7 May 2023

A constitutional conundrum - or simply a king-size spectacle?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 7 May 2023
TVNZ's special coverage of the Coronation of King Charles III.

TVNZ's special coverage of the Coronation of King Charles III. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ 1

The Coronation this weekend was an historic event that anointed a new head of state for us for the first time in 70 years - and also a made-for-media spectacle that captivated broadcasters.

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year, pundits predicted a debate about cutting ties with the Crown would follow, but the media have shown little appetite for it.   

Last Monday, Morning Report listeners heard from royalty fan Barbara Larsen about how much she was looking forward to the Coronation. She has collected royal stuff since she was a child which now lines the walls of her house in New Plymouth. 

TVNZ this week was certainly banking on New Zealanders wanting wall-to-wall royalty this past week. 

The state-owned broadcaster -  which turned down an invitation to air the state memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II last year - began last Wednesday night with last year’s Royal Variety Command Performance on TVNZ1 (though Coronation Street on after that was just a coincidence). 

Then on Friday there was a King Charles Special of The Repair Shop; followed by My King Charles III - billed as “a uniquely intimate picture of the man behind the crown” - and then King Charles III: A New Era - billed as a “ground-breaking and moving documentary” including a never-before-seen interview with his former butler. 

TVNZ kicked off the coverage at 10am on Coronation Saturday itself, with another big gig: The Platinum Party at the Palace

After that, TVNZ1 showed a documentary called Fergie & Meghan: Inconvenient Royals before Catherine Our Queen in Waiting, a profile of the Princess of Wales.

That was followed by Charles and the Women Who Could Have Been Queen which was all about Charles’ search for a bride down the years - including the one who is now Her Majesty.

Then At 7pm, TVNZ news hosts Melissa Stokes and Daniel Faitaua took over joining the BBC’s coverage from London later on.   

For those wanting an alternative to TVNZ’s Their Majesties’ Coronation, Three offered The Coronation of their Majesties on Saturday night, also hooking in to coverage from the BBC.  

Last month, Three’s show The Project also promoted a genuine alternative - British comedian Ross Noble declared he would do his own alternative live commentary on the night. He told viewers the trick was to allow the pictures to do the talking and just pipe up with “Wonderful scenes there ... “ every now and then in a posh voice. 

Of course for royalty fans, they really are 'wonderful scenes'  - seen only once or twice in a lifetime.

When Newstalk ZB’s Andrew Dickens described the pomp and circumstance as “a bit pantomime” and added that alien observers would struggle to understand people worshipping the 'Stone of Destiny,' talkback callers rang in to hit back.  

He was also royally fact-checked by some callers who know the royal traditions and history in detail. 

The media in the UK have also been debating the Coronation in part because of the cost-of-living crisis going on there. 

According to a poll of 4500 Britons in mid-April commissioned by the BBC’s flagship current affairs show Panorama, 54 percent of people believed the monarchy was good value for money - but a third thought the opposite.

The lack of clarity about actual royal finances, said Panorama, was feeding public doubts about that - and whether the royals can really empathise with subjects doing it tough.

On Newstalk ZB last Monday, Andrew Dickens referred to a survey that said the GBP100 million a year British taxpayers tip into the monarchy each year returns GBP1.7 billion to the UK economy - and said the Coronation would probably pay for itself thanks to the crowds flocking to London to see it and opening their wallets while they were there. 

Among them were his ZB colleagues Kate Hawkesby and her partner on air - and in life - Mike Hosking who purchased a pair of what he believed to be the Kings’ Coronation shoes.  

But Hosking found Coronation fervour had not been enough to revive a suffering CBD. 

“There’s more empty shops than there are full ones. Everything has slipped service is not what it was. For all the issues we face in New Zealand  ... we are far from alone,” he told ZB listeners. 

During Covid closedown here, Hosking repeatedly called New Zealand a Hermit Kingdom and praised the UK - among other countries - for ending lockdowns earlier and opening up the economy and the borders. 

