It’s the “woke” liberal elite that threatens free speech, we are perpetually told. Those who hold traditional, patriotic views are allegedly bullied into silence. But try expressing republican opinions in the wake of Elizabeth II’s death. Polls suggest that about 20 per cent of Britons want to abolish the monarchy but, as TV, radio and newspapers found innumerable voices to praise (or, in most cases, adulate) both Elizabeth and her successor, Charles III, dissenters struggled to get even a 0.001 per cent share of the coverage.
Tucked away in the Observer you could find a few lonely supporters of what Cromwellians, after the accession of another Charles restored the monarchy in 1660, called “the good old cause”. The paper quoted Matthew: “There’s cause for celebration… it might kick-start the end of the monarchy.” Aisha believed “the monarchy… compromises our democratic rights and signifies colonialism”. Matthew who? Aisha who? Neither will say. Matthew and Aisha aren’t even their real names. “I don’t want to be the target of a massive pile-on by trolls,” said Matthew, who had crafted Facebook posts arguing for a republic before deciding not to send them.
Later a handful of brave souls – such as a 45-year-old man in Oxford who shouted, “Who elected him?” as the new King was ceremonially proclaimed – were arrested for mild public protests. Few media outlets provided even brief comment.
Otherwise, just about the only acknowledgement that republicans even exist was the Telegraph’s report that plans to take the coffin to London by train were abandoned because of fears it could attract “protesters or reckless behaviour”.
The paucity of actual dissent from the royalist consensus was disappointing for the Mail and Telegraph, always keen to administer a good kicking to anyone guilty of thought-crime. The BBC let them down so badly that the Mail columnist Jan Moir was compelled to admit that “solemn as a Bible, it… caught the moment best”, with newsreaders’ black ties appearing on cue.
But Saturday’s Mail (10 September) had enough to run a story about “sick jibes”. A US academic had tweeted that Elizabeth “sponsored genocide” and wished that “her pain be excruciating”. The novelist and former NS columnist Will Self had written for US site the Daily Beast under the headline “The British monarchy should die with the Queen”. The former England footballer and TalkSport pundit Trevor Sinclair asked on Twitter “why should black and brown mourn!!” when racism is “allowed to thrive”. TalkSport suspended him and a colleague said it wasn’t “an appropriate thought”. And after Saturday’s televised accession, the Mail on Sunday ticked off Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong republican, for “snubbing” the Privy Council ceremony by not turning up.
Salvation came from the New York Times, now a favourite target for right-wing columnists. In the Telegraph, Douglas Murray wrote at length about how, while an “outpouring of grief and affection” was taking place everywhere else in the US, the “poisonous rag” commissioned an “attack” on the late Queen from Maya Jasanoff, “a grievance studies professor” who argued that Elizabeth “helped obscure a bloody history of decolonisation”. (Jasanoff’s actual title, unmentioned by Murray, is Coolidge professor of history at Harvard University.)
The NYT, Murray advised, was driven by “hatred” of Britain, partly because it recruits “otherwise unemployable hard-left journalists from Britain”. I tried to check the names of these characters but – apart from a mild-mannered former colleague of mine who began his career at the Telegraph and is nobody’s idea of a hard leftist – I could find no British “recruits”, only a few occasional freelance contributors.
The last time a British monarch died, in 1952, wartime rationing of newsprint was still in force. Daily and Sunday papers could print only 16 tabloid pages at most. The day after Elizabeth’s death, the Times’s obituary alone, including photographs, was published as a 40-page “commemorative supplement”. The first 35 of the main paper’s 84 pages were devoted to royalty, with the government’s proposals for energy bills squeezed into four. More thick supplements came at the weekend. Developments in Ukraine barely registered.
Little of the coverage was, strictly speaking, news, with the main exceptions being Charles III’s first speech as King and the Windsor walkabout by William and Harry. You would need to live under a rock – or be an exceptionally strict republican abstaining from royal tittle-tattle as some people abstain from alcohol or animal flesh – to be unaware that Elizabeth II was mad about horses, preferred Windsor Castle to Buckingham Palace and didn’t get on terribly well with Margaret Thatcher. The past few days added almost nothing to our understanding of her, or to our insight into how the monarchy influences government.
That’s fine by most newspapers. Real news – once defined as something that somebody somewhere wants to suppress – is expensive and liable to attract libel suits. It’s also, thanks to the internet, ephemeral: break a story and it’s around the world in seconds so that nobody needs to buy your paper. Readers will, however, buy and keep illustrated supplements marking royal marriages, anniversaries and deaths. In the age of social media, with its babble of unreliable news and contentious opinion, the commemorative edition gives newspapers a unique selling point. The more unsurprising and uncontroversial, even banal, it is, the better. Elizabeth II, wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, “was a fixed point in our lives, a figure of continuity when all around was in constant flux”. Newspapers want to be part of that.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession