Prince Harry’s complaints about ‘racist’ press ignore the fact that the UK media and royals have propped each other up for years
Despite the current tension between the British royal family and the media, there is no chance of the relationship being permanently fractured. Both sides have too much to lose, and the normal fawning coverage will resume soon.
For the past few days, the world has been engulfed in the fallout from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, in particular the allegations of racism within Britain’s Royal Family.
The controversy has intensified criticism of the institution, leading some to even question its existence and worth altogether. Prince Harry accused the British media of propping up the institutional racism within Buckingham Palace, and it’s certainly true that notoriously right wing publications such as the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express have not always been sympathetic in their coverage.
The row escalated dramatically when the Society of Editors’ executive director, Ian Murray, resigned after criticism that the organisation was not taking racism seriously enough.
While the debate has raised some important points, there is a bigger picture to it. The BBC has made reference to an “invisible contract” between the media and the royals, whereby the British press – and the Beeb itself – are undoubtedly complicit in propping up what might be described as the ‘privilege’ of the royal family in multiple areas.
Although the British press may often be critical of the royals – as is the case at the moment – they have a vested interest in supporting the status quo because of the benefits this brings, and will never seek to end the institution or oppose it entirely. So those who seek long-term change from this saga might be disappointed.
What, exactly, is the royal family’s purpose? Some might say it embodies the spirit, leadership and essence of the nation itself. Over the decades, the royals have been perceived as a source of pride and direction, helping the nation stay strong through troubled times such as World War II. But that overshadows the more practical and material reality.
The royal family exists in Britain because unlike other countries who once had monarchies, such as France, Germany, or Russia, the UK has never suffered from violent revolutionary upheaval, and so the crown has been able to map out its political survival through changing times and contexts.
The British monarchy thus lives to maintain its privileges, and seeks to navigate a country where the idea of a royal family, should – in theory – be obsolete. The key, of course, to sustaining these privileges is public support, and the key to sustaining that support is, of course, the media, who are the arbiters of public opinion within the UK.
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The development of mass media in the 20th century led the royal family to reform its ‘survival’ strategy, focusing less on politics and more on imagery and extravagance. But as the modern press evolved, the royals could no longer be a private and mysterious family rarely seen or heard; increasingly they were at the centre of a real-time consciousness and the media wanted access.
And herein explains the ‘bond’ between the British press and the royal family. The media want stories and photographs, because the interest in the royals from the British public is massive – and that translates to sales and viewers. This, in turn, leads the British media to indirectly support the status quo. They may be critical of certain things here and there, but their financial wellbeing and ratings ultimately become wedded to the existence of the institution itself.
In turn, the royal family have blended themselves into modern celebrity culture. Any criticism is quickly drowned out by the public’s appetite to watch royal weddings, see royal babies and to ponder over their fashion and branding. Even the BBC itself is a party to this culture. In 2018, for example, it posted a story titled “Meghan closes a car door” which obsessed over the fact that as a royal, she did this benign activity herself.
As a result, the media indirectly prop up the elitist status quo of the royal family as a vested part of the system, and this is what has allowed problems such as apparent institutional racism to go unchecked.
Meghan’s entry into the family was only permitted because it would enhance their ‘modernist’ image, rather than any broadening out of principles. The subsequent value clash and current saga is indicative of the relationship’s superficial nature. It is not the first scandal Buckingham Palace has faced, nor will it be the last.
But the reality is that this will not be a reckoning for the royals because no newspaper, irrespective of its position on the left or right, has a true incentive to challenge the system in its entirety to put itself at a financial disadvantage.
Access can be denied, coverage can be banned, permissions for photos can be withdrawn and an abundance of elite contacts can cause serious problems for those outlets that do become a threat. While the royal family are ultimately apolitical in public, the rosy scenes we are so frequently greeted with gloss over the cold reality that these are not a group of charming, independent and altruistic people – they are the elite and they continue to be, behind the scenes, the backbone of the state.
They sit on a hierarchy of privilege, and allow access to that privilege as a means to prolonging it. The media are attached to the bandwagon; nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them and so there is no feasible reality in which Britain could ever remove its monarchy, short of a complete collapse of the state itself.
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