The Media Today

Pomp and circumstance and the press

September 9, 2022
Newspapers devoted to the death of Queen Elizabeth II are seen in Manchester, England, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest-reigning monarch, died on Thursday Sept. 8 aged 96. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

In 2017, The Guardian published a long read by Sam Knight, now of The New Yorker, setting out, in meticulous detail, what would happen when the queen died. Reporting the article required breaking a sort of omertà—“We avoid the subject as we avoid it in our own families,” Knight wrote, adding that “it seems like good manners, but it is also fear”—with people involved in the planning insisting on talking to Knight in almost total secrecy. Amid the ceremonial formalities, Knight laid out how Britain’s media would receive the news of the queen’s death: at the BBC, rats—a Cold War–era alarm whose acronym formally stands for “radio alert transmission system” and informally stands for “royal about to snuff it”—would sound, sending the broadcaster into overdrive; commercial music stations would put on sad playlists; the Times of London would (apparently) pull the trigger on eleven days’ worth of coverage plans. (And this would be nothing: according to Knight, when the queen’s grandfather, King George V, was on his way out in 1936, his doctor dosed him with enough morphine and cocaine to “have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight.”)

For a time, Knight reported, the queen would “be gone without our knowing it. The information will travel like the compressional wave ahead of an earthquake, detectable only by special equipment.” As it happened, yesterday, the first tremors of the story that would ultimately become the queen’s death were registered by reporters in Britain’s Parliament, who noticed a strange shift in energy and notes being passed among lawmakers as they debated a major piece of legislation that Liz Truss—appointed as prime minister by the queen only two days prior—was trying to push through to address soaring energy costs. Soon, the royal family put out a brief statement noting that the queen’s doctors had grown “concerned” by her health and recommended that she “remain under medical supervision.” On its face, this was not a lot of information to go by, but the mere fact of the statement was unusual, and reading between the lines—as the press is often forced to do with royal press releases—the implications were clear. The BBC quickly tipped into special coverage, cutting away from a show called Bargain Hunt mid-hunt. Other British networks followed. Knight’s article started to recirculate online.

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Hours passed. On the BBC, colored ties were switched out for black ones—a sartorial necessity for sad royal news ever since the broadcaster failed to mandate them following the death of the queen’s mother, causing conniptions in the right-wing press—and Huw Edwards, the closest thing the BBC has to a national treasure, with the exception of David Attenborough, took over as anchor, which some viewers took as an ominous sign. There was speculation, at least in my household, that the queen’s death would be confirmed at 6pm UK time, when the BBC’s evening newscast traditionally starts. In the end, it came slightly later, at 6:30pm, in a tweet. After pausing briefly to digest the news, Edwards looked into the camera, a red tint in his eyes, and read it out. A short obituary package followed. Then, the national anthem.

The homepage of the BBC’s website was soon trimmed to contain only one story; even its sports landing page was stacked with content about the queen. Major networks cleared their evening schedules (including Channel 4, which did not do so after the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, died last year, actually scoring a ratings win over competitors who ran with wall-to-wall tribute coverage); a sports network showed a soccer game involving Manchester United, but pulled all ads and punditry, instead leaving a black graphic onscreen at halftime. (United lost—“perhaps understandably,” the match announcer said.) At time of writing, further live sports broadcasts were set to be canceled, at least through the weekend, as Britain enters a phase of national mourning. Networks’ other programming was expected to be widely preempted, too. Normal political business—including, presumably, media interviews—will likely also be curtailed.

The queen’s death was a seismic story not only on British television but around the world: major US networks cut into their scheduled programming to break the news; Australian broadcasters did likewise, even though it was the middle of the night. (Russian state media covered the news, too, though the head of RT apparently wasn’t very happy about it.) Print and digital outlets, meanwhile, quickly published pre-prepared obituaries, essays, and photo galleries, the majority of them cloyingly hagiographic. Back in the UK, almost all of this morning’s papers, across the political spectrum, ran full front-page photos of the queen at various points in her reign. Some promised souvenir pullouts inside. (The Telegraph’s: twenty-eight pages; The Sun’s: thirty-six.)

