Cornets blow. Flags flutter. Rowan Atkinson emerges, dressed in Blackadder-style faux-medieval finery: “We call forth the mighty from this and many lands to compete in games whose grandeur, glory, and overwhelming silliness will be forever remembered.”
‘It’s a Royal Knockout’ had begun. The monarchists among us must hope that Atkinson’s prediction was off the mark and that most have forgotten the Windsors’ 1987 foray into gameshowggedon.
In the show, four teams made up of a shower of celebrities (including Meat Loaf, Chris de Burgh, John Travolta, Cliff Richard, Gary Lineker and John Cleese) were led by members of the royal family (Anne, Andrew, Edward and Fergie) as they competed in an assault course of 1980s slapstick game show challenges while dressed as jesters, chess pieces and knights.
The event in itself was indeed very silly. But if we want to understand the story of Harry, Meghan and Britain’s racist media, we first need to understand how the house of Windsor built itself – and modern British nationalism – on TV and the tabloid press.
From church and class to media and celebrity
‘It’s a Royal Knockout’ was one of the wobblier stepping stones used by senior members of the Mountbatten-Windsor family to hop, skip and jump from cultural power through church, class, colonialism and continuity to cultural power through the mushrooming media-celebrity complex.
The journey had begun 34 years earlier in Westminster Abbey, when the Queen’s coronation was televised. It was an event that triggered the sale of 526,000 new TV sets in the UK alone; arguably it secured television as the leading medium of the era and, according to a review in The Times the next day, “marked the birth of international television”. Nearly three hundred million people tuned in across the world, more than 10% of the global population at the time.
Alongside the rise of TV came the invention of modern tabloid newspapers with their powerful use of photos, first developed by the Daily Mirror, but soon copied. This new media ecosystem dominated the second half of the 20th century, and in its relationship with the Windsors, it raised the new, post-colonial British nationalism which had been birthed by Winston Churchill in his wartime radio addresses.
Often, the royals are coy with the media. The moment of Elizabeth’s actual anointment as monarch was seen as too sacred to be filmed. Footage of their private lives is rare. But this hard-to-get attitude doesn’t disguise the extent to which monarchy and media are mutually dependent.
It didn’t always go well. From a disastrous 1969 documentary to ridiculous game shows, many of the Windsors’ attempts to secure their position as the first family of the celebrity-TV era were damp squibs. But there was one person who got really good at it.
As Anthony Barnett shows in ‘The Lure of Greatness’, Donald Trump was obsessed with Diana, deluging her with flowers and bragging about his desire to “nail” her. Trump recognised a pioneering celebrity populist skilled at blaming the media and the elite while colluding with the one and being part of the other, Barnett argues. Her wedding to Charles Windsor was watched by more than half the British population and 700 million people worldwide, more than 16% of the globe. At the other end of her marriage, Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir attracted 22.5 million British viewers, the biggest audience for a news show in the UK to this day.
It was in her death, though, that she managed, finally, to transform the royal family.
In that famous moment of grief and rage, mainstream history tells us that the UK learned to cry and formed a homogenous blob demanding that Buckingham Palace fly its flag at half-mast. What is certain is that 32 million people across the land watched two boys follow their mother’s horse-drawn hearse and Elton John sing an update of ‘Candle in the Wind’. An estimated 2 to 2.5 billion people tuned in around the world. To this day, it is ranked by Wikipedia as the most-watched non-sporting event in history, outranking the 9/11 attacks, ‘Live Aid’ and Michael Jackson’s memorial service. The cultural relevance of the House of Windsor could hardly be questioned; ‘It’s a Royal Knockout’ was a distant memory.
The next time that the royal family attracted anything like that audience was when Harry Windsor married Meghan Markle, watched by 1.9 billion people – almost twice the number who tuned in for William and Kate’s circus seven years earlier, despite William being a future king.
Meghan Markle and British racism
The comparisons between Meghan and Diana are obvious: both capable of attracting attention in her own right, both charismatic women known to have opinions and ideas, able to enliven an often turgid family. But, for much of the media, there was always a problem with Meghan.
