Coverage of Elizabeth's death is not journalism and it is not meant to be
It is institutional power protecting itself
Time to pause and take breath and consider again the significance of the way in which the media (and other institutions) are reacting to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We owe it to ourselves to wonder aloud about what we are seeing because this is one of those rare moments where the nervous system and skeletal structure of state power exposes itself for inspection.
It should be clear that what is being enacted on our television screens, radios, phones and laptops, is not simply a journalistic enterprise—the straightforward reporting of a significant event—but an exercise of power in the name of a particular sort of order and governance of which the Crown remains the organising touchstone.
As I said on Twitter, we have moved well past any warranted expressions of grief, respect, and recognition of an historic moment, into a bald display of a public culture in thrall to particular sources of power, paying obeisance to them at the expense of all else. A system of power and tradition is being indemnified from criticism, and its primacy enforced by a combination of hagiographic imagery and commentary, selective reporting, informal social pressure (that sometimes degenerates into abuse), and outright police power.
In Britain, protesters have been arrested for expressing republican views and pointing out that the Queen’s allegedly favourite son, Andrew, disgraced himself through his association with Jeffrey Epstein. In Australia, one Senator (Hanson) told another (Faruqui) to go back where she came from for daring to suggest that the history of the Crown was not all mint tea and cucumber sandwiches.
The British Labour Party issued a directive that their members, “should not post anything on social media, except your own tribute,” and that “You should not do any media, except your own tribute to local outlets.”
We have also seen a Rugby player in Sydney, First Nations woman, Caitlin Moran, fined and suspended for one match by the NRL for daring to write an insulting comment about the Queen on her Instagram account. How did the NRL find out? It was reported to them by Nine media’s Wide World of Sports, the media literally policing private behaviour.
Indeed, there has been a near complete absence of black voices in the Australian media as a sanitised version of the colonial power that the British Crown represents is given an almost unchallenged run.
We need to pay attention to these journalistic choices—and choices is what they are—because they are a window onto underlying values. When the media make space for endless stories about the Queen’s corgis or for “think pieces” that argue the Queen was some sort of role model for working mothers, they are telling us a lot about their presumed audience, about who is included and who isn’t.
The way the media has approached this story forces us into a way of seeing the world not as it is but how an establishment power wants it to be, and we can only imagine just how bad the orgy of narrowcasting would have been and remained had not First Nation’s people and other victims of British colonisation been able to push back through the platforms of social media.
The whole moment is a reminder that, far from powerless, or merely symbolic, the monarchy, in Tom Nairn’s words, “is in practice coextensive with really existing British society.”
Ditto Australian society: even more so, I think.
I mean, we failed to oust the monarch in the Republican referendum in 1999, but the Crown managed to remove a democratically elected prime minister in 1975, an exercise of power that was not just symbolic but hands on, a fact we know thanks to historian Jenny Hocking’s research:
…Kerr will not make a final decision about his resignation without the Queen’s ‘approval’, and for this, he tells Charteris, he requires an audience with the Queen. Perhaps he is hoping that she will urge him to remain, as she had in the months after the dismissal, or perhaps it is just his final ‘duty’ to the monarch that he ‘seek her approval’ for his own resignation. Regardless, Kerr is insistent. Charteris is equally determined that, whatever the reality, there must be no public perception that Kerr’s decision to resign has any connection to the Queen, which an audience with her might suggest. Charteris asks him: ‘[I]f you are known to have received an audience, will it be assumed that you have come to resign?’ The warm and jovial correspondent of previous years has become an officious Palace courtier.
In a private letter to Menzies, Kerr makes the Queen’s role in his resignation explicit. After conversations during the Queen’s visit to Australia, and later in London, Kerr writes that he understood that ‘perhaps it was in the interests of the Monarchy and the country’ that he make way for a successor.
He sees this as ‘a matter of duty’ although, he writes, if he had been asked to stay on, he would have. Charteris and the Queen both make it clear to Kerr that there must be no overt connection between his resignation and his visit to the Palace.
The ongoing, wall-to-wall coverage of Elizabeth R’s death is a way of reinforcing the legitimacy of this power, and maintaining the myth of a hands-off, symbolic-only sovereign, and as such, it is fundamentally dishonest, a narrative constructed in service of power, not truth.
One point I am getting at is that the process we are going through now is a reminder that we must think deeply about the sort of change we want a Republic to achieve, and it must be predicated on ensuring that national sovereignty is constitutionally recognised as inhering in us, the citizens of Australia. This means, I think, that any model for the installation of a President must be one that allows for popular election, something John Quiggin discussed in a recent piece. Simply replacing one unelected head-of-state with another is unlikely to yield much change in the way in which power operates in Australia.
Another point is that, despite everything, I think we have reason to be positive. Australia is going through quite the democratic renaissance.
A third force has emerged in our electoral politics, making it more likely than ever that an empowered crossbench can challenge the dominance of the legacy parties;
we are moving towards constitutional recognition of a First Nations Voice to parliament, the first step towards a Treaty;
and with the death of the Queen, a new path is opening towards a Republic.
Seen in this light, the media’s response to the death of the Queen can be read as a clear indication that the status quo, the institutional power of the nation, feels itself under threat.
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