When the Queen gave the first televised Christmas broadcast by a British monarch in 1957 she displayed a willingness to embrace technological shifts in how the institution was seen and interacted with the public.
Over the decades, that journey has included cooperating with fly-on-the-wall documentaries, establishing a Buckingham Palace website and, at the end, an outpouring of grief on social media platforms that the royal family too had embraced in recent years.
“Today is another landmark because television has made it possible for many of you to see me in your homes on Christmas Day,” she said. “My own family often gathers round to watch television as they are at this moment, and that is how I imagine you now. I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct.”
The documentary Royal Family, broadcast in June 1969, rode the medium’s global popularity around the world. A BBC/ITV co-production, it gave audiences unprecedented access to the private life of the Queen and her family, with an estimated global audience of 350 million.
The format has not always worked in the royal family’s favour, however, as in 1994 when Prince Charles admitted to adultery in the documentary Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role.
Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, said the public’s changing expectations of what they expected from the Queen sometimes ran ahead of the sovereign too, particularly after the death of Princess Diana. Nevertheless, the Queen closed a sudden gap between the country and Buckingham Palace by turning, again, to TV with a national broadcast.
Newman said: “The Queen struggled to appreciate that change around the death of Diana where the traditional private approach to grief came across as a lack of caring – and people really appreciated the subsequent broadcast where people could see her feelings were real.”
During lockdown, the Queen followed the rest of the country in using video links to communicate, for instance conducting a conference call with carers on Zoom.
Carefully controlled glimpses of the Queen’s lighter side – showing canny media management as well as a very British sense of humour– have featured prominently on social media over the past 24 hours: her daredevil appearance with Daniel Craig at the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and, in a much-loved clip, her tea appointment with Paddington at this year’s platinum jubilee.
Indeed, the Paddington clip appears to have struck a chord with various memes related to the famous bear and the Queen appearing around the internet since Thursday.
Of course, the embrace of technology has had its flip side. Allegations of racial hostility levelled at the royal family by the Duchess of Sussex were broadcast in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, with clips then circulated on social media. Prince Andrew’s ill-fated Newsnight interview, which led to his exile from public life, also lit up social media platforms.
Newman said it “must have been hard for her and her advisers to deal with the extraordinary changes in the media landscape that she saw in her lifetime. I imagine the Queen didn’t run her own social media channel (like many other people of her generation) but she appreciated that communications need to change with the times.”
King Charles III will have to tread that same path between connection and distance.
“The challenge for the next king is how to use those social (and other more informal) channels to deliver messages and create connection without lifting the curtain too far so it attracts criticism or destroys the mystique.”