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The Crown and the Media

Longtime royal-watcher and media sociologist Marjorie Ferguson is joining us online this morning to answer questions about media coverage and the royal family. A Canadian who has spent most of her life in London, Dr. Ferguson studies comparative broadcasting and national identity. She was a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center and is a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park College of Journalism. Her complete resume is on the university's Web site.

Thanks to those who sent in questions.

Dr. Ferguson, thank you for being with us this morning. First of all, what broadcasts are you watching and why?
CBS, but we're moving back and forth to NBC and ABC. I'm interested in how national TV networks are covering this. However, my favorite is the BBC, which traditionally broadcasts state occasions. They have such a choreographed, solemn, almost ritual way of covering royal occasions. They keep longer shots; it's not such a frantic pace. The commentary is what I want to hear, though at the moment it seems to be a silent movie.

There's the special BBC voice, invented by Richard Dimbleby. He was the voice of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and until his death, the voice of every major funeral and wedding. Now his son, David, has taken up his father's honorable voice of national position. He also does other anchor jobs, for example the last British election.

Going back to 1953, for royal occasions, Britons have had a Dimbleby voice, low, with its reverential tones, suitable pauses and emphasis on common words. It's part of the occasion that British people expect. If you go back to Diana's wedding, it's not so reverential, but it's the same voice. There's no real American equivalent.

On TV, we can hear people wailing and shouting as the cortege passes by. Are you surprised by such a public display of grief?
What's really remarkable is how little noise there is. There was a little sobbing and shouting at the beginning. I watched Churchill's funeral from a balcony on Fleet Street, and there was respectful silence with occasional cheering. This is enormously silent, given the size of the crowd. All the way here, people have been just standing. It's an unprecedented show of collective grief. And the youthfulness of the group is unlike anything I've seen in London.

How much of the mood reflects genuine grief for the princess, and how much reflects media-prompted expectations?
Excellent question. Sociologists, psychologists, political scientists and cultural analysts will argue over that for some time to come. The disappearance of the stiff upper lip has been in part orchestrated by the media. We have a collective memory through media, notably through TV and photos. And this week, the media played back the iconography of Diana's life. We're acting out collective grief based on that iconography. There cannot be two million people in Britain who have met her.

It's extraordinary to watch how closely the British press influences, reflects and plays back a certain set of moods. A former colleague of mine at the London School of Economics told me that five minutes before the queen's address yesterday, the vox populi interviews and commentary were that nothing she could say would make a difference. Five minutes after, they showed people cheering the queen. It's an articulation of royal presence through the media. And it's an unprecedented about-face for the tabloids. They were openly critical but went from "Where are you, ma'am?" to "Thank you, ma'am."

How is this procession different from that of a full state funeral?
This is much, much smaller. In a full state funeral, there would be regiments. One channel showed shots from Lord Mountbatten's funeral. He was assassinated by the IRA. He was an admiral, and it seemed like the entire British navy, which is not very big anyway, was following. It was the same with Churchill. That struck me immediately, that there are very few riders.

What are your thoughts on Earl Spencer's words during the service?
I don't know if you realized how totally unprecedented this was. He launched an open attack on not only the intrusiveness of the press, but also the royal family. Calling the media the "opposite end of the moral spectrum" and making the pledge in the name of the "blood family" draws such a clear distinction. He said they would protect Harry and William, and essentially give them a life. The queen turned Diana out, they closed ranks, and Diana's own family is very aware of that. And also totally unprecedented was the clapping. That shows agreement, certainly about the media, since it's become the whipping boy. But also about the [role of the] royal family.

Now that we've seen the whole funeral, could you comment again on the coverage?
I would like to amplify on the difference between the BBC coverage and the American network coverage. It's an absolute miracle that the BBC put together such a polished production in 6 days.

We've already talked about the unprecedented political comments of the Earl Spencer. But equally unprecedented was the reverential voice of BBC as the hearse pulled away, saying "Diana memorably said that she wanted to be a queen in people's hearts, and what we are witnessing is the coronation of that queen."