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The queen’s reign, my Columbia colleague Emily Bell noted yesterday, “bookended the era of mass electronic media. Her coronation was used to sell TV sets, her death was tweeted out by the palace.” This shifting landscape shaped how the world perceived her; the New York Times even referred to her yesterday as “the media queen” in the sense that she “blended the ancient and the modern with the help of mass media,” using television and, latterly, social media to keep herself and the pageantry that surrounded her visible, reinforcing her “royal narrative” and “vital mystique.” (“You have to be seen to be believed,” the queen was reportedly fond of saying.) Yet this visibility rested on something of a contradiction as the queen remained an intensely private figure, refusing to give interviews or say much at all in public aside from her annual Christmas addresses and one unusually intimate BBC documentary about her family life—and even that was later ordered hidden; when it leaked onto YouTube years later, it was removed after the BBC asserted copyright. (Interestingly, Attenborough, who was controller of the BBC when the documentary was made, thought it was a terrible idea, despite the historic access opportunity. The monarchy “depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut,” he reportedly said. “If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”) Ultimately, “the life of Elizabeth remains an enigma,” as Otto English put it in Politico yesterday. “It was almost as if she was absent from her own story—her legend as rigorously curated and spun as that of any autocrat.”

If some of the many thousands of words currently being spilled on the queen’s life have acknowledged her fundamental ambiguity, more have shaded in the gaps; a New York Times obituary asserted that “her personal behavior, unlike that of most of her family, was beyond reproach,” even though, as The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner pointed out, it’s hard to know this due to all the ambiguity. Indeed, it feels like ancient history now, but the queen was reproached, not least by the British tabloid press, after what was perceived as her aloof reaction to the death of Princess Diana twenty-five years ago. A headline in the right-wing Mail asked whether the House of Windsor “has a heart?” The liberal Mirror addressed the Queen directly—“YOUR PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING, SPEAK TO US MA’AM”—between images of distraught mourners.

The words “unlike that of most of her family,” in the Times’ formulation, point toward another contradiction in the queen’s public image: she has often been portrayed, in the world’s media, as the steadfast embodiment of the royal family, but at times of scandal—and there have been many—she has often been portrayed as standing apart from it. She (mostly) escaped media fallout after her son Prince Andrew was accused of rape and linked to Jeffrey Epstein (and squirmed embarrassingly as he sought to defend himself on the BBC); later, when Meghan Markle accused the royal family of racism, the queen was mostly left out of it. (Indeed, right-wing bloviators punched back at Meghan on what they seemed to imagine was the queen’s behalf.)

Now that the queen is gone, it’s hard to see how the family she leaves behind will be able to remain so private and detached; as far as some of them are concerned, the bubble has already been punctured. Even the new King Charles III, while not on Andrew’s or Meghan’s level, has been a controversial figure in the past, both in media coverage of his private life but also with regard to affairs of state. In 2015, The Guardian obtained a cache of letters—dubbed the “black spider memos,” after Charles’s spidery handwriting—that, in the paper’s words, shined a light on “the breadth and depth of the heir to the throne’s lobbying at the highest level of politics”; the government released the memos only after The Guardian waged a decade-long battle under British public-records laws, with officials arguing that publication “would be seriously damaging to [Charles’s] role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king.” A cynic, of course, might observe that the government was seeking to defend the perception of neutrality here, not neutrality itself. Charles has since insisted that he won’t lobby politicians as king; “I’m not that stupid,” he once said. Now that he is king, will the press be vigilant in holding him to this promise? Or will it co-opt itself, once again, into the fiction that it’s the media’s job to help the monarch retain their “mystique”?

In his Guardian article in 2017, Knight reported that the exaggerated “theater” of royal pomp and circumstance is not that traditional, even though the media often paints it in such terms; rather, he noted, it swelled to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the monarchy’s hard political power, which these days is practically nonexistent, or should be. Nor has this theater always pleased everyone. According to Knight, after the queen’s father, George VI, died in 1952, some people objected to the “forelock tugging” media coverage. In reporting on the preparations for the queen’s death, some journalists told Knight that the idea of having to rehearse how they’d cover it made them feel uncomfortable. As one former BBC producer told him, “There is one story which is deemed to be so much more important than others.”

