The Media Today

Cancel culture, queues, and the queen

September 16, 2022
People queue near London Bridge to pay their respects to late Queen Elizabeth II during the Lying-in State, at Westminster Hall in London, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. The Queen will lie in state in Westminster Hall for four full days before her funeral on Monday Sept. 19. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Clocks. Garbage collections. Busking on the London Underground. Flights out of Heathrow. Riding your bicycle. Parking your bicycle. A “car free” day in a London borough. “Fire Door Safety Week.” Beeps at a supermarket self-checkout. Premier League soccer. Grassroots soccer. A Burberry show at London fashion week. A David Bowie–themed NFT sale. The right to stay in a pre-booked vacation cabin in the woods. The right to leave a pre-booked vacation cabin in the woods. Hospital appointments. Other people’s funerals. An organ-donation campaign. McDonald’s. The launch of the British version of Dancing with the Stars. The latest episode of Meghan Markle’s podcast. Two segments from John Oliver’s late-night show.

These are just some of the things that have been canceled—or stopped, or banned, or discouraged, or quietened, or postponed, or revoked—somewhere in the UK since the queen died last week, out of respect or to facilitate other people paying theirs. (When the British network Sky rebroadcast the latest episode of Oliver’s US late-night show, it removed jokes including a reference to the queen’s passing as “the shocking death of a ninety-six-year-old woman from natural causes.” Sky declined to comment to Deadline about the changes.) Beside those that have affected the media directly, all the cancellations have provided the press with a running story line this week, alongside a packed calendar of official mourning. They have occasioned much comment on social media, too. A Twitter account called @GrieveWatch has grown in popularity, highlighting not only cancellations but overbaked expressions of public grief. Currently pinned to the top of its feed is a video posted by a prominent right-wing commentator—who once mocked Meghan and Harry for attending a “personal” remembrance event with a photographer present—showing him engaging in some “quiet reflection” outside Buckingham Palace. “The important thing is that you filmed it,” @GrieveWatch wrote.

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Of course, the packed calendar of official mourning has been the major story line this past week across major news organizations. It’s been a huge deal globally, including in the US, with networks dispatching staff to London, cutting into programming to broadcast the latest ceremony, marveling at British “pomp and circumstances” (sic), and lining up plummy-voiced royal commentators straight from British-stereotype central casting. But British news outlets, as is only right and proper, have shown the way.

Yesterday, I settled in at 8am local time with the intention of watching twelve consecutive hours of British TV news coverage; the mourning calendar was relatively empty—King Charles III took the day off—but Britain’s mourning period still had days to run, and I was curious to see if major networks had run out of things to say yet. Reader, I did not quite make it twelve hours, though I gave it my best shot. I started on the BBC, where news from the outside world (the war in Ukraine, the retirement of the tennis great Roger Federer) occasionally punched through, but where the biggest story, to begin with at least, was the real-time progress of a line—soon known to Brits simply as The Queue—that snaked for miles through central London as mourners waited hours for the chance to observe the queen’s casket lying in state. (The BBC is also livestreaming footage of the casket, “for people who want to pay their respects virtually.”) Reporters queued up themselves to interview people in The Queue. Some particularly intrepid journalists joined it themselves and reported back, including a science correspondent at The Times of London, who was the twenty-second person in line. His boss had decided there was “nothing happening in science,” he wrote. Nothing at all.

Back on the BBC, a reporter was talking to two women who had brought loved ones’ ashes to see the queen. Half an hour later, the archbishop of Canterbury appeared onscreen in a high-vis jacket and started to interview people in The Queue as a reporter tried to interview him. At 10:47am or so, the BBC cut away from The Queue for a video interview with a man who edits a newsletter called Our Corgi World. The man batted away concerns that the queen’s death could tank the popularity of corgis as pets while shoveling treats into his own dogs’ mouths. “Edward, Mungo & Barney, corgis,” the onscreen chyron read. After that, I cut away from the BBC to watch Sky News, which was also interviewing people in The Queue: a woman with a net over her face in tribute to the queen’s love of horse-riding; a man who was born on the same day as King Charles and claimed he’d received extra milk rations and similar “goodies” from the palace as a result. “There’s been a royal vein through my life from day one,” the man said. If he seemed happy to talk at length, the same couldn’t be said for interviewees in a different, faster-moving section of The Queue, with a reporter having to gallop to keep pace with them as if she were staking out a recalcitrant politician. (Talk about queue anon.)

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Royal-lovers haven’t been the only people sharing their views in public this week; royal skeptics have been out and about, too, albeit in smaller numbers. A man in Oxford shouted “Who elected him?” at an event proclaiming Charles king; a man in Edinburgh shouted “You’re a sick old man” at a passing Prince Andrew; a woman in Edinburgh held up a cardboard sign that read “FUCK IMPERIALISM, ABOLISH MONARCHY”; a man in London held up a blank piece of paper. All were arrested apart from the man with the blank piece of paper, who said he was told he would be arrested if he wrote “Not My King” on it, on the grounds that “someone might be offended.” The arrests, like the cancellations, quickly became a media subplot in the story of the queen’s death. Politico referred to it as “the thorny issue of what to do about republican protesters.” “Is there a right to protest at royal events?” the BBC’s fact-checking department asked.

The arrests looked like a classic, albeit offline, example of the “Streisand effect,” whereby attempts to suppress information only end up amplifying it; it’s doubtful that these isolated, mild acts of anti-monarchy dissent would have made the news without the heavy-handed police response. (Well, the guy who shouted at Andrew might have. “I’ve heard worse,” The Guardian’s Marina Hyde wrote afterward, of the man’s comment. “And if Prince Andrew hasn’t, he certainly will.”) This isn’t to say that no other coverage of the queen’s death has departed from the uncritical, forelock-tugging norm—some of it has at least entertained questions about her legacy, Charles’s present and future, and whether this whole monarchy thing is still a good idea in 2022. A Guardian story reporting that staffers at the king’s former residence were told of their impending redundancy during a remembrance service for the queen made ripples. Various outlets explored Britain’s imperial history during the queen’s reign, and where she sat within it, sometimes even asking people with roots in countries that Britain colonized for their point of view. Multiple such stories appeared in US publications, including the New York Times, which also reported on the cost to British taxpayers of the queen’s funeral, how Charles’s wealth ballooned while ordinary Brits grappled with austerity, and royals’ special tax status.

Even though these heads above the parapet were relatively few, they were often sniped at by right-wing commentators, with the New York Times coming in for particular scorn. The former BBC anchor Andrew Neil accused the paper of “anti-British propaganda”; Iain Martin, a columnist for the Times’ London namesake, said that the paper “hates” Britain, as did the right-wing magazine The Spectator, which also accused it of “royal derangement syndrome.” The paper’s taxpayer-funded funeral story attracted particular ire, especially after it got Britain’s current rate of inflation wrong and had to append a correction. “How low will it go?! Fury at NY Times for ‘sneering attack’ on British monarchy as readers cancel subscriptions over ‘ignorant’ story about taxpayers ‘paying for Queen’s funeral,’” read one headline in the Mail; “New York Times is forced into an embarrassing apology and correction over ‘sneering attack’ on Royal Family—after fudging inflation figures in ‘woke’ story claiming UK taxpayers will struggle to foot ‘hefty price tag’ for the Queen’s funeral,” read another. When I turned on GB News, an upstart right-wing network, during my watchathon yesterday afternoon, talking heads there were attacking the Times, too, claiming that the paper is simply “jealous” of the queen.

If you were wondering why so many Brits felt they had to cancel anything that might remotely be perceived as insufficiently deferential, perhaps it’s now starting to make sense—as the illogical endpoint of a militant respect culture policed by right-wing media attack dogs who otherwise spend their time moaning that Britain doesn’t have enough free speech. As it happens, at least some prominent conservative voices have stood up for the right of republicans to speak without fearing arrest, or expressed bemusement at—or even outright criticism of—all the cancellations (protestations that, in the latter case, at least, deserve to be read with a tone of Who? Me? innocence). As I watched TV yesterday, GB News was the only place where I heard any reference to the idea of an elected head of state, during a discussion of a poll showing that around 20 percent of Brits would like one; the channel’s hosts panned the idea, of course, but at least they felt free to discuss the queen’s passing within a basic political context.

Everywhere else, I saw mush. I could only watch one network at a time, of course—and I did at some point in the afternoon lose the will to live, or at least to pay close attention—but mush nonetheless matches my broader impression from living alongside the coverage of the past week, if not always mainlining it at every waking moment. We’ve frequently been told—as if to preempt the dangerous notion that this was all a bit excessive for the death of a very old stranger—that it’s not just about her but the unifying British values she stood for; this was a common sentiment in The Queue yesterday. This sort of thing has often been said as if it’s perfectly obvious, or at least above politics. But it isn’t, of course. There is little that’s more political than how a country discusses its values, or is prevented from doing so.

