The death of Queen Elizabeth II: Media culture and the future of the monarchy

September 14, 2022
Queen Elizabeth II. Image credit: Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Queen Elizabeth II. Image credit: Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The British Royal family is noted for its branding prowess. As media culture has changed tremendously over the years, what can the implications of these changes be when it comes to portraying and covering the monarchy?

Kali Israel, a University of Michigan associate professor of history, studies modern and contemporary British and Scottish history. She offers insights about Queen Elizabeth’s passing, media representation and future ties of some countries to the British monarchy.

Obviously, there has been a media frenzy covering the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Historically, what is the main difference between the media culture now and in the 1980s and ’90s? 

Despite many arguments—positives or negatives—the monarchy hasn’t shifted much over the last decades, unlike the media. There was a great deal of discussion and criticism of it in the 1980s, but by comparison to some other constitutional issues, relatively little changed. 

Setting the internet aside for the moment, over the last 10 to 15 years there’s been an absolute explosion in media representations of royals and royal history, ranging from “The Crown” to “The King’s Speech” to TV series and feature films about their lives. There’s been an increase of soap opera-ish representations of royal families, documentaries—and overtly fictitious ones—but also a lot of stuff that falls in between.

Kali Israel
Kali Israel

Many people take those representations and think, “I know these people, I know the inside story. I like her because of what she’s like, or I despise him because I know what he is like.” So the media has personalized it. They talk about the monarchy in terms of individual subjective relationships, of emotion.

That’s very different from media representation in the past. In the ’80s, there was a lot of focus on constitutional issues, even with the scandalous side around Charles and Diana, etc. Whereas in the present, there is so much more focus on the soap opera side of it. 

What is the impact of the way the media portrays the British monarchy? 

In a strange way, the way the media portrays the royals now may have helped in the sense of—I don’t want to say polarized—making certain divisions clearer. People whose commitment to the monarchy, or who like the monarchy or claim to love individual parts of the royal family, may have become more committed.

But it brought out some of the darker sides for people whose soap opera side doesn’t work. It’s helped sharpen the sense for some that this is all a load of tosh and has increased the complicated questions. Why are the individual stories out there instead of media pieces on money, power, race and empire? Those are issues that are not so easy to televise.

How has the media represented now King Charles III over the years? How will this coverage influence his current image?

Over a number of years, there have been a fairly drawn-out issues around Charles attempting to intervene or influence in government. You didn’t see much  about that in shows like “The Crown.” That’s not the kind of thing that makes television. 

Overall, Charles has some particular unpopularity. That is based not just on the history of his personal life but on how, over many decades, he has attempted to exercise political power. He has engaged in financial conduct, for example, that has raised questions, trying to shape the laws in a way that will be beneficial to his personal tax.

Not necessarily correctly, the queen was often seen as someone who stayed out of politics, Charles doesn’t have that cloak. So people will pay more attention. 

The queen’s media representation and branding efforts appeared to work. While support for the monarchy has been on the decline in Britain, Elizabeth herself was highly popular until her death. Will King Charles have the same strength and appeal globally?  

Short answer: no. But the process by which, for example, some nations in the Commonwealth have taken measures to define themselves as republics, which is to say, no longer acknowledging a king or queen in even a symbolic or ceremonial way, will probably continue and Charles’ accession won’t do anything to stop that (nor should it).

Even if it might seem only symbolic power, and the monarchy’s power is not just symbolic, now we’ve got different symbols. Conversations about the legacies of the empire, slavery and violence, and also a discussion on these nations’ own self-identity, can’t be evaded or submerged in a nostalgia that many millions of people do not share for very good reasons.

These conversations are meaningful and much more significant than all of the queen’s symbolism. This transition from Elizabeth to Charles III opens that question that many people will answer differently: “Why shouldn’t this be the end of the line rather than a continuation?”