The royal death – a study in propaganda
The death of the dowager queen was the ultimate fulfilment of her social function as well as being a fascinating opportunity for propaganda watchers and, just possibly, a sign of hope. It was an event that the media had long been planing for.
The media was unanimous that she was a shining example, a woman of wondrous achievements and a joyful and vivacious person who lived life to the full. The people featured in the vox pops they showed all agreed with this assessment, most of them beaming at the fact that, yes, they had met her, and found her to have an amazing knack for putting people at their ease.
When the time came to provide examples of her amazing achievements, which seldom happened, the event singled out most was that she invented the royal walkabout. That is, her achievements amount to meeting and talking to her fellow human beings, a capacity ninety percent of the human race also possesses. The unspoken fact behind all the accolades was that she was Royal, and by sheer dint of her royalness, everything she did was special.
Why else would a facility for putting people at their ease feature so prominently in the obituaries, unless people felt they should be uneasy around her? This is in fact so. Those people, beaming because they have met her, believed that deference and formality is due to a royal personage. Thus, her lack of formality takes the form of a gift to them, a thing of value. They were noticed, and allowed almost to treat as an equal, someone inherently special, and, of course, in turn, they become special through having met her. Their eulogies for her took the form, then, of drawing attention to their own good fortune and specialness in receiving this royal gift.
This is the role of the royal family in general. Monarchs exist because other people treat them as monarchs not because there is something intrinsic or magical about the royal person which makes them a monarch. It is the willingness of people to kneel before them. In contemporary Britain, this willingness does not directly turn into political power, but a much more nebulous symbolic one. Local councillors, charity-mongers, and assorted worthies vie for the opportunity of getting to meet a royal on walkabout, or be invited to special dinners with her. Thuswise could the Wessexes seek to trade off the royal brand in their business dealings.
This was called to a halt because it contradicted the social role of the monarchical institution: being a source of meaning and value beyond the simple cash nexus. Through the imagery and supposed emotions directly fixed on the monarch by “the people”, British capitalism can present itself as being able to maintain a community of values. Something other than mere profit-seeking matters. Royalty underpins a whole system of social stratification and value.
An example of this can be found in the biographies of Bowes-Lyon broadcast the weekend of her death. Much focus was placed on her and king George VI inviting boys from different social classes to come together on his estate for sports and team building events. The king and his staff clearly believed that the monarchy could be used as a force to bridge the opposition between contending social classes, and thus reconcile them. It is precisely this function that the monarchy performs on a social-wide scale today.
Of course, this sort of veneration does not only apply to royalty. Pop stars, movie actors and sports stars receive similar veneration from an adoring public, and perform the same function of reflecting meaning and glory upon the fans that meet and read about them. The difference is, however, that no star in any other field would have the British state behind their obsequies, nor would the media react in such way. If a famous movie star were lain in state, and the flow of mourners to the cadavre became the headline media subject, we could expect similar numbers of people turning up, just to be at the place where all the interest was, to be able to say that they were there.
It is a mark of the extent of the alienation of our society that neither we, nor the doings of our friends and neighbours, are worthwhile to ourselves unless refracted through the lens of the media and the fame game. It is, in this context, that the congruence between the media’s reaction and its link to the British state that the propaganda value of the death of Bowes-Lyon becomes obvious.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, we witnessed reporters rushing to various locations of official mourning such as her palaces, to look at the gathering crowds. Caught by comparison with the death of Princess Diana, these reporters were forced to acknowledge the lack of spontaneous mourning of the sort that followed the princess’ death: piles of flowers, gathering of crowds, obliging weeping faces. Much time was spent trying to account for the difference, that the dowager queen had lived a long and full life, and her death was expected. Likewise, they predicted that as events moved, the genuine love the people held for her would manifest itself. The underlying assumption always was that she was deeply loved, and that spectacular mourning should have been occurring.
Those broadcasters had reasons to behave in this way, as the operations of the basic mechanisms of propaganda during the process of official mourning indicate. Among the several mechanisms available to the powerful to control the media, are the weapons of flak and access.
Every political leader imaginable was called upon to give statements in praise of the late queen. Parliament was recalled so that all MPs could praise her, and have their praise directly translated into media airtime. The very fact that these were important people praising meant what they had to say was newsworthy. Cabinet ministers and MPs who didn’t bother to show up to the special session of Parliament drew comment and criticism. Likewise, royal pundits were found to sit in studios and reminisce about her life and pass comment upon it. Their special qualification and right to be on telly amounting to having been born into the right social circle and had dinner with the appropriate people. Both they and the politicians had an interest in basking in the reflected glory of the one upon whom they heaped praise.
The power of access was demonstrated in a different way by Prince Charles’ decision to give his official interview on the subject to an ITN team to distribute to all news networks. This represented a severe slap in the face to the official public broadcasting service. It demonstrates the way in which important people can use their capacity to withdraw access, to decide whether or not to grant audience to media representatives based upon whether or not they approve of that media outlet’s behaviour. Given the numbers of royal correspondents who gain very nicely from being able to follow royals to garden parties and foreign jaunts, the threat of total withdrawal of access represents a clear motive for trying to stay on the good side of the family.
This withdrawal of access was backed up by the fact that Charles is clearly an important person. His importance, however, would mean nothing without the media broadcasting the fact. Thus, his decision to withdraw was made significant by the fact that other sections of the media reported it, and directly levelled criticism at the BBC for not having been effusive enough in its obsequies. His implied criticism was thought worthy of reporting, and support by other sections of the media. Attacking the institution publicly thus becomes another way of forcing control. Referred to as flak in the literature it is the mechanism by which rival media outlets can be used to keep each other in line.
What this meant was that the only vox pops to make it onto the telly were those who were actually prepared to turn up and say good things about the queen mother, how wonderful she was, etc. and provide proof that spontaneous ordinary people felt the same way as the pundits in the studio. The serried ranks of the frankly apathetic or even critical were systematically excluded from air time.
The story had automatic access to the top of the headlines, with small sub items dominating the top of the news, such as church services being held around the country, forty-one gun salutes, etc. Every officially organised ceremony of official mourning became a newsworthy event. Thus, the mourning itself was transformed into the focus of interest, and meaning, stimulating desire for people to be involved, if only as spectators.
This incident, though, does give a sign of some hope. The refusal by most people to buy into the story, and demonstrate fulsome sorrow, indicates that there are limits to even what blanket media barrages can achieve. The fact that more people (over a thousand) complained to the BBC about disruption of schedules than over the lack of coverage, may well have forced the broadcasters to be more subdued and careful than they may have planned. It may only be a small sign for hope, but it does show that the media is not the only source of ideas, and that it cannot fully succeed in turning the working class into its plaything.