This post is not about paparazzi and privacy but rather about a lesser known issue outside of the UK, namely the extent to which the wrong tone, style or extent of the coverage of the Queen and her family can be dangerous to the careers of people in the media. Rereading the title of the post you may now be assuming that the situation is straightforward – criticize the Queen and you are out. But the true situation is far more complicated. Years ago, Peter Sissons, a respected and well liked newsreader was taken to task for wearing a burgundy tie rather than a black one when he announced the death of the Queen Mother. The problem for him was that he was specifically told not to wear a black tie by the managers. They apparently wanted to “modernize” the coverage by not giving it special treatment. (Presumably if something had happened to the Prime Minister a black tie would not have been required.) There were rumours (all denied) that the Palace was angry and many people were no doubt upset over it. One hundred and thirty people regarded the coverage as disrespectful and called the BBC to complain but another 1500 complained that the BBC had moved the drama Casualty to make room for the coverage. So however they choose to deal with a story on the Royals, the media — and the BBC in particular, because they are taxpayer funded — can find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis.
The fact is the British (all of them from the Palace to the homeless) live in a split personality media environment where on the one hand the public loves the tabloids that live on obtaining salacious details of celebrity lives into which the Royals have been absorbed from time to time. (And make no mistake, despite the diet of scandal these readers are generally pro- Royal Family). On the other hand, the Times and Daily Telegraph part of the so-called “quality” media help the British keep track of royal engagements on the Court and Social pages and generally showcase the glamorous or caring side of the Royal Family. In between are the Guardian and FT and others whose readers do not expect to see royal news over their morning coffee. I used to be amused at the interplay between the extremes at the outbreak of a royal scandal. For example, before becoming a fulltime army officer, when Prince Harry’s embarrassments made the front page of the Sun you could pretty much guarantee that he would be packed off to Africa that night. The very next day the front page of the Daily Telegraph carried a picture of Prince Harry smiling and holding an African child. It happened so regularly that I wondered that some of the African embassies did not write to complain about the use of the children as props. Eventually, he did become a fulltime soldier in Afghanistan. He was also a lot older and deemed by the public to be responsible for himself which leads me to the most recent media “gaffe” – this time by the distinguished journalist Frank Gardner, Security Correspondent for the BBC.
The BBC has recently apologized because Gardner discussed a political opinion volunteered by the Queen in a conversation at a dinner. Poor Frank Gardner got raked over the coals because the Queen and the Royals are meant to stay out of politics and not express political opinions. In other words, although he is an independent professional, he should have protected the monarchy’s position of neutrality. The problem I have with this attitude is that anytime a new prime minister or president meets the Queen for the first time, we are repeatedly told of the Queen’s vast experience in public affairs and that prime ministers find her advice very sound. According to this standard the Queen is herself a seasoned professional. In addition, Frank Gardner is 51 while the Queen is 86 so if he should have known better, so should she. After all, she knew she was speaking to a journalist and every major public official is careful about what they say to journalists.
The Queen and Royal Family have gone from the 1950s and 60s position of great media deference to a little too much familiarity (and a lot of criticism) to what we have now – a kind of searching on both sides for respect without idolatry, in keeping with the public mood. It seems to be a quest for a mature relationship. And don’t mature relationships involve each side taking the appropriate responsibility for their actions? The BBC stood up for Peter Sissons when he wore the wrong tie but apologized for Frank Gardner (mind you at least he was not fired) because he repeated something the Queen told him in a public gathering. The relationship needs work.