Why digging up Richard III tells us more about the present than the past

The body of the last Plantagenet king has been exhumed – but what have we learned?

“Burying people in multi-storey car parks,” the recently exhumed Richard III quipped on Twitter this morning, “that’s wrong on so many levels.” Today’s sensational post-mortem had everything: a press conference, a Guardian live blog, nerdy Twitter storms aplenty and a juicy royal connection. But does it add anything to our knowledge of the man, his times, and the circumstances of his death?

Richard Buckley’s team at the University of Leicester have confirmed “beyond reasonable doubt” that the skeletal remains found underneath a council-owned car park in Leicester do indeed belong to the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. The positive identification was based on DNA evidence, matching genetic materials taken from the bones with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian believed to be descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York, along with one other who has chosen to remain anonymous. The team also took note of contemporary accounts and battle scars. The death-blow appears to have been dealt by a blade along the base of the skull, though the remains (complete with iconic spinal curvature) bear evidence of further damage, possibly inflicted posthumously.

But is the discovery of Britain’s most grotesquely caricatured king likely to shift attention back from the canonical high Tudors to the late-medieval world of Richard of York? Does such a discovery, for all its apparent gravitas, really tell us anything we didn’t already know, or does it simply tread upon the quiet, curiosity-led research being driven from our universities by marketisation and the need to provide students with "value for money". Are these celebrated findings the kind of astonishing but contextually thin results funding bodies like to herald as a legitimate use of taxpayers' money? The Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins has voiced her concern that the triumph of "impact" may be overshadowing the diminishment of real learning:

I'm just suggesting that it's rather a limited avenue of historical research that seems to have much to do with the dread word "impact" – in which academics are supposed to show that their work has "real-world" effects, whatever that might mean, though often interpreted to include public recognition and media coverage.

Cambridge classicist and broadcaster Mary Beard had this to say:

It’s probably too soon to tell. No doubt the real insights this discovery will yield, are likely to trickle out without fanfare over the next few years. And yet one can hardly blame the University of Leicester and its School of Archeology and Ancient History for making a little noise. They, like so many other departments in the humanities, are faced with a financial situation that makes them far more vulnerable than Professor Beard's employers in Cambridge. Perhaps today's news is less a boon for the university than for the city; less a triumph for the study of history, than for the Goveite vision of the kings and queens of England. Really, today's discussion says a great deal more about our own times than Richard's.

Canon David Monteith has announced that the king's bones will be interred in Leicester Cathedral in a solemn multi-faith ceremony (to which live television coverage and royal attention will no doubt be devoted). As if wished into reality by the assumptions forming in the back of my head, the Telegraph’s Ed West posted this little beauty earlier today: “Richard III’s burial could be as poignant and beautiful as the royal wedding.” The victory, so far as I can tell, lies with the House of Windsor.

West has argued that Richard should be buried in either London or York, but the announcement made by Canon Monteith makes this accident of history seem much less accidental. Over the last few years, Leicester Cathedral has held ecumenical commemorations of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, as well as lead vigils against racial hatred. West writes, "Identity is hard to articulate and attempts to do so always lead people to effectively confuse their own beliefs with the values of the country." I couldn't agree more. And while my own vision, unlike his, looks nothing like last summer's royal nuptials, a morally bankrupt king (name me one who wasn't), buried with a thorough understanding of his life and times by local community members from all faiths and none, certainly does.

Richard III perished in 1485, as was implied by the Welsh soldier bard Guto'r Glyn, from a blow to the head on Bosworth field. Many will have first encountered the story when reading Shakespeare at school, turning from the literary text to their history teachers, bursting with questions. Riding beside the loyal John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard arrives as Bosworth and raises his arm:

“Up with my tent there! here I will lie tonight; / But where to-morrow?”

A television screen displays the skull that is believed to be that of King Richard III. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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