The princess and the press
Friday’s royal wedding isn’t the first to be covered by local papers, which have taken tacks both fawning and furious
In November 1947 it was hard to hear a single good word about the British Empire in the the Land of Israel’s Jewish settlements, called the Yishuv. The removal of the Union Jack from the High Commissioner’s mansion in Jerusalem, and from all the military and governmental officers in Mandatory Palestine, seemed closer than ever and the diplomatic battle about the partition plan at the United Nations General Assembly was on everyone’s mind.
While the UN would vote to confer statehood upon the Jewish people on November 29, only a week earlier, newspaper editors in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem could not ignore another major story which had the rest of the world mesmerized: the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King George VI, to Phillip, who himself had royal blood from Greece and Denmark, on November 20, 1947.
The spirit of newspaper coverage of this event in Mandatory Palestine is encapsulate by the two column headline splashed by the Palestine Post on its front page, the day after the wedding, “Regal Splendour in Austere London.” The headline was not just a night editor’s turn of phrase.
As highlighted by the contents of reports in the Yishuv press, this really was a story of contrasts and mixed emotions. Local feelings for the happy couple, and the empire as a whole, were anything but fawning. Rage, protest and rebellion balanced against love and respect for at least some of the United Kingdom’s values and institutions.
Just as the subject would surface repeatedly in subsequent decades, security arrangements prior to the big event were a constituent motif in the reporting. Haaretz reported that “Scotland Yard has prepared mug shots of foreign suspects and other ‘undesirable’ elements, and thousands of special policemen have been deployed to provide protection during the ceremony.” In Mandatory Palestine, the main beneficiaries of the royal wedding were non-essential soldiers in the British army, who received a special one day furlough; also, a few dignitaries in the country were invited to a special reception held on the occasion by the High Commissioner. Mandatory radio broadcast snatches of the royal wedding.
The day after the London ceremony, Haboker wrote that “the princess’ wedding turned into a holiday for the masses. (...) Four women and two children in the huge crowd fainted at the sight of the royal procession.” The reporter analyzed why the wedding became a national holiday: not only was the royal family a symbol promoting unity in the United Kingdom, but the mass celebrations gave the every Englishman a chance to escape his daily worries, even if only for a minute.
The day after the wedding, Haboker released a short report about an English policeman who detained a “dark-skinned” boy lurking around royal carriages, and asked him what he was doing in the area. The boy shrugged his shoulders, and agreeably allowed himself to be pulled aside. “To the policeman’s amazement, it turned out that the youth was Iraq’s prince regent.”
Hatzofe, a religious Zionist newspaper, also carried a small, colorful report, saying that “during the final hours of preparation for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, a daring break-in occurred in the bridesmaid’s room.” Stolen was a “diamond-studded head decoration whose value is estimated as two thousands pounds sterling.”
The question of the wedding’s cost gave was also of interest to Yishuv journalists. On the wedding day, Haboker, a daily affiliated with the General Zionists party, reported on a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives who directed the attention of fellow congressmen to the opulent event in London, in which the princess was expected to receive gifts worth $2 million. “Does this lavish ceremony have any logical relation to the desperate calls of the English people for urgent economic assistance,” asked the U.S. congressman.
The Labor Zionist organ, Davar, had no reason to defend the royal family, but was much less critical. On the eve of the wedding, the paper reported that King George VI had “allocated an allowance to his daughter; the king would dip into his savings, and cover the newlyweds’ expenses for a defined period.” Davar added hat the king’s policy was designed to “avoid burdening the people during a period of economic difficulties.”
Regarding the bride’s outfit, Davar reported on a “modest dress, whose price is just 120 pounds, in contrast to the 12,000 pounds spent on a wedding dress by the daughter of the Spanish duke of the House of Alba.” Davar noted that Elizabeth’s dress had instigated an argument between the royal family and the press: British newspaper editors had been asked to keep confidential details about the dress until two days before the wedding. At least one, the editor of the Evening Standard, emphatically refused. “My newspaper will release photographs and a description of the wedding dress as soon as possible, just as it releases information about any other newsworthy item,” an editor said.
