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After controversial Queen Elizabeth II video, should royal records be public records?

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II speaks during a state banquet in Berlin in June. (Steffen Kugler/EPA)
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No one is sure how the video was leaked, but it seems the whole country has seen it: Queen Elizabeth II, age 7, performing a mock Nazi salute in 1933.

British tabloid The Sun met a wave of backlash after publishing the footage Friday. Critics and the palace bashed the editorial decision, saying the release lacked context and fairness.

It surely might have, but now the country is capitalizing on the situation to fight an old battle. Historians want the family’s private archives to become public.

“This is information that should have been in the public domain 50 years ago,” the Institute of Historical Research’s Karina Urbach told the Guardian.

Urbach and others believe this 8-decade-old video came from the country’s “royal archives,” a collection of information held at Windsor Castle outside of London. The archives contain countless historical documents, reportedly including letters written between the royal family and Nazi figures.

Like in the United States, British researchers and journalists are permitted by law to request information held by government institutions. But these royal archives are an exception becaus,e by law, “the Royal Household is not a public authority,” according to the monarchy’s website.

That’s why the video in question was never seen before. And while The Sun might be interested in more “gotcha” moments against the royals, historians say that if the archives were open in the first place, the footage would have been seen in the context of a time when it wasn’t known what the Nazi salute would come to mean.

“Opening up aspects of the Queen’s early years is not going to damage respect for the monarchy. It can only reinforce her standing with the public,” Oxford history professor Mark Almond told the paper. “This film reminds us of how many challenges this country has overcome in the last eight decades under the Windsors.”

Similar arguments were used when journalists tried to gain access to letters written by Prince Charles, the Queen’s son. Deemed the “black spider memos” for his spidery handwriting, the Prince wrote to various departments of the government. This was unusual, because the monarchy’s job is to represent the country, not get involved in its politics.

The Guardian spent 10 years in a legal battle over whether the letters were included in the country’s Freedom of Information Act. In May, the Supreme Court ruled in the newspaper’s favor, and 27 of the Prince’s letters were released.

[Prince Charles’ ‘Black Spider memos’: What the secret letters actually say]

But during the proceedings, the government made it even harder to access royal documents by amending the Freedom of Information Act. Now, any communication from the monarch, the heir (Charles) and the second in line to the throne (William) will be exempt from the law until five years after the individual’s death, minimum.

It is still possible for “certain research academics” to ask to see items held at Windsor Castle, but only the “Keeper of the Royal Archives” can grant their request.

Per the monarchy’s website: “Although exempt from FOI requirements, the Royal Household is committed to transparency, and to making information available, where appropriate.”

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