Royal fake news?

A black and white photograph of Prince Phillip and a male companion on horseback; Phillip is holding a horse-whipSo, yesterday it was announced that Prince Phillip, the 95-year-old Prince Consort to the Queen, was retiring from public royal duties as of this coming autumn. This followed an awful lot of speculation after it was revealed that the household staff had been called to an “emergency meeting” yesterday morning; there were suggestions that he or the Queen might have died or Princess Kate (Prince William’s wife) might be pregnant again. The revelation, when it came, must have disappointed a lot of people, but was predictable, as a household staff meeting would not be used to announce such a major event as a royal, let alone the Queen, dying. However, the ‘event’ became the major news story the whole day, as pundit after pundit and royal ‘friend’ after royal ‘friend’ came on to discuss the prince’s years of public service, and even Jeremy Corbyn paid the usual obsequious tributes. What nobody, including Corbyn, mentioned is that the prince has a long history of making racist and otherwise offensive comments.

There are whole lists of the crass remarks Phillip has made over the years, and they are sometimes quite unpleasant stuff, appealing to the crudest of racial stereotypes, including telling British students in China that if they stayed there much longer they would become “slitty-eyed”, and remarking that the Cantonese would eat anything “if it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine”. You can read a bunch of them here; a few of them are funny, some of them are just rude or unpleasant, and some of them are downright racist. He also once remarked to the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner that “it’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people”. Phillip was able to get away with saying these things because of who he was; a boiler repairman who said something like this to a customer, for example, would be sent packing. Terence Blacker, who wrote a spoof royal column for hte Independent under the name Talbot Church, wrote that the prince was an “old bore” even when he was young but “has become a perfect, unimprovable example of how the royal family can reduce millions of people, some of them quite bright and normal, to a state of unquestioning idiocy”; some of the collections of “his brilliant aperçus and stunning one-liners” are published in book form.

It’s the second time in just a couple of weeks that a royal non-story has been elevated into something of national importance; the earlier occasion, on Easter Monday, was when one of the younger princes revealed that he had needed to take bereavement counselling after his mother (Lady Diana) died in 1997, a revelation hailed for raising awareness of bereavement and male mental health, but really, is it news? No! Lots of people have needed counselling after losing parents or other close relatives, and I’m sure paying for it wasn’t a problem for the prince; the fact that it isn’t cheap for everyone, and high-quality mental health care isn’t easy to come by for everyone (especially young people; keep in mind William and Harry were teenagers at the time), hardly got a mention. It seems it would take a major disaster to keep any royal non-story off the top of the news bill for the whole day, although the usual alternative — the latest bit of political point-scoring — doesn’t really count as news either, much as it’s often presented as such.

As I’ve written here in the past, it’s really not befitting of a democracy to elevate trivial royal stories to top of the news bill for a whole day. It is more redolent of a dictatorship or one-party state where the media invariably report “what the president did today” and always uncritically. It’s not exactly fake news, as fake news usually means stories which are both false in themselves and feature faked news trappings (e.g. a local newspaper which does not really exist or a mocked-up story from a real news website), but it is a case of making news out of something that isn’t. Prince Phillip is not a nice man; he never was and will not be missed, so let’s not pretend otherwise.

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