Is there anything more to the royals than military, charity and celebrity? Not in medialand it seems.
Catching glimpses of the Jubilee regatta/flotilla/boatshow provided much comedy material for those of us on Twitter. Perhaps the bad weather meant that more people were indoors watching the whole thing on telly or online. Personally I’d rather have done something else than be stuck indoors on a cold rainy Sunday. But then it was so much easier to curl up into a ball and eat chocolate instead!
Thus the world was treated to the inane ramblings of rent-a-quotes trying to describe to the rest of us what the royals are really like. The problem is they ended up giving the impression that they are a family of simpletons. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se – but with a family that has had the best education money can throw at them, you’d think the media could come out with better lines than:
“The Duke of Edinburgh is a naval man so he’ll like all of the boats”
“Prince William is wearing his RAF uniform so he’ll be looking forward to the flypast”
Well hold the front page! It’s a bit like someone saying “Well little Charlie’s favourite colour is green so he likes the grass!”
In one sense it’s trivia. Nothing to get really upset or annoyed about. The footage itself was hardly action-packed. There were a handful of nice shots, but it wasn’t the sort of action-packed footage of a sports match that kept you gripped to your TV sets. Not that the commentators these days are any better than those commentating on the flotilla today. I’m sure the bloke who does the athletics and marathons was also doing this one – trying to commentate on the rowers as if it were a real race, rather than lots of them trying to hold a speed of four knots in awful conditions.
Perhaps the historian in me has had greater access to the lives and times of royals who were of a far higher calibre. I wrote a blogpost about Kaiser Friedrich III of Germany – the brother-in-law of The Queen’s great-grandfather Edward VII (Friedrich married Edward’s elder sister Vicky in what was effectively an arranged marriage). Perhaps a royal of equivalent calibre would not only have taken part in modern day peace-keeping operations but would have also overhauled (or at least tried to) some international institutions. Not that a British royal would be let near one without both heavy chaperoning and media handling. That’s not a criticism of Harry – just like Edward VII as Prince of Wales, any operational military role was extremely limited – if off-limits completely because of concerns The Queen and the Ministry of Defence had for Harry, and Victoria and the MoD’s predecessor the War Office (it was ‘no nonsense’ in those days!) had for ‘Bertie’ as he was then known.
Just as the media had to take a good look at itself post-Diana, I can’t help but think that the current relationship between media and royals does anyone any favours either. While taxpayers still pay for their upkeep, there will inevitably be interest from various sections of the public. Whether the readers of celebrity magazines and royal obsessives, to anti-monarchists and those tracking the extravagant tax-payer-funded activities of minor royals. During my civil service days I remember seeing some vacancies within the royal household but thought better than to apply for it given my political disposition even though my historical curiousness would have found such a role interesting.
The limits of what a constitutional monarch can say – in public
As head of state a monarch (in the constitutional monarchy sense) can only make public speeches that have been written for or cleared by officials – or even ministers working for them. The convention being that a British monarch in modern times always acts upon the advice of ministers on substantive issues. It gets complicated when you have someone like Charles as heir. It’s not his fault he’s spent over 40 years as Prince of Wales waiting for his mum to vacate the throne. As his predecessor Edward VII found, there’s only so much you can do with constitutional restrictions and a strong-willed mother. Edward VII was far less popular as Prince of Wales (with his gambling, womanising and expensive tastes) than as a monarch. The media at the time was also not afraid to give him a kicking too.
The thing is, the conventions of our time mean that there are only two things the media and the public can do with the royals. Either it can fawn over and infantilise them, or it can give them a kicking. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere where anyone can talk about what they do from a reasonably grown-up point of view that the royals at the same time can take part in. What I mean is engaging in debate.
Does Charles engage in public debate?
Charles has colourful views on lots of things. He gets adored by royal-friendly society magazines and up-market men’s lifestyle magazines for his suits, praise for raising the environment as a global issue, gets laughed at in the medical science field for his views on alternative medicine, gets criticised by political transparency people over Freedom of Information exemptions for the royals and is loathed by Diana-fans. On the things he’s expressing an opinion on public about – ones that stray into political territory (as three of the above-five do) – he cannot be cross-examined on them. I may sympathise with some of his views on the environment but that does not mean he should be exempt from cross-examination of them given the media profile his speeches get. On the issues of medical science and political transparency I believe he definitely should be subject to cross-examination on them. And not by a royal correspondent either. What’s Robert Jay QC doing after Leveson?
What about the other royals?
You could say the less said about Andrew and Edward the better. (Here’s Andrew and Edward on It’s a Royal Knockout again…oh go on then…here’s the full show). You could also say that William and Harry – and/or their advisers have learnt from that high-profile PR disaster as far as media appearances go. The two of them seem to be more comfortable in front of the media than their uncles. A reflection of just how much society has changed too? The royal family are not a complete talent vacuum – recall that Princess Anne represented Great Britain at the 1976 Olympics and her daughter won gold at the World Equestrian Championships in the three day eventing. Whatever you may think of the royal family as an institution, individuals achieving that level of competency in any sport (irrespective of background) are worth acknowledging because it requires not just luck, but talent and a huge amount of hard work.
Perhaps that’s what makes Anne and Zara stand out a little more from the rest: They have a high level of competency in something that means you can actually have a reasonable interview with them on that specific subject without it needing to be fawning or infantilising.
Do individual royals have the aptitude and intellectual capability to ‘engage in debate’?
I don’t know – I’ve never met them or spent enough time around them to make that judgement call. That said, the reported comments of a couple of them over the years don’t fill me with confidence. Years ago I remember a Guardian columnist slamming Charles for having neither the academic expertise nor the political mandate to justify him speaking out on (and getting the coverage for) the issues he speaks about. That’s before even mentioning the fact that hardly anyone has the ability to cross-examine him in a public forum. How would he cope under such a cross-examination? My guess is not brilliantly given a lifestyle of people being deferential to him over the decades. A daily routine of people saying nice things to you and applauding your speeches isn’t the best of training for the intellectual boxing ring of academic debate.
Would a more open and grown-up relationship with the media and the wider public have a more positive impact? Overnight probably not. It would take getting used to given that royals are only presented through the lenses of the military, charity patronage and celebrity. Other than Charles – who we cannot cross-examine, we don’t really know what the royals think. While the current media conventions remain, all things royal will remain under the spotlights of fawning on all things charity and military, obsession with all things celebrity, and criticism from those with a pro-republic/pro political transparency viewpoint.