Archive

Why do the media go soft on royalty?

Volume 34, Number 3, September 2023

Back in 2012, the then-Duke and Duchess of Rothesay, better known as Prince Charles and Camilla, visited the BBC’s studios in Glasgow to celebrate 60 years of BBC Scotland television. I was head of BBC Scotland current affairs programmes at the time, and I was duly lined up with other executives in the newsroom to greet them and say a few words about the work we did. After they met staff in the newsroom, they filmed a special edition of the weather report in which Charles and Camilla took turns in presenting the forecast.

What I remember most about the royal visit was not what happened on the day but what happened the day after Scotland’s then-first minister, Alex Salmond, came to the Glasgow studios and was also given a brief tour. The difference between how the BBC news executives dressed and acted on the two days was marked. On the first day, BBC executives greeted the nonelected king-in-waiting dressed in suits and ties for the men, and formal dresses for the women. On the second day, the same BBC executives, meeting the highest elected official in Scotland, had reverted to jeans and trainers, and the few who were wearing suit jackets were definitely not wearing ties.

Although my BBC colleagues were fastidious not to discuss their personal politics at work (the idea of impartiality runs deep in BBC newsrooms), I personally knew that some of the BBC news executives were monarchists and others were republicans. I also knew that there were SNP supporters among them, as well as well as supporters of other political parties. But irrespective of people’s personal views, the overriding culture on display was one in which you showed deference and respect to royalty and relative indifference to elected officials, however high their office.

As one of the few Black people of West Indian heritage working at senior level at the BBC, I was more than aware of the ongoing debate that was taking place in the Caribbean about the role of the monarchy. Kenya became a republic in 1964; being married to a Kenyan, I understood that Black British people have a very different historical relationship with the royal family. While it’s easy to dismiss fashion choices, the different treatments troubled me, to say the least, as to what it said about the prevailing cross-political culture in the newsroom and who shaped it. For the record, for both visits, I dressed in the same smart casual way I usually did every day in the office.

I was reminded of these different treatments recently when I found myself in a discussion with senior news executives from both newspapers and television on how different news outlets had covered the Queen’s funeral. I said I thought the domestic coverage in general, and the BBC’s in particular, had been unduly uncritical of the monarchy when one compared it to news coverage elsewhere in the world. The response I received from several executives in the (virtual) room was that the British broadcasters “couldn’t have reported on the Queen’s death in any other way” without being disrespectful, and the period directly following the Queen’s death “was not the time to be critical”.

There is little doubt that news coverage of the role of the monarchy in Britain has been more critical and questioning in the run-up to Charles III’s coronation than during coverage of the Queen’s death. For example, three weeks before the coronation, BBC Panorama broadcast a programme titled Will King Charles Change the Monarchy?. The programme shared poll findings that only a minority of people under the age of 50 positively preferred a monarchy to an elected head of state, yet overall 58 per cent of people preferred an unelected monarchy to an elected head of state. BBC Radio 4 also broadcast The Today Debate: Do We Need a Monarchy?, and other UK broadcasters have had similar programmes critically analysing the role of the monarchy as an institution in UK life and politics.

However, far from making up for a lack of critical coverage during the period of the Queen’s death, all this new coverage highlights a serious journalistic failing. To use a simple analogy, if the position of king was an elected one, the critical debate and polls around the monarchy now, at the time of the King’s coronation, feels like having election coverage after all the votes have been cast, the winner has been announced and we’re just deciding where to hold the victory celebrations.

Why? Because the period covering the Queen’s death was also the same period as King Charles III’s proclamation and ascension to the throne. It is that time, not now, that was the critical time in which British journalists should have been asking the difficult questions about the monarchy and fulfilling one of the fundamental principles of journalism, “holding power to account”, however inconvenient or unpopular among certain sections of society that truth might have been. It was that time, that was the decision point for the public. Instead, far too many news organisations and journalists seemed to be caught up in the narrative that we were a “nation in mourning”, and therefore actively discouraged coverage that was critical of the monarchy.

I believe the reason this was able to happen was because the senior editors, those with decision-making power, are not diverse, and are therefore subject to group-think. Even if they are critical of the monarchy in theory, in practice and culture they are extremely deferential (think of the way my BBC Scotland colleagues dressed for the royal visit). The fact is, as a person who analyses media diversity, I am always suspicious when the UK is ever portrayed as a nation with a single homogeneous position or view on anything.

Most Scottish adults want a royal head of state

The UK is, by definition, a heterogeneous country (the clue is in the name United Kingdom) made up of four nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and has a multicultural population due to being a former empire. The four nations, those with heritage from the former colonies, and, interestingly, different age groups have very different relationships with the monarchy. The poll commissioned by Panorama at the time of the coronation only reinforced what previous polls had previously indicated.