Racism was “the bitter shadow of their sunny May 2018 wedding” wrote Afua Hirsch in The New York Times last week: “How many of us suspected – hoping but doubting we were wrong – that what would really initiate Meghan into her new role as a Briton with African heritage would be her experience of British racism.”
There’s “(almost) straight outta Compton”, “exotic” DNA, a BBC host comparing baby Archie Mountbatten-Windsor to a chimpanzee, blaming Meghan’s avocado consumption for mass murder, and her charity cookbook for helping terrorists, the time she was attacked for touching her pregnancy bump (while Kate had been fawned over for doing the same), the various times she was attacked for wearing the ‘wrong’ dress.
As Suzanne Moore points out, sarcastically, there’s “her unbearable wokeness, which is clearly worse for the royal family than having someone accused of having sex with a 17-year-old in your midst (which Prince Andrew denies)”. To use Moore’s phrase, this is “big-bucks bigotry” on prominent display.
When Meghan and Harry decided to marry, the question was always whether the house of Windsor and the media frenzy which feeds it could integrate a confident, charismatic woman of colour, successful in her own right. And the answer was always going to be ‘no’.
The monarchy, print capitalism and tabloid racism
Some of the royal family’s difficulty integrating a black woman comes from the racism of the family itself.
After Marie Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz (AKA Princess Michael of Kent) wore a racist blackamoor brooch to an event with Markle, her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, Aatish Taseer, said that she has previous, including naming the two black sheep in her flock Venus and Serena, and reportedly telling a group of black customers in a restaurant to “go back to the colonies” – a claim she denied.
Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, the Queen’s husband, is notorious for his racist remarks. William’s 21st birthday party had an ‘out of Africa’ theme, and Harry himself notoriously dressed up as an SS officer – perhaps in homage to the numerous members of the family who were Nazi officers or supporters.
Philip’s uncle and mentor, Elizabeth’s second cousin, Louis Mountbatten, was arguably the key figure behind the genocidal partition of India. Despite this, William and Kate named their second son after him. Going further back, much of the wealth of the monarchy flows from the blood of African slaves.
Some of the racism runs deeper still, in the ideas at the very heart of the British monarchy. This is an institution founded on the idea of purity of a blood-line and that (southern) England is the core of the realm, followed by the other home nations, and only after that, the colonial dominions.
But what’s more significant than the racist comments of a few old fools, or even the implicit racism of our royal primogeniture, is the systemic racism of the institution on which they’ve built their contemporary power.
In his iconic book ‘Imagined Communities’, Benedict Anderson argued that modern nations were convened by the printing press through what he calls ‘print capitalism’. Once the printing press was invented in fifteenth-century Europe, printers began producing pamphlets, books and Bibles in vernacular languages (rather than traditional script languages, such as Latin), capable of reaching mass audiences. As a result, people whose parents had spoken mutually unintelligible local dialects started to be able to understand each other, and imagined communities were convened.
Broadcast media went on to play a vital role in this process of nation-building, as my colleague Rosemary Bechler wrote brilliantly last month. The BBC was born on 1 January 1927, the same year that the UK was renamed The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Republic having secured its independence. The broadcaster’s first director-general, John Reith, declared that its primary purpose was to allow the chimes of Big Ben to be “heard echoing in the loneliest cottage in the land”.
This homogenising process continues to this day, as media and social media empires merge conversations into vast language blocks, eroding regional variations and dialects in a process we might think of as Netflix nationalism.
Perhaps the greatest power the media has is this ability to convene imagined communities, and, in doing so, to set the boundaries of our nations and write the myths of our countries. And in the UK – whose wealth and power is built on an empire justified through the phoney notions of ‘scientific’ racism – people of colour, ‘from the colonies’, have always been pushed aside. Because accepting them as equal means changing a national story which much of our media has long existed to sell.
“The cult of the Ancient British grove”
In his iconic 1986 lecture “Ancient Britons and the Republican dream”, Neal Ascherson talked about “the cult of the Ancient British grove, in which the dead are not ‘they’ but part of ‘we’”. He explained how the UK confers legitimacy from a ‘cult of history’ and a ‘sense of continuum’; compared with the European countries he long worked in as a foreign correspondent, he said, this is unique, a result of the failure of the English revolution. He argued that these notions of history and continuity produce the UK’s unusual solidarity between its middle and ruling classes (compared, say, with the revolutionary spirit implicit in French nationalism).
