Come in Spinner: Spinning the monarchical succession

The recent Australian obituaries for Mike Hastings (aka as Michael Abner-Hastings 14th Earl of Loudon and claimed to be the ‘legitimate’ heir to the British throne) raise some interesting questions about the media, monarchy and – most of all – the history of public relations.

Monarchical PR actually tells us much about the real history of PR and helps explode the myths promulgated around the ruling US-centric view of PR history.

The media – particularly magazines – are heavily dependent on monarchical stories regularly reporting on them through the frame of pageantry, soap opera, scandal and fantasy. The fantasy is encouraged by monarchists who like to present the monarchy as a timeless wonder which guarantees stability and continuity. The legitimate heir angle to the throne adds the quirky to the normal run of stories.

But like many such stories the monarchist and the media view is really a complex product of spin, gullibility and historical ignorance. For a start, who the ‘legitimate heir’ is has little to do with monarchical lineage and much to do with the power of Parliament. Indeed, the Parliament could decide tomorrow to put someone else altogether on the throne, just as they did when they skipped lots of ‘legitimate’ heirs to put the Hanoverians on the throne and exclude Catholics. It is unlikely but possible. Just 70 odd years ago a King was forced to abdicate because he planned to marry a divorced woman – today the heir to the throne is married to one and confidently expects to succeed if he manages to outlive his mother.

When George IV died the various Hanoverian siblings suddenly had to start trying to impregnate their wives with the vigour they had applied to impregnating their mistresses with William winning the race and opening the way for the Victorian era.

From the Godwins and the Normans in 1066 through Stephen and Matilda, Edward II, Richard II, Richard III, Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Charles I and James II kings were regularly deposed, murdered, killed in battle or executed. In two of the cases opponents of the monarch even invited in foreign armies to help depose the ruling monarch.

Royal pageantry is also a bit of myth and while some aspects of coronations are ancient (similar to aspects, such as anointing, in other monarchical ceremonies around the world down the centuries) much of the pageantry the television channels love dates back to the early 20th century when a concerted effort was made to make the coronations magnificent and less like the farce which occurred when Queen Caroline tried to gate crash the coronation of her estranged husband George IV. In fact, the riots in favour of Caroline and against George IV were probably more in keeping with London traditions than monarchical stability.

But throughout all this change and instability one thing was consistent – monarchs in Britain and around the world consciously sought to shape their image and legitimise their rule. From Charlemagne to Henry VIII, Louis XIV to George III, Frederick the Great to the Elizabeth II, the best promotional tools of the day – whether paintings and pageantry or sculptures and coinage – were used to create images of crowned rulers. Republicans might bemoan the emphasis on monarchy in the media and how hard it makes it to promote the republican case although Oliver Cromwell used many of the same promotional techniques monarchs did. George IV, on the other hand, found the most direct way to deal with the massively unfavourable publicity he attracted was to simply bribe journalists to stop writing and publishing it.

As long as there have been monarchs and rulers of various sorts there have been forms of PR. Yet for much of the 20th century public relations history was viewed through a US-centric prism in which 19th century publicists blazed the way; then larger than life figures such as Ivy Lee and Ed Bernays invented modern PR; followed by the growth of US multinationals who spread US PR practices around the world.

A series of conferences organised by Dr Tom Watson at Bournemouth University has encouraged scholars to present papers on PR history globally and in their own countries. Quickly a new version of PR history has emerged with multiple and divergent histories being described along with a growing realisation that the history of PR really needs to be situated within the context of mainstream historical theories and accounts of representation, image and the promotion of the legitimacy of rulers. Both mean that the US-centric view of PR history is now untenable.

Indeed, recently working on a paper with Deakin University’s, Mark Sheehan, for a conference later this year we were struck by how rich the history of Australian PR was and how much mainstream Australian historical accounts shed light on histories of representation. We were reminded, by John Connolly, that Australia had even pioneered multinational PR through Eric White (with some assistance from ASIS); that Eric White Associates was the first listed PR agency; and, that Gavin Anderson created the first multinational investor relations agency.

Journalists might bemoan the influence of PR in general and spin in politics in particular. But perhaps they, like medieval chroniclers, are just playing a part in a PR pageant rather than a monarchical, political or journalistic enterprise. And PR people, rather than being seen as recent blights on the fourth estate and democracy are just the successors of some courtiers in Aachen.