As I’ve written many times before in this newsletter, I’m no fan of coverage that organizes itself around political sides, and insists on hearing their views in some sort of proportion to their popularity in a given community. But it has been, for want of a better word, interesting to see how this organizational principle hasn’t seemed to apply at a moment like this, even at outlets that otherwise cling to it as the way things are done. Stopped clocks, it turns out, can be wrong all the time.

Below, more on the death of the queen:

Other notable stories:

  • Since Russia rapidly lost swaths of territory that it had taken from Ukraine last week, talking heads on state TV have struggled to sugarcoat the news, with even some Kremlin loyalists acknowledging battlefield “failures” and one guest saying that it will be “impossible” for Russia to defeat Ukraine using “colonial war methods.” The Daily Beast has more. Meanwhile, the Putin regime has intensified its clampdown on domestic dissent. On Wednesday, a court in Moscow shuttered an independent journalists’ union, on grounds that included its members’ participation in protests and distribution of banned content. Then, yesterday, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the online version of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which also recently had its print license revoked. Dmitry Muratov, its top editor, slammed the verdict as “informational genocide.”
  • Also yesterday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez read an investigation by Atkin, of Heated, and Molly Taft, of Earther, into the congressional record during a House committee hearing on Big Oil. The investigation, published last year, explored major companies’ tactic of placing deceptive ads in influential political newsletters. In other climate-journalism news, NPR is launching a new climate desk, in part to help member stations expand their local climate coverage. And Covering Climate Now, an initiative founded by CJR and The Nation, argued that paying attention to activists makes climate reporting stronger, since they often preempt where the climate story is headed next. The Inflation Reduction Act, CCN notes, would not have passed without activist pressure.
  • Bill McKibben, The New Yorker’s climate writer, extolled the media infrastructure in his home state of Vermont (which, he suggests, will come in handy if the local population continues to grow as a result of climate change, which is projected to hit the state less severely than other parts of the US). “Thanks to some remarkable people, and some good luck, Vermont has new and legacy Web sites, radio stations, and newspapers that keep the state not just informed but knit together,” McKibben writes. “That luck may not hold indefinitely, but for the moment it shows that the decline of serious local journalism is not as inevitable as some imagine—and that ‘serious’ means several different things.”
  • New York’s Shawn McCreesh reports on unrest at the Times, where unionized staffers are upset over a contract offer “they see as not giving them a fair share” of the paper’s healthy revenues. “Suddenly there’s talk—even among the grown-ups in the Washington bureau—about the one thing that could really cause the Times to run aground: a strike,” McCreesh writes. That still seems like a distant prospect for now, but there is precedent for industrial action at the paper: “In the early ’50s,” McCreesh notes, “a strike resulted in the New York Times failing to publish for the first time in its history.”
  • CNN’s new boss, Chris Licht, isn’t done shaking up the network’s programming, moving to scrap New Day, CNN’s morning show, and to introduce a new vehicle hosted by Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins. (John Berman and Brianna Keilar, the hosts of New Day, will get different roles.) Licht reportedly wants CNN’s morning hours to be more conversational, and he told the Times that he wants the new show to “set the tone” for the network as a whole. (Many media watchers dislike where that tone is headed.)
  • Mathias Döpfner—the CEO of Axel Springer, who now oversees Politico and spoke recently to the Post about his non-interventionist managerial style—suggested that Bild, Springer’s flagship German tabloid, run stories critical of Adidas after the sports brand stopped paying rent in the early days of the pandemic, without publicly disclosing that he was one of the company’s landlords. Olaf Storbeck has more for the Financial Times.
  • NBC News interviewed Reality Winner, the whistleblower who was jailed under the Espionage Act for leaking classified documents on Russian election meddling to The Intercept. Winner called it “incredibly ironic” that Donald Trump is now being probed for mishandling classified documents after his administration aggressively prosecuted her.
  • Joe Pompeo, who is out with a new book about a hundred-year-old double-murder case that hooked the American press on true crime, wrote for The New Yorker about the reporter who covered the case for that then-fledgling magazine, helping define its style.
  • And the New Republic’s Colin Dickey read the Axios founders’ book on their trademark, bullet-point-laden “Smart Brevity” writing style, and found it neither smart nor brief.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.