In reality the house of Windsor is relatively new. But it has always pretended to this authority of the continuum, as if its legitimacy stems from an ancient history, that its right to reign over us is conferred by countless generations of dead people.
This sense of legitimacy is vital for the British state, and the media which convenes the nation it governs. The famous scholar of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, argued in 1867 that there are two vital strands of the UK’s political system: “one to excite and preserve the reverence of the population” and the other to “employ that homage in the work of government”. He called these, respectively, the “dignified” and “the efficient”.
When Elizabeth Windsor agreed to bring cameras to her coronation, she wasn’t just securing power from an emergent media. She was also anointing this new media ecosystem with the legitimacy of history. She was summoning the ceremonies of old to bless the then emerging TV/tabloid nexus in its role of imagining our community anew at the height of decolonisation, in “exciting and preserving the reverence of the population”. Where Reith built the BBC to defend British identity as the empire began to decompose, the Queen placed the modern media at the core of the constitution of her new country.
Reality TV, social media and the royal family of the future
The death of Diana was not the only major event for the royal family in 1997. Something else happened which turned out to be almost as significant: the emergence of reality TV, when new camera technology allowed John de Mol to invent the show ‘Big Brother’, and Swedish television to air the original ‘Survivor’ series. Where once the choice for non-fiction media had been straight news, documentary or game show revelry, now, a new format allowed the royals to thrive.
Pick up any copy of the UK’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, and you can usually divide it into three categories: reality TV and celebrity coverage, sport, and news. The reality TV coverage constructs a world of ‘Love Island’, ‘I’m a Celebrity...’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The biggest and most important series of all of these? The house of Windsor, with characters coming and going, coverage that is both sycophantic and prurient, obsessive and cruel, a narrative propelled by the ups and downs of fawning fandoms and moral panics.
The emergence of reality TV in the late 1990s prefigured a more interactive media ecosystem, in which ‘ordinary people’ could achieve celebrity status, the ultimate aim of our attention economy, the thing which we are taught to most aspire to. But only a few at a time. Just like The National Lottery, also a product of the 1990s and the height of neoliberalism, it offered a cheerful suggestion that anyone could make it, in theory.
This ecosystem is still developing, and we are only just starting to understand its constitutional implications. It’s usually referred to as social media, though is perhaps better understood as a part of a transition from print capitalism to what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.
The only serious book about the modern monarchy by a left-wing republican is Tom Nairn’s ‘The Enchanted Glass’, written in 1988. In it, he argues that while the royal family benefited from some of the glow of celebrity, they weren’t themselves celebrities. He quotes John Buchan writing in 1935: “The essence of the British Monarchy is that the King, while lifted far above the nation, should also be the nation itself in its most characteristic form.”
In the 1980s, there may have been a contradiction between a celebrity and someone who fits Buchan’s description – celebrities, after all, were usually good at something in those days. But reality TV and social media have smashed that criterion. Today’s celebrities often have no skill other than representing the nation in its most stereotypical form.
What then of Harry and Meghan’s “new progressive role”, announced, fittingly, on Instagram? In their legal cases against the tabloids and their statements attacking the papers, they have clearly sought to distance themselves from the media that have traditionally conferred Harry’s family with power.
This isn’t necessarily foolish: print newspapers are in decline, and the British nationalism on which they are built faces a deep crisis, with the possible break-up of the union over the next decade.
It seems unlikely, however, that they plan to earn their keep from their existing skills as an actor and a low-profile helicopter pilot. More likely, it appears that they aim to launch themselves as transatlantic social media influencers, escaping the racism of the tabloid press that the house of Windsor is built on, and bringing the twinkling of royal association to another new, emerging media phenomenon.
Will the transition from a power-base in Britain’s nationalist media to Mark Zuckerburg’s globalised social media really offer a progressive new role in any meaningful sense of the word? No. But it does allow the couple to step into the world of international celebrity, finance and oligarchy as Brexit Britain sinks into the shadow of America.