A May 2022 poll by the British Future thinktank indicated that only 45 per cent of respondents in Scotland positively wanted to retain the monarchy, with 36 per cent saying they thought the end of the Queen’s reign should mark the end of the monarchy altogether. The same British Future poll showed only 40 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds supported keeping the monarchy, and only 37 per cent of people from an ethnic minority did so. In 2021, a similar poll conducted by Panelbase found that 47 per cent of Scottish adults would vote to keep a royal head of state, compared with 35 per cent who were in favour of an elected head of state.

The story becomes even more complex once age is combined with regionality. According to a YouGov poll, also conducted in May 2022, 80 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in Wales want to abolish the monarchy. What these polls, taken well before the Queen’s death, before the King’s proclamation and ahead of the King’s coronation, showed is that there is a sizeable section of British society that does not want the monarchy to continue. The further you go from a White English, middle-aged bias, the larger this minority becomes, and it is even a majority in certain demographics.

Et voila, not coincidentally, it is exactly the demographic that most supports the continuation of the monarchy who are disproportionately in positions of editorial responsibility in our newsrooms.

Irrespective of how well the news media has now been able to cover these opinions at the time of the ceremonial coronation, the failure to cover them impartially at the critical time of the King’s proclamation (and the monarchy’s continuation) has two serious consequences.

First, it eroded the already limited trust certain demographics have in the mainstream media. At critical national moments, it is vital that the whole country is represented in all its diversity. It is not good enough to say the media will only represent the whole country’s views when it is more “convenient” or deferentially “appropriate” to do so. That erosion in trust can push already marginalised groups, even if they are the majority, to less reputable news sources on social media that might be more prone to misinformation.

One only had to take a cursory look at #BlackTwitter or #IrishTwitter at the time of the King’s proclamation and ascension to see a range of British and non-British views on the Queen’s death that were not being reflected in mainstream UK news. Some UK newspapers and other media outlets did, at the time of the King’s proclamation, publish opinion pieces by people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds that explained why they were not mourning the death of the Queen in the same way as other people in Britain. However, it is important to realise that this approach was in itself problematic, and further exacerbated the sense of “us and them”.

This is because it juxtaposed the supposedly “correct” editorial stance (ie. that the whole nation was mourning) which had the full weight and authority of so-called “impartial” journalism with another stance relegated to being just an “opinion”. Moreover, commissioning these as opinion pieces risked framing any dissent from the dominant editorial stance as a “problem of the ethnics”, ie. a problem with multicultural Britain, of which many parts of the population are proud.

What at first might seem like a welcome attempt to include more diversity can instead, at best, lead directly to sloppy journalism and, at worst, exacerbate structural imbalances regarding whose opinions are heard and valued in the British national conversation.

The second consequence of the failure of impartially reporting Charles becoming King was the creation of fundamental misunderstanding about British democracy and rights. The best example of this was when four people were arrested in Scotland for protesting against the ascension and proclamation of King Charles III. At the time, many newspapers framed it as a “freedom of speech” issue and about the “right to protest”. However, the journalism should have presented it as a representational issue. Why? Assuming the polls taken both before and after the Queen’s death were correct, these four protesters were representing the views of more than a third of Scottish people.

An important debate was stifled, now it is too late

The four protesters chose precisely the right time to speak “truth to power” and engage in the democratic process. The newspapers framing it as a “right to protest” issue essentially disenfranchised large swathes of the population and stifled an important debate. The fact that news outlets are covering dissent regarding the continuation of the monarchy now is literally too little too late for that dissenting voice to have any impact.

In these emotionally charged times, I should emphasise that this is not about being a monarchist or a republican and, as an impartial journalist, my own leaning has no consequence. Nor am I ignoring the fact that a large proportion of the British population were grieving at the time of the Queen’s death and the King’s proclamation and ascension. This is about professional and impartial journalism, reflecting an authentic picture of the views and opinions of the entire nation back to itself and fulfilling its critical role in the democratic process of holding power to account at the most important times.

The coverage of the King’s coronation cannot be viewed in isolation. Seen in the wider context of the Queen’s death, the King’s ascension, and coverage of the royal family generally, it offers important lessons as to why diversity and inclusive representation are essential to good journalism.

Interestingly, when I talked to Black and Asian former colleagues at the BBC they told me that the general view of executives within the corporation was that the royal coverage was a tremendous success. This was in contrast to their own personal feelings as they shared many of the same misgivings I have outlined. Although my conversations were far from a rigorous scientific poll, the anecdotal disconnect between how journalists of colour, (some quite senior) thought of the coverage, versus a predominately white management team, should be a cause for concern.

Thinking back to Prince Charles’s visit to Glasgow, I hope we can create newsrooms that value our highest elected officials as much as our highest unelected ones. Or at least treat each as critically as the other. More diverse newsrooms would be an important step to achieving this.

This is an edited extract of a chapter from Reporting Royalty; Analysing the Media and the Monarchy, published by MGM Books and available on Amazon.

Marcus Ryder

@marcusryder

Marcus Ryder is head of external consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre and visiting professor of media diversity at Birmingham City University. A former senior BBC executive with more than 25 years’ journalistic experience, including 10 at senior management level, he led diverse teams delivering daily financial and general news and award-winning investigative programmes.

 

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