Republicanism and the royal engagement

Where have all the republicans gone? Ten years after the Guardian launched a campaign to have the Act of Settlement repealed, Prince William announced his engagement to Kate Middleton. Letters of complaint to the readers’ editor about the extent of our coverage: two.

“Does the news of this engagement really deserve a front page, two inside pages and the Eyewitness centrefold in the Guardian?” wrote a reader. Readers’ editors don’t go looking for complaints, but it seemed a muted response given the republican history of the Guardian. What did my colleagues feel? I sent a message to colleagues: “I am intending to write about the Guardian’s royal coverage – too much, too little? Why at all?”

About 30 responded. The attitude of just over a third of them could be summed up as one colleague did: “Way too much [coverage] – didn’t we used to be republicans?” Some thought it was an excellent moment to reopen the Guardian’s campaign from 2000 to repeal the Act of Settlement. An interesting insight into our record on republicanism since then was provided by our keyword manager, who is responsible for all the online tags that bring topics together online.

“It fell to me to make our royal wedding tag. I wanted to offset it so made a republicanism tag on the same day. We’ve produced 79 pieces of content on the royal wedding [between the announcement on Tuesday 16 November and Friday 26 November], but I could only find 27 pieces of content significantly about republicanism in the archive (which stretches back to the start of 1999),” he wrote.

Maybe the tapering off in republican articles reflects the view of another pragmatic group of respondents: “Two reasons for covering the royal wedding,” wrote one senior journalist. “1) Love them or loathe them, the royal family does technically still play a role in [appointing] our government. 2) Our attitudes to them are a fantastic prism through which to view the changes in our entire society, whether it be reflections on class, how cohesive Britain still is, and our confidence in who we are. It is also a fascinating glimpse into how the rest of the world views Britain. I would, however, have given room to an opposing view – the voice of republicanism (which I don’t think we did).”

There were those on the staff who mistrust the Guardian’s republicanism, best expressed as trying to “have our cake and eat it” – lots of column inches, but most of it sneering. This view could be found in more than 500 comments on the live blog on our website on the day of the announcement. The site editor that day said: “We launched a story, a live blog and a gallery. Plus we ‘lived’ [launched] prepared profiles of Middleton and Prince William.

“The reason we launched a live blog was to give users a chance to comment, and to give us the flexibility to capture reaction. In the end, comments were pretty evenly divided between variations on ‘isn’t it great news’ to the opposite.”

The duty editor of the main section of the Guardian on the day said: “I thought we mostly did OK on tone and level of content … like it or not, this pair may one day represent Britain as figureheads … so I thought it felt perfectly legitimate to do a front-page pic and sketch, plus spread and big picture inside.”

Broadly I agree that coverage on the day was about right, although I regret we had a front-page design that did not give room for another story “above the fold”. With the newspaper lying on a shelf, the royal wedding was all you could see. The main story on the front that day was the Irish banking crisis.

One of my seasoned northern colleagues may have found a hidden agenda. “Research so far into Kate Middleton’s background has revealed all sorts of characters, from miners to millionaires. But there were also radical, Liberal Unitarians of the exact type that created this newspaper. They range from the moderate Lupton brothers of Leeds, who committed their wealth and energy to social reform, to Arnold Lupton MP, who was denounced as a ‘concealed socialist’ in the great, reforming Liberal government of 1906-10.”

So she is secretly one of ours then.

This column was originally published in The Guardian on Nov. 29, 2010.

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