The British media's coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II is a combination of cowardice, craven careerism, and the completely unhinged.
I am loth to interrupt the rapture of mourning in which the nation is now enjoying its favourite festival — a funeral. But in a country like ours, a total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a whole fortnight is an impossibility.
— George Bernard Shaw, unpublished letter to the editor of The Morning Leader upon the death of Queen Victoria (Collected Letters, Vol. II)
If an adult told you they sincerely believed in unicorns or that a piece of fan fiction they really enjoyed should provide the bedrock for an entire political system, you wouldn’t be expected to take them seriously. But in 2022, the UK remains a place where it is not considered immediately and irredeemably ludicrous to believe that a small group of people can be born to rule by dint of emerging from a magic vagina.
Observing the coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II as a republican is like being trapped in someone else’s fever dream. It is a place where facts — some truly horrific — are utterly subordinate to unquestioned assertions and ‘feelings’ projected on us all regardless of individual experience: ‘We’ loved the Queen, ‘we’ grieve for the Queen, and ‘we’ round on anyone who strays from the required incantations.
Even the most virulent republicans conceded that it was impossible to imagine any other figure who could have carried the burdens of the head of state so effectively and graciously, or provided such a unifying presence, as Elizabeth II.
No “virulent republican” is quoted because our only presence in the coverage is as folk devils to be chased out from the perfect kingdom. No “virulent republican” — the adjective is carefully chosen — would agree that “it [would be] impossible to imagine any other figure who could have carried the burdens” because republicans do not believe in the inherent specialness of a single family.
One hundred and thirty miles across the Irish Sea, Ireland — a constitutional republic — selects its head of state once every seven years. The incumbent, Michael D. Higgins, is effective, gracious, unifying and elected. His immediate predecessors, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, were able to perform the same trick.
It may seem simplistic to draw this comparison but the arguments for monarchy are no more complex than a crayon scribble which, through the tight control of public debate, we are assured is a baroque masterpiece, a radiant expression of beauty that delights our souls. To question that is to be accused of craving “President Blair” or being blind to history, pageantry, and tourism revenues.
The Queen whose advisors ensured she and her households were exempted from equality laws, who used ‘Queen’s consent’ to have herself and her family members protected from legislation that was disadvantageous to their financial interests, and who bankrolled a £12 million settlement to make a sexual assault case against her nonce-adjacent favourite son disappear is not present in the obits and rhapsodies. We are being presented with poetry, not prose; a fiction heightened to delusion.
The delusion was there at its most undiluted when Dan Wootton — looking like an early draft of Max Headroom — glitched on GB News:
This is the moment we hoped would never happen. As you know, because I’ve been saying it for many weeks, I believed the Queen would live for decades longer, because imagining a Britain without her is unfathomable for me.
But it’s present in every assertion that “we knew nothing of the Queen’s politics” — as though a life lived in palaces and travelling in golden carriages contains no clues — crystallised in every statement about why “we” all loved her so and in monologues like the one given by Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today which included the line:
We have lost a defining part of what we are… she was not just a monarch, she was the glue that held us together…
This is the British media playing on easy mode, purporting to reflect "the public mood" while delivering pure politics and ideology. It is an extended lecture on what is acceptable.
It’s much less trouble to talk about the Queen as a symbol and a cypher, the nation’s grandma, than as a shrewd and cynical operator who headed up an institution with a nickname — “the firm” — that could equally be given to an organised crime outfit. Though it’s unlikely that even the most menacing mafia would be able to make stories that its new capo-di-capo1 — Charlie Big Crown — received shopping bags filled with £3 million in cash from the bin Laden family disappear as quickly. You see, King Charles III is a legitimate businessman.
The UK’s economic problems may well be solved by the increased output of our consent manufacturing industry, while the energy crisis could be dealt with by the sheer volume of hot air being produced by columnists and commentators. The narrowness of the British media environment is apparent on an ordinary day, but an event of the magnitude of a monarch dying throws it into even starker relief; there’s no plurality of views, just the product of the true believers and the cowards.
Read The Daily Mail and you get homlies from Jan Moir and Sarah Vine about 'our’ broken hearts. Choose the i paper and you’ll find columnists telling you they’re “not a monarchist but…” and that “we can write the Queen off as a colonialist, or recognise she moved eagerly to something better” (that word ‘we’ again). The Spectator tells you “the Queen was the model constitutional monarch” while The New Statesman (“The Queen made us a gentler and kinder country”) and The Guardian (“The Queen was the ultimate matriarch, with a power exercised quietly and artfully”) sing the same tune.
You could argue that there is so much unity because this is simply how everyone feels but that’s patently not true. Instead, we have a press and wider media that offer space for only the mildest forms of dissent and, on the ‘big’ occasions, no dissent at all.
‘Decorum’ is a cosh, ‘propriety’ and the cry of ‘too soon’ are there to ensure that no effective criticism happens until it’s too late. The first change of monarch in 70 years is exactly the moment to ask questions and look unflinchingly at the state of things.
The reason we’re sad is because monarchy is about storytelling and now a storyline has come to an end.
