Dave Addison: A Critique of Royal Journalism

The Political Monarchy

The central confusion implicit in royal journalism is the question of whether the monarchy can be called political. No coherent notion of the political can be identified in the column inches that make up the journalistic discourse on royalty. If we interrogate how the term is used, we notice two peculiarities. The first of these is the idea that the monarchy could potentially function outside of politics. This is implied not only in publications which are generally considered to lean to the right, but also in those on the broad left. In an article about Prince Charles, The Guardian stated that, “It is not acceptable for someone in his position to play politics, let alone party politics, to the extent he now does … If the prince does not act himself [on playing politics] then, now as then, parliament may have to do so”.1 It is argued that royals could (and should) operate outside of the political domain – the author states earlier in the article that Charles, as a future head of state, should be “nonpartisan”. But in the first quotation a distinction is made between party politics and politics in a more general sense, implying that it is not only naked partisanship which is to be distrusted. The second peculiarity is the persistent idea that what is political is determined by its being involved in electoral contest (i.e. being party-political). The British Monarchist Society attacks an elected alternative because “[a]n election would politicise the office of Head of State and make it far harder for them to represent the whole nation”.2 This view is not confined to zealots, but extends to anyone who argues that we should keep the monarchy in order to avoid having another politician as head of state.

Clearly this conception of politics is too narrow, and contradicts much ordinary and scholarly usage of the term outside of royal discourse. Contemporary scholarship tends to define the political as a wide domain, extending far beyond legislature and party politics to include everyday behaviour and relationships, be they industrial concerns, personal relationships or matters of personal identity. Thus Foucault talks of a politics of the body, a ‘micro-physics’ of power, exploring the politics of the body’s functioning in and amongst other things, including economic production, punishment, and in giving political signs (which could be as simple as occupying politically contentious space, as with Occupy Wall Street).3 A wide definition of the political is the soundest basis for discussion. Ordinary usage of the term political in non-royal contexts tends to be broad enough that one cannot preclude royals, who after all are part of the formal political structure, and have great cultural influence, without making a mockery of the term politics.

The Neither-Nor Monarchy

We may theorise this more broadly, and attempt to explain it. Roland Barthes’ seminal mid-1950s work Mythologies has as its central theme the idea that what is political and contingent can masquerade as natural and universal. In this book, a short chapter is dedicated to what he terms “neither-nor criticism”. Using this notion, Barthes, writing as a cultural critic, refers to other critics who proclaim themselves to be ‘outside’ the muddied domain of politics, which is here conceived of as a play of historical, partisan interests. These critics consider themselves servants of transcendent, universal notions of aesthetic beauty, moral good, and humanity, and do so by categorising bad criticism as either a ‘parlour game’ (i.e. the plaything of an elite) or a ‘municipal service’ (i.e. a partisan polemic, using criticism as a means to an end).4 This dichotomy exemplifies a certain conservative conception of politics which views it as a dispensable distraction from timeless aesthetic and moral pursuits. It posits a position outside of these two poles, and therefore outside of politics, by appealing to an absolute. In a similar fashion, the monarchy is projected outside of politics by journalists who proclaim that they themselves occupy a similarly a-political domain.

The monarchy is not described in the terms appropriate to politicians but is instead considered a living remnant of a way of life and set of values that were not born of the contemporary age. In the New Statesman, D. B. C. Pierre has written of the monarchy as “our keeper of continuity, anchoring us to a historical identity … in an age when much that was culturally familiar has gone, been disconnected, or usurped for profit”.5Similarly, in the Independent, the royal historian and novelist Alison Weir recently informed us that it is “the old-fashioned values ofduty, dedication and service” as well as “dignity and integrity” that are “as important as ever” for the monarch.6 But the monarchy is not considered simply as a bastion of archaism. Such qualitative analyses are generally grounded in a kind of quantitative political economy. By this, I mean the standard assertions of the benefit of the royals to tourism, and also the belief that they serve as an excellent mascot for Britain in a way helpful to international trade.7 They are considered neither as historically-relative actors, with attitudes and ethics derivative of the time, nor as feudal lords, with legitimacy resting on a wholly feudal logic.