“To suggest the world has moved on and got back to normal isn't true,” he told his listeners last week once in London.

Any politician who switched positions like that would be hauled over the coals in the media for flip-flopping.  

Mike Hosking sobbed on air when Queen Elizabeth II died last year, but not all Brits are as hopelessly devoted to the monarchy now under new management according to that opinion poll aired on BBC TV’s Panorama last week  

“The poll suggests public opinion about the British Royals is changing with less than a third of 18 to 24 year-olds in the UK wanting the monarchy to continue.” the BBC reported.

“That was the only demographic there was actually negative towards the monarchy. In totality, which is how the story should be told, the vast majority of people still favor the monarchy,” Hosking told ZB listeners.  

But while majority of 58 per cent overall did back the retention of the monarchy in that poll, Hosking didn’t mention the last Panorama poll a decade ago.  

“When YouGov asked the same question a year after the Queen's Diamond Jubilee (in July 2013) 75 percent of people polled said the monarchy should continue, and only 17 percent wanted an elected head of state,” the BBC reported.

Hosking also didn't mention 45 percent of the people polled by Panorama said they believe King Charles the third was “out of touch” and only 36 percent said they believed he wasn't. 

Last Tuesday Newshub at 6 had no qualms about claiming “Monarchy’s popularity has hit a record low”.

“Only three and every 10 Brits consider the monarchy very important," said Newshub's Lisette Reymer.

 That survey of 6600 UK people was part of 40 years-worth of data from the annual British Social Attitudes survey

It showed the number of people who say the monarchy is “very important” had fallen to 29 percent, from 38 percent in 2022.

Constitutional inertia? 

There was plenty more in the media this past week leading up to the actual Coronation on Saturday - and for those who’d had more than enough there was an online solution. 

Māori artist Hamiora Bailey built an internet browser plugin to unplug royal coverage by filtering it out and replacing it with indigenous and local news.

Readers of Newsroom.co.nz would have had little use for it, because the main site had no Coronation coverage at all (though an episode of its daily podcast The Detail last Monday was devoted to it). 

The same day, Newsroom’s editor Tim Murphy made an interesting point.

On Newsroom’s weekly podcast Murphy spoke about “the endless nothingness of the republican debate".

When Queen Elizabeth died, Otago University professor of law Andrew Geddis - along with Master of Laws candidate Sarah Jocelyn - wrote that it was an opportunity to reconsider the constitution and head of state issue.

“The end of the second Elizabethan era also represents a potential constitutional turning point, as for decades the republican question has been largely avoided out of individual fondness for our now former Queen,” he wrote under the headline How Passive, Avoidant NZ Can Become a Republic.

“Her death and the accession of King Charles III creates a moment of extreme social significance, as the almost continuous media coverage of the last week attests,” they wrote on Newsroom. 

He said the media spectacle of her funeral also “made it abundantly clear this is not ‘our’ monarchy".

But eight months later, the Coronation scenes on the screens are captivating our broadcasters and - unlike in the UK itself - there’s been almost nothing in the media raising the issue. 

Professor Andrew Geddis

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

“It's it is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ question. Are people uninterested because the media is not talking about it? Or is the media not talking about it because people aren't interested? Probably both,” Professor Geddis told Mediawatch

“When we look at the opinion polls, it does seem that the majority of people are happy to stick with the status quo. And if there's no groundswell, the stories that dangle the prospect of republicanism aren't getting the headlines, because the media gets to see what people are reading,” he said. 

“Why would the media really feel that they need to be almost preaching at people about something that they don’t care about? Also, to change to a Republic would involve some constitutional change. Once you start to tinker with one little bit of the Constitution, you start to open up much bigger questions that are a lot harder to answer,” he said. 

“Given the way in which people shy away from simple questions of co-governance around water, are people going to want to talk about that at a national level?”