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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.