Yesterday, before the Queen’s death was confirmed, the BBC’s Clive Myrie, whose turn it was to anchor the broadcaster’s special coverage while the world waited for more news of her condition, threw to a BBC correspondent who was stationed outside Buckingham Palace, where people were starting to congregate in the pouring rain. The news of the queen’s ill health had come “as Liz Truss was making a rather important statement concerning the future of energy bills,” Myrie said. “That, of course—insignificant now.”

Below, more on the queen’s death:

Other notable stories:

  • Authorities in Las Vegas offered more details after arresting Robert Telles, a local official, in connection with the murder of Jeff German, a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter who had exposed wrongdoing on Telles’s part. Police said that they found Telles’s DNA at the crime scene and related evidence, including clothing, at his home. Yesterday afternoon, Telles appeared in court, where it was ruled that he should be held without bail.
  • For CJR, Madison Hahamy reports on turmoil at the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the ownership of the Block family. Since 2019, when one of the Blocks infamously appeared in a rage in the Post-Gazette’s newsroom, “things have only gotten worse,” Hahamy writes, with “mass resignations, labor lawsuits, and running disputes in which the newsroom and the owners accuse each other of political bias.”
  • NBC Chicago reports that a conservative group has been sending out political mailers styled as traditional newspapers—with names like the “Chicago City Wire” and “DuPage Policy Journal”—ahead of Illinois’s gubernatorial election in November. J.B. Pritzker, the state’s Democratic governor, who is seeking reelection, accused the group behind the mailers of “trying to take over where local, real journalism unfortunately has receded.”
  • Brian McGrory, the editor of the Boston Globe, will step down in the coming months to become the chair of the journalism department at Boston University. In other media-jobs news, Jay Caspian Kang, of the Times, is returning to The New Yorker as a staff writer. (ICYMI, Karen K. Ho profiled Kang for CJR in 2017.) And First Lady Jill Biden named Vanessa Valdivia as her new press secretary, succeeding Michael LaRosa.
  • On Wednesday, authorities in Hong Kong arrested Ronson Chan, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, while he was covering a meeting. Chan, who has been arrested before amid a longer-term clampdown on press freedom in the territory, had been scheduled to start a fellowship at the Reuters Institute in the UK later this month. Last year, Chan told CJR that he knew his work could be “uprooted at any moment.”
  • Earlier this week, a hit man shot and killed Humberto Coronel, a radio journalist, in Pedro Juan Caballero, on Paraguay’s border with Brazil. Earlier this year, the city’s mayor, whose family owned the station where Coronel worked, was killed in similar circumstances; after that, Coronel received a death threat but refused a subsequent offer of state protection because, according to a colleague, he didn’t trust the police.
  • A court in Iran sentenced two women, Zahra Seddiqi Hamedani and Elham Choubdar, to death on charges including “promoting homosexuality” and “communicating with the media opposing the Islamic Republic,” The Guardian reports. Last year, Hamedani was detained and tortured by officials in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan after she participated in a documentary, for the BBC’s Persian service, about anti-LGBTQ+ abuse in the region.
  • Hussam Hammoud, a Syrian journalist living in Turkey, said that France denied his request for asylum in that country despite the fact that he has received threats in both Turkey and Syria, where he could now be deported. Hammoud has covered isis and other stories for major European outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, and Le Monde. He also passed evidence about isis to French antiterrorism investigators.
  • And Bernard Shaw, the former CNN anchor, has died. He was eighty-two. “Shaw was CNN’s first chief anchor and was with the network when it launched on June 1, 1980,” CNN reports. He was “often credited with raising CNN’s international prominence and turning CNN into the news leader it is today. He was also known for being cool under pressure—which was exemplified with his coverage of the First Gulf War.”

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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.