October 2022

What does the media do when a monarch dies?

Flowers, cards, artwork, and teddy bears are placed around the George VI and Queen Elizabeth Memorial on the Mall in London following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Doyle of London Wikipedia.

“News of the monarch’s ill health, covered in obsequious and exhausting detail for months, took over the nation’s front pages. When he died, regular TV programs were suspended, commercials pulled and newspapers and television screens filled with eulogizing tributes to avoid ruffling the mood of respectful national mourning. Radio stations broadcast soft mood music. Millions of his bored subjects traipsed to the video store.”

FCCJ members may recall the death of Emperor Hirohito on 7 January 1989, but the passage above might equally refer to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September. True, there was no tortuous prologue (the Queen’s death came fairly suddenly) and Blockbuster Video is gone, but much of the British media surrendered to over a week of performative grieving. Whether they wanted it or not, the Queen’s subjects got blanket coverage of her demise and the transition of power, wealth and privilege to her son. 

BBC One newsreader Huw Edwards signaled the switch in tone by donning a black tie, even before announcing the Queen’s death just before 6.40 pm on September 8. All the main BBC channels suspended programing and broadcast a statement from the Royal Family, followed by a rendition of God Save the Queen. Thereafter, BBC radio stations across the world merged and fell into a carefully rehearsed official line.  

Rightly so, say some (the BBC received relatively few complaints about its coverage). In addition to being the longest-reigning monarch of a 1,000-year-old institution, the Queen was head of state of the UK and 14 other realms and commander in chief of the British armed forces. “We Love You Ma’am”, keened the Sun on her death. “Our Hearts are Broken”, sobbed the Daily Mail. Yet, public opinion of the Queen and her troubled family are far more complex than such tabloid headlines imply. 

A survey by pollster Savanta ComRes before the Queen died claimed that a third of UK voters would rather see an elected head of state replace her. Half had no enthusiasm for celebrating her platinum jubilee this year, and two-thirds did not think Charles should become king. A YouGov poll ahead of the jubilee also claimed that 22% wanted to abolish the monarchy (62% thought it should continue).

Royal deaths put editors on the spot. Lay on the coverage too thick and such people will switch off … or worse (Republic, a UK pressure group campaigning to scrap the monarchy, recorded a surge in membership in the 24 hours after the Queen’s death).  But any hint of disrespect is zeroed in on by pro-royalists, telegraphing their grief, noted the blogger The Secret Tory, “while vilifying any else who fails to rise to an expected standard of it”.  

Thus, Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges got a full blast of Daily Mail faux outrage when he joked that the Queen “won’t be the only old woman to die this winter”. Bridges even predicted his own fate (though the wrong newspaper) when he told his audience they’d about his performance the following day on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. “Welcome to the only f*****g show in Britain going ahead this evening.”

Unlike the death of Hirohito (or Princess Diana in 1997), of course, those bored or resentful at the forelock-tugging mainstream media could decamp online. On social media, however, there were reports of harassment, abuse and censorship of “hateful” anti-royalist views, most notably a tweet by Uju Anya Carnegie, an associate professor at Mellon University, who wrote: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”

The result, if it were Japan, would be called sontaku – surmising the feelings of others before causing offense (or even getting arrested Many found themselves pausing over the keyboard before posting their thoughts. “A lot of people seem very emotional at the moment and I don’t want to be the target of a massive pile-on by trolls,” one source told The Guardian.

Britain’s flagship liberal newspaper stretched the patience of many readers with its royal coverage.  Letters to the Guardian pleaded with the editors to avoid the “hysteria and infantilism” of the rest of the UK media. “We do not need to know who will look after Her Majesty’s corgis,” one wrote. “We need to know who will look after refugees following the appointment of [home secretary] Suella Braverman, and who will look after the poor after the appointment of Liz Truss.” Another wrote that the fawning media had driven “those of us who thought we lived in a modern liberal democracy to despair”.

The Asahi Shimbun might sympathize. The last Japanese national daily to remain critical of wartime militarism ducked the debate on whether Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for Japan’s 15 calamitous years of war in the twentieth century during his long illness. When Hitoshi Motoshima, mayor of Nagasaki (a conservative supported by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party), suggested he did, ultra-rightists, egged on by politicians, threatened, and then shot him after the period of official mourning had ended in January 1990.  

Swooning press coverage of the Showa emperor’s death caused much liberal hand-wringing in Japan, too. “Hardly any attempt was made on TV to confront the issue of the emperor’s war responsibility or the imperial system itself,” complained Soichiro Tahara, one of the nation’s most famous liberal commentators. “The issue of the emperor is indeed a taboo.” Takashi Fujitani, a historian at the University of California later bemoaned the “martial-law like conditions” of Hirohito’s funeral. 

Mark Schilling, author and movie critic for the Japan Times, recalls “a bizarre time”. “It was as though ‘the Emperor is a human being and we’re a Western-style democracy' face the country had presented to the world for decades faded like the mist and its true Emperor-revering soul stood revealed. Not everyone felt that way, of course, but to me it was as if I'd time traveled back to the days when mere mortals dare not gaze on the divine Imperial visage.” 

The death of a hereditary monarch might be seen as a stress test of a democracy - and a democratic media - which is why so some commentators, while respectful of mourners and understanding such events as important historical moments, grow nervous. Where is the pluralism that is supposed to be a hallmark of the Western media? “What a coincidence”, wrote Wendy Bacon, an Australian journalist, that @abcnews had all day to get a range of Vox pops about the monarchy & found not one that was not positive.” 

And what does it say about us, complained Peter Kalmus, a climate researcher, that we can all be so easily distracted. “If the media and the public were half as interested in stopping global heating as they are in Queen Elizabeth's passing, we’d halt global heating in like five years.”

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education