OXFORD MEDIA SOCIETY
Britain has spent much of the last week witnessing the pomp and pageantry of King Charles’ coronation. A poignant experience. Partly because, for most people, this was the first chance to participate in the ritual – whether that be braving the rain to line the procession route or simply tuning in to the broadcast from home. But this was also an event which – perhaps more than any other state occasion – revealed the continuing narrative of the royal family and its symbiotic relationship with the media.
Listening to the coverage, I was struck by the interesting space occupied by the press. Their portrayal of a modernising monarchy prompted me to think about how, throughout the King’s lifetime, the media has subverted and perpetuated public opinion. Indeed, whilst royals may not always be particularly fond of some coverage, they cannot exist without it. In foreign publications, they occupy less space but tend to be more glorified, whilst the gossip is at its nastiest and most judgemental in British spaces. In allowing journalists and cameras in, a relationship is essentially brokered between the monarchy and the public.
The royal relationship with the press is often understood through a few key moments that happened in front of the TV cameras: Princess Diana’s 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir, Prince Andrew’s 2019 train wreck conversation with Emily Maitlis, and Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s bombshell disclosure with Opera Winfrey. Each one of these interviews represents an attempt for a royal to claim control of the narrative and tell their side of the story, an ambitious and rarely successful exercise.
Amid the ubiquitous coverage, it is easy to lose sight of the transactional nature of media perception and royal participation. Rosemary Hill’s essay ‘Puffed Up, Slapped Down’, from the London Review of Book’s archive, posits the 1969 documentary, Royal Family, as a critical turning point which opened the floodgates. Nobody could have foreseen fifty-three years later, that in the opening minutes of his Netflix documentary, the Duke of Sussex would assert that his duty lay in uncovering the “exploitation and bribery that happens within our media.”
Whilst press freedom remains paramount, this vicious underside is impossible to forget. Boundaries must be maintained, and relationships carefully managed. British newspapers cannot be conflated with the foreign press, and the mainstream media with social media. This is essential if want more transparent and accountable reporting.
On a lighter note, I enjoyed reading David Lammy’s guest essay in The New York Times which reflects on the long weekend being a pause which celebrated a civic version of British identity. I also recommend dipping into Vogue’s roundup of what we know so far about the final season of The Crown, set to be released later this year. As the royal family have become dramatic characters, fiction – inspired by the lives of real people – has provided a stimulating arena for discussion about the boundary between history and make-believe in the British media.