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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.