Queen of the Poms faces revolt at home


Australia is a faraway country of which we know little. In Britain, Australia's political life goes largely unreported and it fails to generate crime, glamour or sex on a scale capable of disturbing the global news machine's Richter scale.

It is like Wales, except bigger. The English set the place up and it's perfectly pleasant if you like that type of scenery, but don't expect anything to happen there. None of the British papers has a serious news operation in Australia - but then, the locals speak the language, so you can always pick up a stringer should a pop star with a British wife hang himself from the back of his hotel-room door. Even Australian newspaper tycoons leave the country to interfere in more interesting places.

There is also a shortage of that most vital international currency - celebrities.

Australian heroes of contemporary popular culture fall into one of four categories: they play sports about which English newspaper readers are not passionate; they are not defined by their Australian-ness (the actress Nicole Kidman and the art writer Robert Hughes, for example); they are ageing caricatures (Rolf Harris); or they have arisen from the sunny, suburban blandness of early evening soap opera (Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue.)

The sight of Minogue in the papers this week, dressed as Marilyn Monroe at Rupert Murdoch's film-studio opening in Sydney, is to British eyes plain comic, like an adult playing with the toy-room dressing-up box - and definitely page 17 material, on a slow day.

It is, however, a tribute to these long-running television programmes that, in a fortnight when the papers have given more space to Australia than in the previous two years, there has been such an absence of the older forms of stereotype. Very few corks on hats, not much Barry Humphries and scarcely a jumbuck in sight.

The Australian rugby team has been sullenly witnessed not as a rollicking, devil-may-care gang, but as an engine of monstrous defence with no power to entertain. Lynne Truss, the Times's anti-sports writer, said the Aussies had not "given a performance worth travelling to watch", and likened the experience of reporting the Rugby World Cup to spending five weeks with a nail driven into her skull. More learned followers of the sport struggled to disagree.

When it came to the referendum, it turned out that in politics, too, the Australians are not so much hell-raising frontiersmen as conservative, neighbourly sorts.

In the papers, the unchallenged analytical consensus was that Australians cancelled the Last Night of the Poms only because they so detest the republican alliance of the new establishment. "You can buy the media, you can buy the celebrities, you can buy the politicians, but you can't buy the Australian people," one young monarchist told the Guardian.

If only Australians had been allowed to vote for a directly elected president, they would, apparently, have turfed out the Windsors (and, presumably, since they hate politicians so much, elected Kylie Minogue).

Bored with events inside Australia, most papers shifted their attention to the political lessons for Tony Blair in the way the referendum question was manipulated. The editorialists are at one in opposing a House of Lords dominated by political appointees and they overwhelmingly think that Ken Livingstone should be allowed a free run at the London mayoralty.

In the Sunday Telegraph, A N Wilson mounted a spirited argument that the Queen should break free of her new Labour minders and resist publicly the Prime Minister's plans for the House of Lords. The Sun, having fruitlessly despatched its political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, to stir his fellow Australian passport-holders to revolt, and even published a special republican issue of the paper in Australia, says that it has now started the first British debate about the monarchy "since the days of Cromwell".

Analysts are divided as to whether David Yelland, the Sun's editor, has been startled into this radical political awakening by Jonathan Freedland's book extolling the virtues of the American constitution, or whether he is simply following Rupert Murdoch's instructions. Vote Yes: Freedland, by phoning 09009 100 721. To vote No: Murdoch, call 09009 100 722.

Whatever the reason for Yelland's enlightenment, it provoked a war of historical ignorance with the Mirror, which denounced the new-found land of America as "a country so self-obsessed that it sometimes forgets it has only existed for little over 200 years".

The official voice of the new republicanism, however, can be found at the Guardian/Observer, home base of the Freedland argument that the American constitution is the key to that country's economic and cultural vitality.

This is now glossed by the Observer's Will Hutton, who objects to the Prince of Wales behaving like a newspaper columnist and thinks Gordon Brown is ready to stir a dash of republicanism into his "new Britishness" cocktail.

This is all very entertaining, but might be read alongside the much more violent predictions of the monarchy's demise during the turbulent life and times of Princess Diana - events that did, I believe, post-date the English civil war.

Natural sceptics might even wish to set Hutton's identification of the "republican opportunity" against his economic forecasts, according to which we should by now be in the thick of a Gordon Brown recession.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome