Saturday, December 4

Royals are like so much of our press: caught up in a fantastic version of the British past | Race

TOAmong the justifications commonly used by defenders of the monarchy is the assertion that a queen or king, a head of state by birth and not by election, is above politics and, from that lofty position, is capable of uniting to the nation in very simple ways. the president never could. A week after The Interview, royals have become the fault line along which the nation has disunited.

Young people and people of color are overwhelmingly supportive of Meghan Markle, perfectly capable of acknowledging the racism within the tabloid harassment campaign that helped drive her and Harry into exile in California. Older people, the demographic groups served by the tabloid press, are much more likely to be hostile to Markle and gleefully dismiss her accusations of racism.

The tabloid press and what we might call “tabloid television,” accused by Markle of being the source and broadcasting system for much of that racism, have decided to focus attention on accusations of racism within the royal family. It is not difficult to see why they preferred this to keeping their track record. When news of the couple’s relationship emerged, the Daily star he asked if the prince could end up marrying “gangster royalty”. The Mail Online, in an article so infamous that it has its own Wikipedia page, described Markle as “(almost) straight from Compton.”

For most black people, the racism of the tabloids is blatant. However, the industry that launches racist motifs drawn from gangster rap proclaims its innocence. Part of the problem is that in the Venn diagram that includes those two groups, black people and tabloid journalists, the circles hardly overlap. The press, like many of the British institutions, has an appalling record of diversity and inclusion. Blacks make up 3% of the UK population, but make up just 0.2% of journalists. This failure means that black Britons are simply not in the tabloid newsrooms to point out racism; they are certainly not in the editor’s chair to remove it.

Blind to their own biases and isolated from communities they do not encounter or understand, journalists and editors feel empowered to make judgments about what is and what is not racism. Hence the decision of Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Publishers, to publish a statement unilaterally exonerating the entire British press from all accusations of racism. Murray also condemned the Sussexes for making “such claims without providing any supporting evidence.” Blacks familiar with this kangaroo dynamic recognize a dead end when they see it. What could be more false than asking a black woman to prove the existence of racism to people who have just proved their inability to see it?

This lack of self-awareness goes some way to explaining the tabloid’s lack of self-interest. For the press and the palace alike, Meghan Markle’s marriage to the British royal family had the potential to be the biggest rebranding opportunity in marketing history; a once in a century opportunity to refresh your reputation and reach new young audiences. Since Kurt Cobain briefly made the cardigan fashionable in the 1990s, the possibility of such a radical makeover has not been presented. However, both institutions completely ruined it.

For a monarchy that places much of its arguments in favor of its relevance in its role in the center of the Commonwealth (2.4 billion people, mostly black and brown), its inability to embrace and then defend Markle represents a skill. awesome to lose an unexpected reputation. An almost clown level of PR ineptitude. The tabloids, unable to shake off their addictions to casual racism and instinctive misogyny, were equally clumsy.

One of the reasons that royalty and the tabloids were unable to seize the opportunities was that this would have forced them to look directly to the future, but like so many British institutions they are stuck in a fantasy version of the British past.

The Queen with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in January 2018.
The queen with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, later engaged, in January 2018. Photograph: Matt Dunham / AP

This is why so many debates in modern Britain eventually turn into debates about history. We talk about the future, conjuring up visions of “global Britain” and “Cool Britannia” before that, but are constantly dragged back to face difficult facts that emerge from stories we have covered up and refused to process.

Take Black Lives Matter for example, a campaign sparked by contemporary racism. Here in Britain, for many people, it became primarily a battle over statues and what is taught in school history lessons. This is because defending the imaginary version of “Little England” from our past is within the comfort zone of the tabloids. Acknowledging contemporary racism does not. Thus, two of the dominant figures in the news cycle for much of last summer were Edward Colston and Winston Churchill, both so firmly historical that, between them, they accumulate an impressive 356 years without being alive; with Colston doing most of the heavy lifting.

Our never-ending festival of retrograde ahistoricism continued last week as the all-white, male inner priesthood of the outrage industry rushed to defend the monarchy against Markle. As inevitable as a premature lifting of Covid restrictions, Nigel Farage returned to haunt our news sources and Piers Morgan appeared, red-faced and screaming at the cameras of Good morning Great Britain.

As Morgan imploded, Farage claimed that “no one in the world, in history, has done more for people of color than the British royal family.” Even if he was referring only to the current monarch, this still represents a kick in the teeth for Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. If Farage was referring to the institution itself, this deliberately absurd claim instantly smashes against the rocks of historical reality. Three British monarchs, Elizabeth I, Charles II, and James II, were directly involved in the slave trade, and both George III and William IV defended slavery.

Trapped in an imaginary past, we are unable to recognize how our real history shapes our culture and attitudes. Fearful of facing that true past, we struggle to reshape our institutions for the future, even as we are presented with an extraordinary opportunity for renewal.

David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster

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