For the BBC to offer an opinion like that, that kind of summation of the mood of the people, is amazing. You never would have heard an implication that there was someone other that Queen Elizabeth II who can be referred to with those words.

What else is unique about this funeral?
What is very remarkably about this, none of us remember an occasion like this for a woman in the modern media age, except possibly the funeral of Queen Victoria, but there wasn't satellite TV hookup around the world then. You certainly wouldn't have seen weeping, or flowers being tossed in front of the gun carriage. It's astonishing to see this public grief and adoration for a woman.

There are comments about how Ms. Thatcher and Diana have changed how Britons see themselves, and how a new Britain is emerging. I think there are many more factors at work, but somehow they have become symbols of those changes. They both reflected and helped to lead them.

The discussion about media roles we've seen in the past week is one sequence in a long dance. Could you tell us a little about the history of the crown and the media?
The royal family have used the media to cultivate their image throughout the century. Like Hollywood, the British royal family never met a media technology it didn't like. The history of the British Royals is about inventing tradition to reinforce their apartness and status -- all reflected back to the loyal subjects. First in the newspapers, then the cinema, radio, television, satellite TV and the Internet.

Fusty old courtiers argued against televising the coronation in 1953. Cameras inside Westminster Abbey? Shock! Horror!

But the new queen had the last word. "I must be seen to be believed," she said. And we have certainly had that in spades this week.

The visible absence and long silence of the queen until her remarks yesterday proved the dictum in reverse. Not seen, she was not believed. Rumblings against the Queen and the institution of monarchy became a roar.

Are the young princes likely to have a very different relationship with the media than their mother, father or grandmother had?
Each of these people has had a different relationship with the press. Charles has had a rather uncomfortable one. He is a prince in waiting, and he has espoused causes that the establishment or the public thought were peculiar windmills to tilt at.

Diana's relationship was awfully unique, and I would suggest it will remain unique. With this open, worldwide condemnation of the intrusive press, echoed by people such as Madonna and John Travolta, we may actually begin to see some change, at least as far as William and Harry are concerned.

The royal family has been a cozy beat for the well-paid elite known as the rat pack. They're accustomed to paying sources, tattling footmen and the like. If you wanted to make a quick hundred quid, you would just ring up a member of the rat pack. For a particularly salacious bit, you might get even more.

The close relationship between money and peeping Tom journalism has been highlighted this week. It used to be, "It's those evil continental photographers chasing our beloved royals!" But editors would publish the pictures, saying, "Tut, tut, look at how awful -- oh, and incidentally, that man nibbling Fergie's toes is so-and-so."

But after this week, there just might be a change.

When we look back 20 years from now, could the remarks by the Earl of Spencer mark the beginning of the end of the monarchy?
The beginning of the end started a long time ago, but what is different now is this is the first time the public at large has had an opportunity to criticize the royal family in an open forum. The royal family has always been promoted by a huge machinery of spin doctors and persons who have received the royal stamp of approval. It's a whole institution in itself. Now, for the first time, the public at large [had] an occasion that gave them a chance to not only express grief for someone they could relate to, but also [to show their feelings about] the top-down structure of the royal family in Britain.

With Elton John's participation in the service, a pop star was brought into the Abbey, and now he's sending a song from the service back into pop culture. How might this interloop between tradition and pop culture affect the way royal protocol is observed in the future?
Protocol was bent for political reasons and political survival because the future of the monarchy was clearly being imperiled.

I think the inclusion of Elton John was in fact a very traditional way of conducting a funeral especially in this circumstance, when a young person has been struck down in the prime of her life. It's a reflection of [what the person] enjoyed. It's traditional to reflect on [a lost one's] life and choice of music in particular. Diana did enjoy pop music and dancing and all the normal things a 36-year-old did.

The reverse is often the case with prominent people or royals — it's not necessarily their wishes which are observed but what is chosen for them by their peer group. This is generally what is expected of them and of their public lives. I can't say if what's happened will impact royal traditions because there's really nothing to compare this with. Unique has become a cliché when describing this event, but it's a very apt description.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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