Diamond Jubilee: A bad few days for journalism


Huffington Post UK – London – 8 June 2012


By Peter Tatchell

Judging from the media coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations you’d think that the entire British population are ardent monarchists. Critical, dissenting voices were mostly ignored and sidelined. Journalistic balance and impartiality was supplanted in favour of fawning sycophancy towards the royals.

The media is not in the pay of Buckingham Palace spin doctors but many of them acted as though they are. No doubt about it, the monarchy scored a sensational public relations coup; largely thanks to most reporters discarding their normal standards of objectivity.

While I am glad that millions of people enjoyed the celebrations – and that hard-working Britons received a much-deserved extra day’s holiday – I see no reason why the media coverage should not have included alternative viewpoints about the ethics and efficacy of the monarchical system.

True, republicans are a minority. But in a democracy, minority opinions should be allowed and be heard. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a democracy is the facilitation of dissenting, questioning perspectives.

The entire history of social progress in this country has been one in which minorities challenged the prevailing consensus. Centuries ago, for example, only a handful of so-called ‘extremists’ wanted to abolish slavery or give votes to women. It’s always the case that the democratic reforms we now take for granted started out as marginalised, fringe ideas. This will no doubt be the case with regard to the republican bid for an elected head of state. Eventually, reason and morality will prevail. Future generations will look back in amazement that as late as the early 21st century most British people lauded the elitism and privilege of royalty.

The royal family still enjoy many of the trappings of feudal extravagance. They have over 700 servants and nine royal palaces and residences; which is far more than they need or deserve. Estimates of the Queen’s personal, private wealth vary from £310 million to nearly £4 billion. Yet the royals are subsidised by the taxpayer at a time of extreme financial hardship for millions. It doesn’t seem fair.

Journalists and politicians heaped praise on the Queen’s “distinguished”, “unblemished” and “exemplary” 60-year reign. While she has not been embroiled in any major scandals, like those that have engulfed heads of state in many other countries, her time on the Throne has not been without its flaws and failings. The media chose to ignore and suppress these shortcomings from its Diamond Jubilee reportage, in clear dereliction of its duty of balance.

Only last month, the Queen hosted seven royal dictators at Windsor Castle, including the blood-stained tyrants from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who have violently suppressed peaceful pro-democracy protests. The invitation list was, according to the Foreign Office, drawn up by Buckingham Palace. These invitations to despots were completely unnecessary and unjustified. They were an insult to the many victims of detention without trial, torture and executions. The Queen appeared to put loyalty to fellow royals before human rights.

Going back in time to 1975, the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General, dismissed the democratically-elected left-wing Labor government of Gough Whitlam. It was, in effect, a coup d’etat. It seems hard to believe that the Queen was not informed in advance that the royal powers, as head of state of Australia, exercised through the office of the Governor-General, were not going to be used in this way.

The Palace doesn’t have a very good record as an employer. Most staff are not well paid. Royal service is, apparently, deemed to be a reward in itself. Historically, the Royal households were not an equal opportunities employer. Until the 1980s, it has been said that there were few black or Asian staff and relatively few women. The Grenadier Guards and Royal Household Cavalry remained all white. Not a single black face. This appeared to change only after a public furore.

Elizabeth II employs gay men. She apparently likes well-groomed, well-mannered male servants. However, until protests by the LGBT rights group OutRage! outside Buckingham Palace in 1996, gay staff were allegedly forbidden to bring their partners to the Christmas Ball, while heterosexual staff were encouraged to do so.

The honours system is cheapened by the persistent rewarding of undeserving royal favourites. Some honours are within the monarch’s personal gift and are not based on recommendations from the Prime Minister and the Honours Secretariat. There have in recent years been prestigious honours for the Queen’s pastry chef and gardener, among others. They have done nothing honourable or exceptional and do not merit such awards.

One startling misjudgement by the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations was the absence of any publicly known beneficence towards the British people. Despite her immense private wealth, and unlike some previous monarchs, no civic legacy was offered – no funding of a school, hospital, museum, library or other public institution to benefit the population.

This absence of a tangible public gift from the Palace by way of commemoration of the Queen’s 60 years on the throne is curious and disappointing. Whereas earlier kings and queens might have bequeathed a royal estate or castle to the nation on such an occasion, this Jubilee has so far offered nothing. She may be many things, but Elizabeth II does not appear to be generous to the public.

Royalty represents the acme of the class system – a system of privilege, snobbery and deference, which is totally out of step with modern democratic, meritocratic Britain. It is a hangover from feudalism. The way people today are still expected to bow and curtsey to the monarch symbolises the insulting arrogance and elitism of royalty.

Monarchy is also fundamentally incompatible with democracy. The highest public office in the land – head of state – should not be an inherited position. It should be open to all and based on merit, character and democratic election. The Queen would be welcome to stand for the post. If she won, which she might, I’d accept the result. She’d have a democratic mandate. Let the people decide.

Were any of these ideas and issues ventilated by the media in the run up to, or during, the Diamond Jubilee? Sadly not. It was the perfect moment for a polite, considered discussion of such matters but it never happened. All we had from most journalists was unfettered eulogy. This is bad for democracy.

Our state institutions work better when they are subjected to critical scrutiny and analysis. Unfortunately, much of the media failed the public. Instead of allowing democrats to tell truth to power, too many journalists played the role of servile conveyers of royal propaganda. Overall, a bad few days for journalistic standards.

* More information about Peter Tatchell’s campaigns: www.PeterTatchell.net and about republic: www.Republic.org.uk