When the Queen came to the throne the media was deferential to the 25-year-old monarch and her family. But in the 1960s that began to change. Richard Lambert maps the sometimes fractious relationship between the Queen and the press
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule.
The day after the Coronation, June 3, 1953, the Manchester Guardian published a cartoon by the great David Low showing a family in their front room looking very much the worse for wear after watching the television marathon. Called simply Morning After, the image proved highly controversial. Sackloads of letters thudded on the editor’s desk, of which 575 expressed outrage and just 66 were in favour. Mr George Smith of Blackpool summed up the critics’ view: “The cartoon in today’s issue besmirches the reputation of the Manchester Guardian forever,” he wrote.
Exactly 69 years later the Guardian, now published in London but claiming the same editorial values, advertised a limited edition of a print by its cartoonist Steve Bell. Headed “Platinum Liz”, it showed a grotesque caricature of the Queen with a coat of arms bearing the slogan: “70 glorious years on benefits and never signed on.”
Readers could buy a copy for just £250. There was no sign of outrage in the letters column.
There’s nothing new about mocking images of the royals. James Gillray’s “A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion”, published in 1792, was every bit as brutal as Steve Bell’s cartoon in showing the self-indulgence of the Prince Regent, heir to the throne. Queen Victoria herself was the subject of crude cartoons, and Max Beerbohm’s caricature of Edward, the Prince of Wales, in 1905 left little to the imagination.
But the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign represented an exceptional period. The national mood was still shaped by the spirit of the Second World War, when patriotism and loyalty to King and Country had come to be seen as a bedrock of national survival.
The war had encouraged a spirit of self-censorship in journalists, and the print media were controlled by a handful of establishment proprietors who had no interest in rocking the boat.
One example of their power came a few weeks after the Coronation when Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a serious stroke. A group of them rushed down to Chartwell, Churchill’s country house, and without seeing the old man agreed to persuade their fellow proprietors to keep the matter quiet.
Speculation about what had happened appeared in the foreign press. But in those pre-internet days this was all but invisible in the UK until Churchill himself casually mentioned the word “stroke” in the Commons a year later.
The BBC was the only national broadcaster, and remained under the firm grip that had been established in wartime. Broadcasting the coronation was a very big deal, and it approached the task with reverence. The Director General’s views were clear: “There ought to be an absolutely rigid policy that so far as the BBC is concerned [the royal family] can be guaranteed complete privacy,” he ordered.
The theatre was under strict control as well. Firmly ensconced as senior officer in the Palace, the Lord Chamberlain still controlled everything that appeared in the theatre. Shortly before the Coronation, he ruled that any representation on the stage of a British monarch more recent than Queen Victoria would be unacceptable in any circumstances.
And the Queen had an even more ferocious gatekeeper. She had inherited her father’s press secretary, who was to remain in office until 1968. Commander Richard Colville, a former naval officer, was a kind of Dickensian figure in his stiff un-bendingness.
The only thing he knew about the press was that he loathed it: journalists called him “the Abominable No Man”. The choice lay between printing royal press releases or tittle tattle, and the attraction of the latter approach was increased by the knowledge that it would drive Commander Colville to a frenzy of rage.
But this stilted world started to change, and rather quickly. As the royal party left Westminster Abbey after the Coronation service, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was spotted removing a piece of fluff from the uniform of Group Captain Peter Townsend, former equerry to the King, now controller to the Queen Mother and, much more importantly, a divorcee. The New York press reported this intimate moment the following morning.
Colville managed to keep the Fleet Street hacks at bay for eleven days until the Sunday People broke ground with a classic Fleet Street manoeuvre – denying the story that it wanted to print. Readers should know that the dastardly foreign press had been publishing scurrilous rumours that had to be untrue because no member of the royal family could possibly contemplate romance with a divorced man.
The game was on. Before too long, the Daily Mirror ran a poll which produced more than 70,000 responses: all but a handful thought that the couple should be allowed to marry. The newly established Press Council censured the Mirror for its appalling impertinence – of course, its ruling was ignored. Royal stories, it had become clear, sold newspapers.
As a journalist on the Financial Times in the last few decades of the century, I could watch what followed from a safe distance – we didn’t do royal stories. The first big move to happen once I’d started work came immediately after Commander Colville hung up his red pencil.
In 1969, the BBC broadcast the royal family, a documentary shot over the course of a full year and showing everyday activities of the Queen and her family at home and abroad, and with unrehearsed conversations.
It wasn’t exactly cinema verite – a committee chaired by Prince Philip approved every scene that was to be shown. But the idea was to create a favourable impression of the royals by showing them as human beings, and it was unlike anything that had been seen before.
I dimly remember it as being rather cheesy, but it attracted huge audiences and much enthusiasm. Bernard Levin, the shrewd Times columnist, took a different view: “Mingling itself with the people could not be a one-sided process,” he warned. “He who descends into the market place inevitably finds himself rubbing shoulders with the shoppers.”
Meanwhile, the structure of the media industry was changing. The BBC was no longer a monopoly broadcaster: after a quiet start, commercial television was making waves and was ready to grab viewers if the BBC continued with its snooty ways.
And Fleet Street was at the start of what turned out to be a long revolution. Rupert Murdoch made his first UK acquisition in 1969, and had zero interest in being part of the establishment. His Sun newspaper changed the tone of tabloid journalism forever, with a particular emphasis on topless women, sport, and the royal family. By the 1980s it was Britain’s largest circulation newspaper, and its editor Kelvin MacKenzie was demanding a Sunday for Monday splash about his favourite subject every week – without being much concerned about its accuracy.
At the same time, the media industry was becoming global. The cost of long-distance communications collapsed even before the internet took off and the British could no longer be protected from scurrilous stories in US supermarket tabloids. The fruitiest items were now instantly available to them.
The media treatment of younger members of the royal family had already become indistinguishable from that of other celebrities. Then came Princess Diana, and here it had in its sights a woman who was to become a truly global superstar. As the years passed and her marriage to Prince Charles started to fall apart, she proved to be much more adept at managing news coverage than her husband or any other member of his family.
During the final decades of the Queen’s reign, members of her family were to feature in a whole series of media pile-ups that gravely embarrassed the House of Windsor.
The toe-curlingly awful television show It’s a Royal Knockout was broadcast in 1987, showing younger members of the family cavorting around with various B-list personalities and demonstrating an astonishing lack of judgement and self-awareness. It played its part in altering the image of the Windsors as a disciplined and purposeful team. But it was light relief compared with what was to come.
In 1992, the Sunday Times serialised Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton, painting a picture of a vulnerable young woman unable to cope with royal relatives who were as unhelpful as they were self-absorbed, and which blamed her husband both for his lack of sympathy and for his continuing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. It was immediately clear that the sources of this book were close to Diana, and had acted with her approval.
A few months later came the Camilla tapes, an illicit recording of a smutty conversation between Charles and Camilla. They were made so widely available that even we at the FT got to hear about them, and I remember thinking that surely no one was going to publish this stuff. That showed how far out of touch I was: the Sun asked its readers if they should be published in full, and got the predictable response. By now, anything was possible.
In 1994, the BBC broadcast an interview between Charles and his biographer, in which he admitted his adultery. The next year came Diana’s notorious interview on BBC Panorama, and the Princess etched herself in the public mind as a tragically wronged woman. The Queen immediately let it be known that the time had come for a divorce.
By contrast, the Queen has never given many interviews. In her many decades on the throne, she has never expressed controversial views about anything. Only on one occasion did she find herself in serious difficulty with the media, and that – of course – was in the days following the death in a car accident of Princess Diana.
I was editing the FT from New York at the time, and was absolutely taken aback by the mass emotion that exploded in the UK and around the world in those fraught few days. This wasn’t my country as I knew it. I phoned a tough colleague in London to talk about our coverage; she burst into tears. The TV showed the mountains of flowers building up as tribute on the Mall. And it also showed growing public anger – first at the media whose actions were seen to have driven Diana to her death, and then at the Palace itself.
It was widely believed that she’d been cruelly dealt with by the royal family and its household. And now they seemed indifferent to the pain that had resulted. The Queen remained up in Balmoral for days, and there the Royal Standard was not even flying at half-mast. It didn’t matter that the Standard can never fly at half-mast, since there is always a sovereign. It hadn’t happened for her father: it wouldn’t happen for her, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen for anyone else. The flagpole over Buckingham Palace stood bare. The Queen, rock solid in tradition, was not going to be budged.
The growing hostility of the crowd fed through to the media. “Show us you care” cried the Express. “Your people are suffering, speak to us ma’am” implored the Mirror. “Where is our queen, where is her flag?” Shouted the Sun.
When the royal party finally returned to the Palace, those inside watched events as they unfolded outside with a sense of real anxiety.
The Rolls Royce stopped outside the railings. The Queen and Prince Philip emerged to look at the flowers, and to talk quietly to a few of the mourners. The mood changed. As they moved through the gates, those watching inside the Palace heard a ripple of applause. That night the Queen made a special broadcast on live television, and got it exactly right.
The crisis – for that is what it had been – was over.
As the years passed, the House of Windsor continued to take body blows from its relationships with the media. Above all, in the shape of Prince Andrew’s excruciating interview with Newsnight in 2018, when he denied knowing the woman who was claiming to have had underage sex with him. That effectively finished his life as a working member of the royal family.
For the most part though, the Queen herself continued to float above it all. And the public mood toward her softened; partly no-doubt to do with her great age, with admiration of her steadfast commitment to her job, and with sympathy at the loss of her husband. And this was reflected in a more respectful approach from the press.
But in the last two decades of her reign, the crown started to face new challenges from a fast-changing media world that, in time, are likely to prove more troublesome than the impact of gossip-hungry tabloids in the 1970s and 80s.
For her first 50 years on the throne, the Queen’s relationships with the wider public were mediated largely by way of broadcast radio and television and through print newspapers. From the beginning of the new century though, both these media were in accelerated decline and a stark divide was was emerging between the viewing habits of young and older people.
Circulation of that royal bête noire, the Sun, fell by more than two thirds from its peak in the 1980s. And print newspapers reached just 24 per cent of the British public in 2022, down from 40 per cent in the space of only four years. Instagram, TikTok and YouTube had all overtaken the BBC as the prime source of news for British teenagers.
The problem is that the House of Windsor is not well placed to accommodate these fast-moving platforms. Take a look at its website – Royal.UK. It probably makes fascinating reading for elderly readers of the Telegraph.. But it might as well be from the Stone Age for most people under the age of 30.
In this new era of streaming services, views about the royal family for millions of people around the world have been shaped, at least in part, by the long-running Netflix series The Crown, which started in 2016 and ploughed ahead for years. The producers insisted that it was a drama, not a documentary, which is why they felt justified in including invented stories to create a plotline and imagined behaviour that grabbed the attention. But some of the scenes would have been way beyond the imagination of poor old Commander Richard Colville, the Queen’s fiercely protective press secretary back in the 1950s.
And then there’s the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. They have rejected the royal family and the media, but they depend on them both for their expensive Californian lifestyle. Netflix and Spotify have paid them many millions of dollars for exclusive content designed to appeal to large audiences. This means they have to remain in the public eye – and now that they no longer have royal duties to perform the one sure way of achieving that comes in the shape of public reflections about their cold and unfeeling family in London, courtesy of interviews with Oprah Winfrey and the like.
The big question now is this.
The Second Elizabethan Age was shaped by a monarch who avoided controversy, who didn’t give free-ranging interviews, and who spoke to the world almost exclusively through formal and carefully staged presentations. That approach turned out to be immensely successful over many decades.
But will it be sustainable? Can the monarchy be made to seem relevant to young people in the TikTok era? It’s hard to see quite how.
This episode was written by Richard Lambert, produced and sound designed by Oliver Sanders, and the executive producer was Jasper Corbett.
Photographs Peter Marlow/Magnum Images, Ronald Startup/Picture Post, Fox Photos, Daily Express, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Martin Godwin/Getty Images, Ian Waldie/Reuters/Alamy