The royal soap opera continues to command public attention and constant news coverage. Why? Why does this archaic and blatantly undemocratic institution continue to exist in the 21st century? Why does this epitome of class and privilege refuse to fade into the background and simply become a memory of the way things once were? Surely we have more important things to worry about? More pressing issues to debate on the news channels and in our newspapers? I’m sure that there are a multitude of answers available, but none of them definitive. One of the most concerning answers I heard voiced last week was that the British still regard themselves as superior to other nations, and our royal family superior to all the existing royal families scattered across the world, such that people from these other countries look to us to lead and guide them. I find such national arrogance deeply troublesome. It reminds me of an argument I once had with an otherwise very intelligent person who, in all seriousness, regarded the queen as the provider of a moral compass. But whether you agree with my reaction or not, surely you can agree it is worth having a proper public debate about the future of our royal family and their place (if they have one) in a modern democratic state.
But are we a democratic state? The reaction of the press, particularly the ‘red-top’ newspapers to this and other stories, does make me wonder. Their, dare I suggest, over coverage of last week’s royal news has been well commented upon, not least by Mark Steele who, on Radio Four’s News Quiz, criticised one ‘red-top’ because after 17 pages of comment, page 18 hardly mentioned the royal family at all. OK, this all makes for good satire, but its damaging for democracy as well. Not only does such royal coverage over emphasise the significance of one over-privileged family, it avoids all reporting and discussion of other issues – issues such as wild fires in Australia larger than the size of Greater London and the growing threat to world peace in the Middle East. For anyone who gets their news from such sources, the impression given is that these ‘other’ stories are of marginal importance to an individual family dispute. This promotion of political ignorance is dangerous.
Of even greater danger than this avoidance of reporting important issues is the selective and partisan reporting of domestic political issues, particularly concerning the Labour Party. Now are am no Labour apologist. I have no reason to defend them either on policy or their dismal lack of political opposition, far from it. But when I saw the reporting of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s announcement of her standing in their leadership contest in one particular ‘red-top’ I was appalled. Rather than reporting and commenting on her particular political orientation they simply published, on their front page, a particularly unflattering photograph of her with a personal comment on her appearance. To my mind this was a particularly crude attempt to ridicule and demonise her. My fear here, over and above this particular (and particularly nasty) piece of ‘reporting’, is the power these newspapers have (or to be more precise, the power the owners of these newspapers have) to influence public opinion. Rather than inform and promote debate amongst their readership they appear to want to manipulate public opinion through fear and ridicule. This is not only unfair, it’s a dangerous attack on our democracy. It gives tremendous power to the few very rich owners of news media, and at the same time actively encourages their readership to avoid actual thought and consideration and instead to form ‘opinions’ based on emotion and prejudice. A very dangerous combination!