Clearly, it is not correct to consider royalty a constant, standing apart from history. The excellent work of David Cannadine demonstrates the ever-changing nature of royalty in its ritual and its political reality, leading him to describe current royal ceremony as an “invented tradition”, derivative of political and social circumstances.8 The current mode of royal existence is designated as “the Georgian synthesis of private probity and public grandeur”, one somewhat alien to that of the century preceding 1870, when royalty was legislatively significant, but had weak popularity.9 At this time, it performed its rituals and ceremonies only to small, elite crowds, and involved itself in marital scandal in the case of George IV and Queen Caroline – to the extent that The Times wrote in his obituary, “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king … What eye has wept for him?”10 Even the monarchy’s archaism is itself historical. Through the last century or so, the monarchy has changed its aesthetic so as to become increasingly archaic relative to the rest of British society. Horse-drawn carts were initially used ceremonially in order to state how the royals were at the forefront of fashion. Through the twentieth century they came to articulate continuity with a distant past.

This nostalgic aesthetic is of crucial importance since it is what separates the monarchy from any business or department of the state. The monarchy can never be conceived of as purely a neoliberal entity since it derives so much of its economic power from the aforementioned pretentions to a-historicality and the ultimate mystique of its power (many tourist attractions are more popular than royal ones, yet there is negligible desire to nationalise them for governmental economic gain).11 The historical development of the monarchy has, in modern times, been towards a greater and greater illusion of the precise a-historicity that provides its legitimating aura. In fact, with the advent of a generation of royals exemplified in the image of William and Kate, we see, as Yvonne Roberts identifies, an even newer archaism emerge – harkening back to the solid, unpretentious middle-class family at precisely the point when such a position is increasingly hard to attain in Britain.12

This contradiction between ideas of royalty as special and royalty as the same as any other modern economic entity appears acutely in the recent inquiry into the Duchy of Cornwall’s tax affairs. The Duchy’s spokesman William Nye stated: “The Duchy is a very unusual organisation. It is a private estate; it is not a corporation. It is a private estate in many respects like other private estates, but in one or two respects not like a private estate … The fact that it is a large set of properties and is worth a lot of money does not, per se, make it a corporation.”13 Just as Charles resists the payment of corporation tax, so the monarchy as an institution resists full assimilation into neo-liberal categories, while still relying on them in some instances. We must accept, then, that the monarchy is inherently archaic, but that this is so because of conscious historically-conditioned changes in the projection of the royal family’s image. Because the press largely articulates neither an historical nor a timelessly archaic conception of the monarchy, it is guilty of conceiving of royalty as an a-political, neither-nor entity.

The Neither-Nor Royal Journalist

In her article for the London Review of Books, Hilary Mantel identifies the monarchy’s modern existence most fundamentally as a curious media spectacle (the kind that makes one “compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours”).14 Royal narratives are at once a familiar soap opera of family relations – birth, growing up, marriages, parenthood, death, etc. – and a distant vision of rarefied opulence. We should also be clear that the monarchy is a legislatively and symbolically political reality, with both a definite, defined and active position in the political structure (with powers of veto, for example) and an influence that is profoundly conservative (as in the notion of traditional family life it evokes).15 In the excessive concern with royalty as spectacle rather than structural reality, we see the weakness of journalistic criticism. Indeed, it is ignoring the structural reality that leads to the domination of aesthetic fascination.

Some coverage of royal events, notably the BBC’s live coverage of the royal wedding, Golden Jubilee, and the road outside the hospital where George was recently born, has been wholly celebratory and entirely absorbed in the spectacle of royalty. This is the kind of coverage Hilary Mantel describes as “a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken”.16 It attempts to function as both the representative of public interest, and as an impartial, expert relay of the royal spectacle. The BBC’s recent statement in response to complaints by people who deemed coverage too pro-monarchy outlines this strategy, arguing both that “we know from our audience figures that our coverage of the royal baby has been extremely popular” and that the BBC’s was “the best”, and that it contained “a range of contributors and opinions”.17

