginably different from Commander Colville’s time. There is now a team of professional press officers (Charles and William have separate teams), a royal website, and the Queen even has a Twitter account (not that she uses it herself, and nor, of course, does it divulge any secrets). In response to public pressure, the royal accounts are published annually, and the royal household has been slimmed down and professionalised. There are even rare receptions for the press at the time of significant milestones such as jubilees.

The level of media interest in the royals continues to grow with the proliferation of outlets. In the 1950s, few organisations could afford the time and expense to cover prolonged royal tours, and none possessed the technology for instant communication. Now a phalanx of reporters, camera crews, commentators, royal watchers, and magazine writers, boosted by reinforcements from local media, follows them round the world.

Prince Philip, never at a loss for words, once told a woman in the Caribbean: “You have mosquitoes, I have the press.” But he did not know the half of it. There is no sign of a diminution of interest — and, if there was, the monarchy would be in trouble.

Stephen Bates is the former religious affairs and royal correspondent of The Guardian. He is the author of
Royalty Inc: Britain’s best-known brand (Aurum, 2015).

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