The Crown’s fake story is as caustic as fake news | Simon Jenkins
W.When you turn on your television tonight, imagine the news being played and not read. Someone who looks like Boris Johnson yells angrily at his fiancée Carrie Symonds; Dominic Cummings vomits into a can; and the queen said to piss off. After that, the BBC flashed a statement saying that all of this was “based on true events” and hopes we liked it.
The royal family series The Crown has received praise for its acting performance and Brickbats for its inaccuracies, almost all of which are derogatory to people living or recently deceased. The new series on Netflix appears to have increased invention and crime. Screenwriter Peter Morgan admits, “Sometimes you have to give up accuracy, but you can never give up the truth.”
That sounds like a dangerous distinction. Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006) was not laudable, but it was a plausible recreation of the events surrounding the death of Diana. Olivia Colman’s bitter parody of the monarch on Netflix left us guessing which parts were true and which were false. It was a wrong story. The words and deeds of living people were developed into an act that could have been written by Diana’s greatest supporters.
The historian Hugo Vickers has already described eight complete inventions in detail in the new series, all of which caricature the royal family in the worst possible light. They are:
1. Lord Mountbatten wrote a letter to Prince Charles the day before his death.
2. The Royal Family set protocol traps to humiliate Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Balmoral.
3. Princess Margaret mocked Princess Diana for not being able to curtsey.
4. Prince Charles called Camilla Parker Bowles every day for the early years of his marriage.
5. Princess Diana had a tantrum while visiting Australia and forced her to change plans.
6. Princess Margaret visited two of the Queen’s cousins who had been taken to a “state insane asylum” in order not to embarrass the monarchy.
7. The Queen was responsible for her view of Thatcher being leaked as “indifferent”.
8. The Queen was shown repeatedly misdressed for Trooping the Color.
These are comparable to the “revelations” in an earlier series, one of which implicates Prince Philip in the Profumo affair and another suggests infidelity. The intent was clearly to shake a horror at those onlookers who lull themselves into believing that everything was true.
The royal family can, and usually do, take care of themselves. I’m less sure about history, especially contemporary history. The validity of docu-dramas of “true history” can only lie in their veracity. We have to believe they are true, or why are we wasting our time?
False story is reality hijacked as propaganda. As Morgan suggests, his film may not be accurate, but his goal is to convey a deeper truth to his audience: that the royal family were bestial about Diana and were out to get her. Are we next told that they really killed her? Will we have another Oliver Stone faking the circumstances of President Kennedy’s assassination in JFK?
We all know that Shakespeare took liberties with history. There are still writers who struggle to correct their spin, like Richard III. knows at his expense. Most historical novelists go to great lengths to verify their version of events, as Hilary Mantel does. Tolstoy did the same in war and peace. We accept that distant history has time to put its house in order.
Therefore, modern history has to be different. It is too close to what should be sacred – as a witness to past events. There can be no truth for historians and journalists, their drawing trainees, and another truth called artistic freedom.
When it is said to millions of viewers that both Diana and Thatcher were humiliated by the Balmoral royal family, we shouldn’t have to rely on someone like Vickers to reply that this was completely wrong. The correction will pass millions of viewers by.
The fib is a lot more fun. It was oddly unnecessary, however, since, as in Mirren’s interpretation, there were many occasions when it could be shown that kings misbehaved. Morgan could have been truthful in his point of view.
Privacy, defamation and defamation laws have been built over the years to protect individuals from increased surveillance and intrusion into their private lives. Most people support it and more and more use it. The crown has taken its liberties by relying on the royal family’s well-known – and reasonable – reluctance to appeal to the courts. This is artistic freedom in its most cowardly and casual form.
Fake history is deeply rooted fake news. For the legions of global cyber warriors, counterfeiting is legitimate hacking. For the trollers and weirdos, for left-wing conspiracy theorists and right-wing vaccination deniers, it is retribution against power.
For documentary filmmakers for whom ordinary facts are not colorful enough, not devastating enough, fake history carries the magic trump card: artistic freedom.
With the big new beginnings of social media regulation coming, someone will build a structure to monitor and broker access to the world’s screens. Heaven forbids the equivalent of a board of film censors, but there has to be some regulation. All we need is a simple icon in the top corner of the screen. It should read: F for fiction.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist