When the Queen gave the first televised Christmas broadcast by a British monarch in 1957, she showed a willingness to embrace technological changes in the way the institution was seen and interacted with the public.
Over the decades, that journey has included collaborating with fly-on-the-wall documentaries, creating a Buckingham Palace website and, finally, pouring out grief on the social media platforms the royals have also embraced in recent years.
Broadcasting her Christmas message almost 65 years ago, the Queen recognized the immediacy and connection that advanced technology could bring.
“Today is another landmark because television has made it possible for many of you to see me in your homes at Christmas,” she said. “My own family often gets together to watch TV, as it is at this moment, and that’s how I picture you now. I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct.”
The documentary The Royal Family, broadcast in June 1969, brought the media global popularity around the world. A BBC/ITV co-production, it gave audiences unprecedented access to the private lives of the Queen and her family, with an estimated global audience of 350 million. However, the format has not always worked in favor of the royal family, as in 1994, when Prince Charles admitted to infidelity in the documentary Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role.
Nick Newman, a senior fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, said the public’s changing expectations of what they expect from the Queen have sometimes also overtaken the sovereign, particularly since the death of Princess Diana. However, the Queen closed the sudden gap between the country and Buckingham Palace by turning back to television with a national broadcast.
Newman said: “The Queen struggled to appreciate this change around Diana’s death, where the traditional private approach to grief came across as a lack of care – and people really appreciated the subsequent broadcast where people could see her feelings as genuine.”
The first royal website was launched in 1997 and has since gone through several iterations, including in 2009 when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, attended the relaunch. The @Royal family The Twitter account appeared that year, two years after launching an official YouTube channel and a follow-up Instagram account in 2013. Currently, the royal family does not have an official TikTok account.
During the lockdown, the Queen followed the rest of the country by using video links to communicate, for example holding a conference call with caregivers on Zoom.
Carefully controlled glimpses of the Queen’s lighter side – showing deft management of the media as well as a very British sense of humor – have been prominently displayed on social media in the past 24 hours: her bold appearance with Daniel Craig at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 and, in a much-loved clip, her tea date with Paddington at this year’s platinum anniversary.
Indeed, Paddington’s clip appears to have sparked various memes related to the famous bear and the queen that have been making the rounds on the internet since Thursday.
Of course, there is a downside to embracing technology. Allegations of racial animus directed at the royal family by the Duchess of Sussex were aired in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, with clips then circulated on social media. Prince Andrew’s ill-fated interview on Newsnight, which led to his banishment from public life, also lit up social media platforms.
Newman said it “must have been difficult for her and her advisers to cope with the extraordinary changes in the media landscape that she has seen in her lifetime. I guess the Queen didn’t run her own social media channel (like many people of her generation) but she appreciated that communications had to change with the times.”
King Charles III will have to walk the same path between relationship and distance.
“The challenge for the next king is how to use these social (and other more informal) channels to deliver messages and build rapport without lifting the curtain too far to attract criticism or destroy the mystique.”