One newspaper not take in by the hullabaloo was Hashomer Hatzair’s left-wing daily Mishmar (soon to be renamed Al Hamishmar). On the day of the wedding, the newspaper reported that “Fascism raises its head in Britain;” the report focused on the rise of radical right groups in Britain.
The next day, Mishmar published a political analysis about Britain’s governmental crisis, precipitated by the resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer, and nearly nothing about the wedding.
Thirty-four years later, during the Charles-Diana royal wedding, on 29th of July 1981, Al Hamishmar persisted in this policy of giving scant attention to nuptials of princes and princesses. Unlike most newspapers around the world, which decorated their front pages with lavish photographs of the couple in a carriage or kissing on a balcony, the night editor of the socialist Mapam party newspaper selected a rather different image: cops arresting a demonstrator in Liverpool.
A caption beneath this photograph explained that a few hours before the wedding, hundreds of youths demonstrated to protest the killing of a man by a police van. On an inside page, the newspaper’s report on the royal wedding carried the following headline: “Diana − the first royal bride to omit the promise to obey her husband.”
On the eve of the wedding, Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ruth Cohen reported that “gray, reclusive London awakened yesterday to a new life, and the public was full of feverish anticipation ahead of the royal wedding.” The reporter met two women who had come from Yorkshire for the event. “I admire Prince Charles,” one of them said. “This week, I am due to become a grandmother, but I had to see the prince and his bride from up close − not on television.”
A British man, surrounded by his small children, told the reporter, “this is history in the making. I want my children to remember all their lives that they were present at the wedding of the future King of England.”
The next day, another Yedioth journalist, Yohanan Lahav, reported on the event. Among other things, Lahav noted that during the St. Paul Cathedral ceremony, Diane was so excited that she was unable to recite all of the prince’s titles in the correct order. The extensive report’s headline noted that “Charles kissed Diana three times on the balcony, in full view of the masses.”
Ma’ariv chimed in: “Charles received his mother’s permission to kiss his bride in view of admiring masses.”
Like Yedioth Aharonoth, Ma’ariv devoted a full news page to the wedding. As always, a fair portion of local media coverage dealt with reporting on how the event was covered − in this case, reports on television broadcasts of the wedding, along with quotes from other newspapers.
Citing a New York based fashion weekly, Ma’ariv noted the undergarments worn beneath the royal wedding gown were studded with pearl sequins and crystals. “This garment was offered to the Duke of Marlborough after the fight against the French, at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706,” Ma’ariv noted. “And Adelaide Seymour wore the undergarment when she wed Frederick, the 4th Earl of Spencer,” the paper noted.
As in 1947, the 1981 royal wedding competed for news space in Israel against local affairs. Local media reported on coalition discussions, tension in the north, terror attacks.
Hatzofe printed on its front page three parallel headlines: “Terrorists attacked a bus near Kibbutz Ma’ale Hachamisha,” “Our planes down a Syrian MiG-25 in Lebanon’s skies,” “Diana and Charles married in glittering ceremony.”
The question of the wedding’s cost and its extravagant waste received prominent treatment. Moshe Ben-Zeev wrote in Hatzofe that British “citizens are grumbling about the waste of prodigal sums on a wedding, at a time when millions are unemployed and roam the country looking for bread.”
This time, Ma’ariv defended the royal family: “At a time when the British people has been asked to tighten its belt, the organizers of the royal wedding adopted a policy of ‘limiting waste.’ For instance, the 200 meter red carpet, upon which Lady Diana will walk tomorrow, belongs to a public company. A day after the ceremony, the carpet will be divided into fragments, and used to carpet the floors of various government offices.”
Amidst the fireworks and royal glitter, Ma’ariv gave space to an astrologist from Thailand, who predicted a fabulous future for the young couple: “They have the same thoughts and feelings about most subjects,” the astrologist opined. “The wedding’s timing is splendid, and it will bring good fortune to Britain’s economy. After two years of marriage, a son will be born to the couple, followed by two daughters. At the age of 36, Charles will endure an accident connected to water, but he will be rescued...”
In the end, not only the red carpet was torn to shreds; also shattered was the prince and princess’ dreams of a life lived happily ever after.
Dr. Rafi Mann is a historian and researcher of media affairs.