It’s not personal grief and no one who’s been through personal grief would ever mistake it for that. We’re not waking up feeling hollowed-out and alone, like a part of yourself has been taken from you. It’s national grief, which is softer and more distant, but also real.
Monarchy survives by telling us a story that we want to hear. The story is about who we are and where we came from.
There’s that presumptuous ‘we’ again, but he’s right that “monarchy survives by telling us a story that we want to hear”; the problem is that we have a press and media who refuse to challenge that story consistently or thoroughly. Yes, we know some of the grimmest details about the Royal Family because journalists exposed them. But, those horrors are hidden again when the time for ‘national unity’ is declared.
Here are sections on the Queen and the Commonwealth from three obituaries:
A voluntary association of some 50 independent states, almost all of which had once been part of the British Empire, it was an ingenious device to exorcise the ghost of imperialism. As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen remained sovereign of 17 overseas territories, including Canada and Australia, and a welcome visitor to all, monarchies and republics alike. Naturally enough she cherished her role. At home she was a hard-worked constitutional monarch; abroad she was Gloriana, hung with garlands, saluted with spears, fed on suckling pig.
In addition, she was queen and head of state of 15 other countries, stretching from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand to the Bahamas and Canada, all once part of the former British empire. She was for seven decades head of the Commonwealth, whose 54 countries comprise 2.1 billion people, a third of the globe’s population.
3. The BBC:
One difficult area was the Queen's devotion to the Commonwealth, of which she was head. The Queen knew the leaders of Africa well and was sympathetic to their cause.
She was reported to have found Thatcher's attitude and confrontational style "puzzling", not least over the prime minister's opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
Behind the “ingenious device” that The Daily Telegraph so gleefully celebrates, there was Operation Legacy, a concerted and officially sanctioned effort to destroy records of the British Empire’s crimes that ran from the 1950s until well into the 1970s. But we’re dealing with Schrödinger's Queen: At once the guiding spirit of the nation and totally disconnected from its actions.
Elizabeth was on an official tour of Kenya in 1952 when she learned of her father’s death. Just months later, Britain’s response to the Mau Mau uprising was the creation of detention camps and a systematic campaign of torture, rape, castration and murder. Those acts were committed in the Queen’s name. Her obituaries represent the success of the Commonwealth as a PR move and the ongoing effect of Operation Legacy in obscuring brutal truths.
The descriptions of the Queen’s personal and family life are almost as distorted. When the Duke of Edinburgh died, there were nods and winks in the press about the other woman in his life but the pretence of a pure and enduring love affair comes roaring back in coverage that could at least not lay it on so thick.
It’s possible to imagine coverage that acknowledged the grief of some people and the clear significance of the Queen’s death while admitting complexity to the proceedings. But any hint of honesty is dismissed as disrespectful. The bounds of ‘acceptable’ commentary are policed viciously, particularly by self-appointed decency cops like Piers Morgan, a man famously known for his own decency and decorum.
… an enormous amount of the BBC’s work was in fact social cement of one sort or another. Royal occasions, religious services, sports coverage, and police series, all reinforced the sense of belonging to our country, being involved in its celebrations, and accepting what it stands for.
While the aesthetics and accents have changed, the BBC’s underlying approach has not. In his reflection on the Queen’s death, the corporation’s royal correspondent, Jonny Dymond, presents the same unquestioned story of “service” as presented by the rest of the media. One line in the piece comes close to admitting how much of royal reporting is fan fiction and projection:
Over the decades she spoke little, and revealed even less, about herself in public.
Beneath all of the coverage, the pressure to “accept what [Britain] stands for”, pulsates with heavy manners. It is there in Madeline Grant for The Daily Telegraph, appointed representative for the youth, writing of “the nation’s grandma”, who “united the country as no politician could”. In The Daily Mail leader column’s claim that the Queen was “both role model and friend to her people”. And in Andrew Marr’s certainty that the Queen was “popular because she [was] a calm, smiling, friendly head of state.”
The expectation is that we will accept the image and deny any desire to interrogate it. To do so provokes the splenetic anger present in Juliet Samuel’s Telegraph column (Monarchy brings beauty and meaning to a world otherwise dominated by ‘rationality’ and zealotry) in which she snarls at “those peculiar creatures, the British anti-monarchists”, claiming “the best of them stay silent. The worst carp and criticise.”
I proudly place myself among the worst. To be told over and over again that ‘we’ owe a debt to the Queen that, in the words of Max Hastings in The Times, “is beyond any power of repayment” is an obscenity. As people across the UK still face a winter struggling to heat their homes, the 2010 story of the Queen’s household attempting to claim money from a poverty fund to heat Buckingham Palace is worth revisiting.
Believers in unicorns and magic vaginas are welcome to their comforts, but a press and media that presents that worldview as the only option is not engaged in reporting or journalism, but in the maintenance of power, the defence of privilege, and the support of fairy tales whose grimmest parts have been excised.
I know, by the way, that “'capo dei capi” is not a term that a real mafiosi would use, so if you’re reading, please don’t write in.