Monarchy and the media

Will journalists report on the Queen's diamond jubilee in an impartial manner?

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As Britain's media gears up for the various jubilee celebrations, reporting every royal move, collating lists of trivia ("60 things you never knew and probably didn't need to know about the Queen" and so on) they face a real credibility problem. Last year was the same, with the royal wedding prompting journalists to compete with each other to come up with the most trite and inane commentary, or the most ludicrous or unbelievable 'fact' about the monarchy. This year already promises to be just as bad, if not worse.

That's why Republic has called on broadcasters especially, but journalists generally, to take extra care that they report the Queen's diamond jubilee "impartially, objectively and with real journalistic scepticism". The nation's relationship with the monarchy has changed completely since the 1977 jubilee and is utterly unrecognisable from the days of the Queen's coronation. Yet much of our media seems to want to will the British people back, in true Canute fashion, to their more royalist past, rather than reflect on the real public response to all this PR-led fanfare.

The monarchy is a highly contested and controversial institution. At least a quarter of Britons believe we'd be better off without it, more than half want an end to its state funding and two thirds want the royal household opened up to more scrutiny. Last year some 79 per cent said they weren't interested in the wedding and a Guardian ICM poll showed an increase in support for abolition in the run up to the wedding. Those viewpoints should be represented alongside the enthusiasm of monarchists and the indifference of many more.

When it comes to broadcast journalists there is a clear legal obligation to report in an impartial manner. Along with colleagues from Republic I met with BBC executives last year after accusing the corporation of 'abandoning journalistic integrity' in its coverage of the royal wedding. Unfortunately it seems the Beeb has not learnt any lessons, falling again into the habit of celebrating, not reporting the jubilee.

But it's not just legally obliged journalists that should be careful with their reporting, and I've called on all media outlets to present republican viewpoints alongside those of monarchists and, most importantly, to challenge and question the claims of Palace aides. Failure to do so not only fails the public by providing a one-sided picture of what's going on, it threatens the credibility of our media.

To highlight the point there are a number of assertions widely repeated by the media at the time of the royal wedding which were subsequently debunked. These include:

- The royal wedding would be a 'shot in the arm' for the economy. (The Office for National Statistics announced in July that it actually had a negative effect on economic growth. At the time we reminded the media of the CBI's calculation that an extra public holiday would wipe £6bn off the economy.)

- 'Two billion people' would watch the wedding on television. (Official figures revealed the real number was a fraction of this estimate, which was shown to be virtually impossible.)

- 'Millions' would hold street parties. (Republic's own freedom of information research revealed that only one in three councils received a single application for a street party, and three quarters received five applications or fewer.)

- The wedding would lead to a 'major boost' to Britain's tourism industry. (Another freedom of information investigation by Republic revealed that royal events actually have a negative impact on inbound tourism.)

The publicly-funded Palace PR machine is already in overdrive and it must not go unchallenged. All too often the spin and half-truths coming from royal aides are just accepted as fact. Yet those 'facts' are so far from the truth and so obviously manufactured for PR purposes that journalists would be doing the public a disservice by reporting them ad nauseum rather than challenging this very obvious spin-doctoring. There is, after all, a very good reason for the intense PR campaign being run by the palace: they know the public are fast losing interest in the royals, and that as the Queen nears the end of her life any residual affection for her is unlikely to transfer to her son and heir.

The BBC has an obligation to report impartially yet it fails hands down when it comes to its royal reporting, and many other journalists are all too eager to follow suit. The result is an undemocratic institution that is able to co-opt almost the entire media output of this country to its own advantage and a media that is failing to report the true story of a changing public attitude toward royalty and monarchy.

Graham Smith is chief executive officer of Republic

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.