Britain’s period of national mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth underlined the reverence with which many in the UK regard the royal family. Intense and mainly loyal coverage by broadcasters and newspapers took pains to remind us that some of history’s most deplorable regimes were republics and that monarchs may be more tolerant – the British royals being particularly benign.
In a private capacity, I am proud of my country’s representative democracy and dutiful, apolitical monarchy. But media barons and editors do not have this luxury and must not allow reverence for the sovereign to silence questions. A journalist’s duty is to hold power to account – and reporters must avoid deference.
The abdication crisis of 1936, caused by King Edward VIII’s insistence on marrying an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, offers a valuable warning from history. Then, the timidity of powerful proprietors ensured that newspapers failed utterly.
So intense was their reverence for royalty that they kept news of the King’s relationship with Simpson from the British public. Foreign titles reported the King’s relationship for ten months before British newspapers told their readers anything about it.
Following her divorce from her English husband Ernest Simpson on October 27 1936, American editors treated Wallis as an all-American success story. Their titles, only available these days in print archives, were packed with news about the woman Liberty magazine described as “The Yankee at King Edward’s Court”.
In Portland, Oregon, students launched a “Simpson for Queen” campaign. In France, Paris Soir’s edition of Wednesday October 28 declared: “Press and radio in the United States announce Edward VIII’s marriage to An American.”
In the UK, imported titles that reported the King’s affair were intercepted at ports or censored with scissors by distributors who feared they might be sued. Politicians who discussed the King and Simpson with lobby correspondents found their comments went unreported.
Thus, in November 1936, Communist MP Willie Gallagher told parliamentary journalists: “I see no reason why the King shouldn’t marry Mrs Simpson … Naturally the charmed circle in this country would be upset, but we Communists certainly shouldn’t worry about it. Good luck to him, and good luck to her.” Not a syllable of this appeared in British newspapers, but Time Magazine printed his words in full for American readers.
Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the market-leading Daily Express, welcomed the King’s request “to protect Wallis from sensational publicity at least in my own country”. He worked to persuade other newspapers to suppress the story.
Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, and C.P. Scott, his counterpart at the Manchester Guardian, visited Downing Street and learned that the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, believed the electorate would be appalled by a marriage between their King and a divorcee. They resisted any temptation to inform their readers.
Throughout 1936, British newspaper proprietors and editors had access to news about Edward and Mrs Simpson. They discussed the relationship with politicians and read about it in newspapers published abroad. Henry Pratt Boorman, editor-proprietor of the Kent Messenger, devoured detailed coverage from French and American titles.
In 2012, Geraldine Allinson, then chairman of the Kent Messenger Group, gave me a brown paper package which had been stored in the executive suite of her company’s headquarters at Larkfield near Maidstone. Bound with string and apparently undisturbed for decades it bore a handwritten label on which was written: “Copies of newspaper dealing with the abdication of Edward VIII and succession of George VI, December 1936.”
Inside were annotated copies of Literary Digest (an influential US weekly published between 1890 and 1938), Time Magazine and Paris Soir. They contain detailed accounts of the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson, all dated before the British newspapers published the story.
This they did in the first week of December 1936, following a meeting between the King and Baldwin, at Buckingham Palace on Thursday December 3. The following day Baldwin told the House of Commons the King had requested legislation that would allow him to marry Simpson without her becoming queen and exclude any children of the marriage from succession to the throne. The cabinet had denied his request.
Only now did the British press feel able to discuss the controversy. A group consisting mainly of elite titles including the Times, Daily Telegraph and Manchester Guardian remained fearful that debate would embroil the King in controversy, divide the country and damage British prestige. Popular titles including the News Chronicle, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Express gave Edward VIII a sympathetic hearing. The Mirror demanded full democratic debate.
On December 5 the popular left wing title proclaimed “The Nation Insists on Knowing the King’s Full Demands and Conditions. The Country Will Give You a Verdict”. On December 11, Edward VIII abdicated the throne – only a week had passed between the first reports of the King’s relationship in the British press and the King’s abdication.
Subsequent coverage concentrated heavily on promoting the new King George VI and his family, including the freshly minted princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as the former king and his wife were styled, moved to France. When, after the second world war broke out in 1939, he was commissioned by NBC to give a radio broadcast calling for peace, the BBC refused to broadcast it.
Reflecting on the abdication in 1952, the historian George Young observed in his study, Stanley Baldwin, that:
The voluntary discretion of the English papers concealed from the public a situation which the people of the United States were watching with excitement, France with amusement, and Canada with some anger and some alarm.
Do such instincts still exist? Can King Charles III expect an easy ride from British journalists? The Guardian’s decade-long struggle to obtain the “black spider memos” the series of opinionated letters and memorandums written by King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, to British government ministers and politicians, confirmed that an element of dissent endures among republicans.
But that is not enough. For Britain’s unwritten constitution to maintain the ruling partnership of parliament and crown in the 21st century, we need honest scrutiny of the monarchy by its admirers – not just televised ceremonies and deference. His Majesty’s first visit to a new building, homeopathy clinic or green energy project will deserve critical attention.