Framing the Palace Letters by our National Archives

Dec 2, 2020

It doesn’t need a conspiratorial mind frame to explain the Murdoch media, Morrison Government and National Archives synchronous framing of the Palace Letters – just a realisation that such strategies are now so institutionalised that overt co-ordination is unnecessary.

Jenny Hocking’s book The Palace Letters speaks for itself. It is an amazing book – forensic, meticulous narrative history and polemical in the best sense of the word.

It weaves personalities, legal procedures, historical and political implications into a high class legal and political thriller combining up market elements of Richard Condon’s conspiratorial novels with John Grisham’s courageous lawyers battling injustice.

Professor Hocking’s analysis is unassailable but that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects deploying the usual tactics designed to undermine the reality.

Surprisingly they have even convinced Paul Keating, who was once accused by the tabloids of touching up the Queen, but is now apparently touched enough to leap to her defence.

But the framing strategies designed to undermine Hocking, protect the monarchy and spread obfuscation were very clever. They dictated initial reporting and exploited blindness to nuance and political history even if in the longer term they will look like one of the Blackadder cunning plans.

The initial framing was done by the National Archives with a surprise and selective media conference.

When the Archives lost the High Court case their first reaction was to issue a media release claiming it was “a pro-disclosure organisation” but then tried to delay release for three months.

Shortly after, however, they suddenly issued a media release, without informing either Hocking or her legal team, and convened a media conference.

The National Archives media conference was, as Hocking describes, “pure theatre. Every element was meticulously stage-managed: the set, the props, the narrative. The director general, David Fricker, who had spent nearly $2 million arguing against their release and had supplied a secret submission to the court in doing so” proceeded to make further protestations about being pro-disclosure before giving a very partial and selective presentation of what was the letters.

He selected just nine of the 212 letters and with faux modesty declared he was “not an historian” but would as an archivist give “a bit of a preview”. Actually while the media was there the Archives made sure there were no historians.

Fricker decided an 11 November letter was ‘an important document’ and displayed in a Power Point presentation a sentence from Kerr saying: “I decided to take the step without informing the Palace in advance.”

He then quoted a letter from Charteris (17 November 1975), again selecting from the text the words, “in not informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it.”

Hocking says: “Buckingham Palace soon joined the rush to its defence, issuing a rare public statement, that the letters confirmed ‘neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part in Kerr’s decision’”.

Putting aside what the Queen knew, what was plausible denial and what was out rightly false that statement is about as convincing as saying the Queen Mother didn’t like gin and the Queen hates Corgis and horses.

Putting aside the fact that Power Point presentation are inherently misleading and inimical to clear independent thought, the selective quotes were immediately picked up by the Murdoch media with a Tweet saying “the Queen was not informed”.

Murdoch’s Times followed up with a headline: “Letters prove Queen had no part in Australia PM Gough Whitlma’s sacking”.

The Daily Mail, not Murdoch but Tory to the bootstraps, followed with the statement: “The Queen didn’t order The Governor-General to dismiss Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.” Needless to say The Daily Mail didn’t mention that no-one had ever said she had.

The strange thing is that the framing depends on not only ignoring the obvious meaning of the words exchanged between Kerr and Charteris, but also failing to hear the subtle nuances the upper class English employ to manage those they see as colonial oiks.

It was once known as ‘duchessing’ and explained much about the careers of politicians such as Joseph Lyons and Ramsay MacDonald.

It also depends on accepting Fricker’s partial reveal and the fact that much of the media are not going to work through the 1200 pages of documents in the race to get a story out.

The usual suspects bought the Archives story but historians, The Guardian, The Australian Financial Review, The Monthly and others went past the selective quotations and made it clear that the Palace had given Kerr ‘the greenlight’.

However, The Australian’s bloviator in chief Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston (perhaps a love child of Mavis) came soon came out with The Truth of the Palace Letters which followed the official line.

Much contemporary policy, politics and campaigns are fundamentally about framing. It works sometimes because the framing is compelling and has lasting effects. Other times it works because of the short attention span of much media or repetition in the form of slogans – like for example the dishonest but partly successful ‘technology not taxes’.

This framing effort though, even if moderately effective for a few hours, was showing signs of failing within 48 hours.

What that will mean for the Australian Republican Movement is another question though. But there is one hopeful sign. Jenny Hocking was the second person elected in the recent ARM board elections. It would probably help the campaign enormously if she replaced Peter Fitzsimmons as the face of the campaign.

 

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