Ben Cope Insights

The Royal’s phoenix moment?

Many considered the media’s coverage of the death of The Duke of Edinburgh as excessive and out-of-touch. Does this mean Britons have fallen out of love with the Royal Family or is there something else going on?

Within minutes of the announcement last Friday, every major publication uploaded a wall of prepared articles. All major broadcasters cleared their schedules to unload a barrage of documentaries. The morning after, the papers were full of Philip wraparounds, features and pull-outs – readers had to wade through 35 pages to get to any other news in the Daily Mail.

The public voted with their eyeballs. TV viewing figures were down as much as 60%, as people either switched over to Gogglebox or put Netflix on. The BBC received a record 100,000 complaints for their coverage, easily making coverage of the Duke’s death the most complained about event in TV history.

The media looks to have overestimated the public’s appetite for such quantity of coverage. Philip was not head of state, and showing the programmes simultaneously on several channels while temporarily shutting down others limited choice. But was the content also misjudged? In reverting to an old playbook taken from the Queen Mother’s death nearly 20 years ago, the treatment was sycophantic in its revery boarding on hagiography. Philip was a monochrome war-hero, a greeter of grass-skirt wearing women and a jolly good old chap. It was all rather odd and frankly dull to a nation used to gorging on the Royal dramas portrayed in The Crown.

But are there are deeper problems? During a pandemic which has killed over 125,000 Britons, it may have jarred as the establishment enforced national mourning for a 99-year-old who died of old age.

The coverage was out of step with a country that is undergoing huge amounts of profound change. Pressing real world problems – post-Brexit decisions, the climate crisis, diversity and inclusion – have made the world more political. Expectations of those in power have changed. The public expects the media to inform them and hold those in power to account, and monotone eulogising of the Duke felt unreal. People don’t want to speak ill of the dead, nor are they ready for the indifference of Private Eye or the BBC’s Simon McCoy. But they do require more realism, and the media needs to catch up.

As we emerge from the pandemic, there is a real appetite for change, with greater focus on equality, fairness and inclusion. Britain’s most traditional institution, built on birthright and tradition, is unlikely to be immune. The Royals have been rocked by a series of scandals in recent years, from Prince Andrew to accusations of racism.

So how do the Royals reconnect and stay relevant? The Duke of Edinburgh, as a wily moderniser, would probably have recognised that his death during the pandemic offers an opportunity to reconnect with ordinary people. Freed from the usual pomp and grandeur, the Royal Family will mourn Prince Philip like millions of others who have grieved and marked the passing of loved ones over the past year – socially distanced and without the usual rituals that help us to come to terms with death. While the Queen will sit alone physically, she can be comforted that her solitude will bring her closer to millions of ordinary Britons who have lost and mourned loved ones in the same way over the past year. Perhaps a fitting way for a man – who did so much to modernise the monarchy and bring it closer to the people – to depart, enabling his family firm to connect emotionally with the people whose support it relies on to survive.