Britain is three-quarters of the way through its four-day celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Among other things, it’s a great big national street-party for the Brits at a time that is otherwise cramped and ominous for them. And they are determined to enjoy it. Sunday’s magnificent Thames River Pageant took place amidst drenching rain, but that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. In fact it produced the best headline in this morning’s newspapers: the Sun’s “Drip, Drip, Hooray.”
There are a few grumpy republicans muttering about the cost of all this and complaining bitterly that the monarchy sustains an entire structure of social inequality. This complaint is hard to square with the observable fact that social inequality of equal or greater degrees exists in perfectly respectable republics. One could even argue that what the Queen and the honors system sustains in Britain is a hierarchy of duty and service that contrasts with the hierarchy of money and power that would otherwise reign supreme. Every district nurse who gets an MBE for years of service well done is a kind of correction, even rebuke, to the high salaries paid for much less noble work. The Queen herself is the embodiment of such duty.
The republicans are, however, aware of their isolation this week — an isolation far more pronounced than two decades ago when the younger Royals were cutting up rough. The entire British nation seems to have come together with a sort of “click” of unity just as it did at the time of the Falklands War and, more recently, for the funeral of the Queen Mother who reminded everyone of the Royal family’s decision to stay in London sharing their dangers in the Blitz. (When a minister suggested that the two princesses, one now Queen Elizabeth II, should move to Canada, their mother famously replied: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”) Melanie Phillips (here) and Norman Tebbit (here) both make the point that the Queen evokes not only loyalty and a sense of national unity but even restores to the Brits a sense of their earlier better selves — what they used to be and what they could become again.
That might explain another curiosity of this weekend. Though the Jubilee itself has received nothing but praise, its coverage by the BBC has been resoundingly denounced across the political spectrum. “A tide of wittering inanity,” accused the Daily Mail. “Mind-numbingly tedious,” said the actor and writer, Stephen Fry (who has become a kind of liberal star.) “Low grade celebrity-driven drivel,” said a Tory MP. Has the BBC, which used to be the golden standard by which all other media coverage of Royal events was judged, simply forgotten how to do it? Does the Corporation, which is widely known to be a redoubt of left-liberal opinion, feel embarrassed internally by coverage of the Monarchy that is not in important ways critical to hostile? Does it wish the whole Jubilee thing would go away?
I can’t speak directly to those questions because I am watching the Jubilee from Prague, where I get the BBC World television service that differs somewhat from its domestic television coverage. But I can say that its news agenda does suggest some uneasiness with the Jubilee. On its first day, for instance, BBC World devoted an entire hour of its morning news program to the life-sentence verdict for President Mubarak in Egypt. The first 20 minutes of this consisted of watching a judge laboriously argue in Arabic that the court’s judgment would be severely impartial with a simultaneous translator gamely putting it into English. I kept expecting them to cut away, but when they did, it was to an Egyptian expert for commentary. BBC World also kept reminding its viewers that we mustn’t forget that, as well as the Jubilee, the Olympic torch is making the rounds of British cities — cut to Liverpool where a former Spice Girl held it briefly. Sure, the Olympics happen only every four years; but a Diamond Jubilee only happens about every hundred and twenty years.
All in all, the coverage of the Jubilee by BBC World seemed to be not only less complete than that from CNN International but also in a way less British. CNN’s English reporters such as Richard Quick were gung-ho about the event, and its American anchors were respectful, knowledgeable, and asked interesting questions. The CNN people all seemed to think the event was an important one and worthy of serious coverage; BBC World seemed anxious to find some way of making this dull event interesting by, for instance, interviewing yet another celebrity.
Maybe BBC World was operating on the assumption that its worldwide viewers would not really find a parochial British event truly fascinating. In my own take on the Jubilee in the Wall Street Journal, I point out why this is a mistake: namely, that the Jubilee is a world event since the Queen is the sovereign of 15 other countries in addition to the United Kingdom and the active and much-loved Head of the 54-nation Commonwealth. I would not have blamed (well, not bitterly blamed) CNN or any other U.S. media organization for not building their news coverage around this reality. Most Americans are not really aware of the Commonwealth or of the original multicultural identity in which it is rooted. As Mark Steyn likes to say: Whether you were from Kingston-on-Thames; Kingston, Ontario; or Kingston, Jamaica; you were simply British and that was that. But the BBC has no excuse for not realizing — or at least not basing its programming on — the wider significance of the Diamond Jubilee for the post-imperial world. All the Commonwealth realms — and most of the republics formerly in the Empire — are holding major events to mark the Jubilee. Members of the Royal family are visiting every Commonwealth realm. Tonight a worldwide string of beacons beginning in Tonga and taking in Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, and several Caribbean countries will be lit, of which more than 4,000 will be in the U.K. alone. In other words, the Diamond Jubilee is less parochial than almost any other news event this year.
I will return to my television set in a moment, hoping to enjoy the glow of the beacons and to be proved wrong in my suspicion that BBC World is uneasy with the Diamond Jubilee because it strengthens the kind of Britain that it wants to replace with a more progressive country with a less obtrusive monarchy — Sweden, say.