For the Queen at 80: caution

On The Press

How do we reconcile the mega coverage of the Queen's 80th birthday with the declining interest in matters royal of which editors must be aware? A glance through the many supplements this past week shows how life has changed. What did today's young people make of the use on the front pages of the Daily Mirror, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph of the word "Ma'am"? How did they react to a huge picture in the Daily Mail of the Queen riding a horse in the Windsor grounds? Did they titter at the comment that she was showing "no signs of letting go of the reins"?

On Friday, the popular press said: "Happy Birthday, Ma'am". Most of the serious press considered the state of the monarchy. The Daily Telegraph published a rambling editorial on the dangers of taking the Queen for granted, but found her as secure as ever in the affections of her subjects.

The Times also eulogised, with a celebration of wisdom, old age, discretion and perceptive interest in the nation's political life, all qualities they found in the Queen.

The Guardian said on its front page: "Let's wish the Queen a very happy birthday. And when she goes, let's bury this ridiculous institution." This was a trail for a piece in its youthful second section. Its more mature main section carried a leader headed "An unpretentious Elizabethan" that allowed the Queen the rest of her reign, but called for a debate about the future of the monarchy after that.

The Independent, which has on occasion veered away from the edict of its founding fathers that minimal royal coverage should be provided, marked the birthday with the seventh of seven news briefs on page 18 headlined: "Queen celebrates 80th birthday".

Life is so much easier if you are editing Hello! magazine. It featured on its cover "The Queen's pride as Harry becomes an officer". It marked the birthday with a 100-page glossy magazine devoted in its entirety to "The Queen's 80th birthday - celebrating an extraordinary life in images and reports." Celebration was no understatement.

If editors tend to be cautious, what do the readers make of this stuff? Mostly, I suspect, they put the supplement aside, forget to pick it up again, and wish the Queen an entirely enjoyable day.

Only the Daily Express has serious royal problems. In birthday week it led on successive days with "Queen's grief over Diana" and "Diana death doctor made to tell truth".

Those who may be wondering why the death in 1997 is making Express headline news in April 2006, should be aware that this is not unusual in that paper.

The Express has led its front page on a death of Diana conspiracy story 17 times in the past seven weeks. No one ever takes up these stories or even mentions them.

If the choice is between unction, mild republicanism and obsessive Diana conspiracy, I say give me either of the first two. RIP Diana and long life to you, Ma'am, on or off the throne.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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