But when journalists talk of the millennia-old continuity of the monarchy, the merits of the ethical model the royals have set for us, or the universality of joy at happy royal news, they speak not in facts but in politically involved presuppositions. No writing can escape conceptual basis in ideas of politics, public opinion, ethics and the like. That the notion of politics is hopelessly confused in discourse of the royals has already been demonstrated. The BBC cannot reside wholly outside the political sphere when reporting royal news because such a positioning relies upon agreed notions of what is and is not political, assumptions which are not sufficiently explicit. Mantel’s notion of ‘empty discourse’ should be taken only figuratively (as meaning empty of interest). What is crucial to realise is that this superficially ‘empty’ discourse is dense with politically loaded and historically contingent conceptions and distinctions. The non-political space from which the neither-nor journalist claims to write is as illusory as that of the neither-nor monarch that they purport to document.

This applies even to critical articles (meaning those that self-consciously analyse something as well as document) that in some ways transcend the event-level discussion of the spectacle. When the Guardian ran an article asking a Daily Mail and Observer columnist to debate whether the coverage of the royal baby’s birth was proportional, the Observer columnist declared the birth to be “exciting” to anyone “with a passing interest in the history of our nation who isn’t an emotionally stunted shell of empty cynicism”.18 The two columnists proceeded to critically assess the extent to which the press should conform to public interest and public opinion, but the article did not discuss the moral implications of a baby being born with political importance, or whether it was the role of the media to involve itself in debates about the politics of the monarchy more generally. Similarly, Barbara Ellen, making a critical point about the gendered experience of royal children, wrote about the constrictive legacy of Diana, and intensity of media scrutiny that would follow a female royal birth, while stating early on that “I’m not much of royalist (I’m not even interested enough to be anti-monarchy)”.19 This kind of article attempts simply to report royal events, with the writers wishing to be neither republican critics nor staunch royalists. But the refusal to address the institution itself is not an a-political act. It is a commitment to a certain kind of conservatism, and the rejection of sustained rational critique as fundamental to democratic life.

, they remain in the attempted neither-nor position as regards the monarchy.

The Task of Republican Criticism

The central problem then is one of the nature of criticism. In terms of royal journalism, one should realise how little supposedly critical material – that is, material which makes analytical points off the back of royal events – actually discusses the monarchy as a structural entity. Many writers note contradictions but are content to mention them without judgement. In a piece remarkable for both its lucid analysis and its refusal to be swayed by its own valid points, a journalist of the Telegraph, Harry Mount, simultaneously declares himself a “staunch royalist”, while describing the institution of monarchy as “objectively … ludicrous” and “illogical” and recognising that it stays popular largely through its expression in everyday spectacle.20 Contentment with this curious doublethink –expressing only a kind of amused wonder at the capacity for people to be unmoved by rational political argument – marks out many of the non-hostile responses to the monarchy as an institution. We see this also in articles concerning the disjuncture between US conservative fascination with British royalty and their patriotic republican tradition, for example in a comment piece of July 2013 in the Guardian.21

All journalism must examine its own presuppositions and contradictions. Journalism that claims only to document, like the BBC’s, speaks in politically-involved suppositions, and cannot claim innocence. It is the fact that the monarchy must be considered political that makes critical understanding of it, and of how it is discussed, important and relevant. Of course people will continue to believe in the monarchy as an institution, and they will continue to justify this. The task of criticism here is not prove them wrong, but to clarify the way in which the debate must be carried out, firstly by exposing the political nature of the monarchy, and secondly by realising that journalists themselves cannot feign a-politicism. The debate would be fundamentally altered if it were to take place on these terms. Thus we can be more optimistic than Hilary Mantel when she says that “in looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself”.22

David Addison is a second-year History undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford.

3 Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish (1975), Ch. 1

4 Barthes, R. Mythologies (Vintage, 2009 – originally published 1957) pp. 93-6

8 Cannadine, D. ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition,” c. 1820-1977,’ in E.J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Traditions (Cambridge University Press, 1983)

9 Ibid. p. 155

10 Quoted in ibid. p. 109

13 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/uc475-i/uc47501.htm Uncorrected transcript of proceedings in the House of Commons, before the Public Accounts Committee, on Monday 15th July 2013

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