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Constructing royal soft power: A tabloid tradition

Nathan Ritchie examines the press representation of the first state visit made by King Charles III. Focusing on the tabloid press, he argues that the press relies on an age-old formula to support the monarchy’s efforts to exercise soft power.

By Nathan Ritchie

Constructing royal soft power: A tabloid tradition

In November 1953, some five months after her coronation, the 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Panama on her first official foreign visit as monarch whilst on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth. This would mark the first time Fleet Street would report on the young Queen’s diplomatic efforts as she looked to establish herself on the world stage. The Daily Mail emphasised the overwhelming positive reception she received upon her arrival leading with the headline ‘Fifty miles of cheers - THE ROYAL CAR IS MOBBED’. In The Daily Mirror, a picture of the Queen smiling at the crowds as she left Panama with the title ‘Sunshine of a welcome!’ stressed the feel-good nature of the visit and the crowd’s adoration of the British monarch. The impression that the Queen left on Panama was also remarked on years later in 2022 following her death by The Daily Telegraph. This item claimed that the royal visit had left such an impression on the Panamanian people that they were in collective mourning following the death of the Queen.

Find the template and use it, again and again and again

The Queen’s trip to Panama marked the first of hundreds of foreign visits the national newspapers would cover over her 70-year reign. Meticulously organised, the events have been an opportunity for Buckingham Palace and national tabloid papers to reinforce the value of the monarch’s soft power on the global stage. The organisers of these visits invariably consider the power of the media to frame the occasion as a success and co-ordinate events with this in mind.

These events, which Dayan and Katz1 called ‘media events’, aim to persuade and enlist mass support for the diplomatic aims of the government. Positive media coverage is an essential part of ensuring that the visit seems to develop and progress diplomatic relations, thereby advancing the political aims of the nation. Indeed, the apparently unique capacity that the monarch has to exercise this soft power is one of very few dwindling justifications for upholding the constitutional monarchy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland2.

Through emphasising the success of a royal visit and the capacity of the monarch to further the diplomatic aims of the country, the press, in turn, legitimises the existence of the royal family. They validate the monarchy in various other ways including dedicating a disproportionate amount of news copy to even the most trivial of royal activities and acting as if ‘the public has an insatiable hunger for royal information’3.

Yet not all coverage of the royal family is positive, and the British press has a long history of poking fun and exposing information aimed at embarrassing the monarchy. However, in their coverage of royal visits, in particular those made by the head of state, the press rely on an age-old formula which stresses four key points: (1) the monarchy has been welcomed into the country they have visited, evidenced by the presence of statesmen and cheering crowds; (2) they have charmed elite figures and ‘everyday people’ through unique displays of diplomatic skill and appearance; (3) mutual enjoyment has characterised the visit with a feeling of goodwill upon the monarch’s departure; and (4) the purpose of the trip has been achieved with a sense of lasting national unity between the two countries as a result of the monarch’s efforts.


Following the cancellation of his planned trip to France due to popular unrest there, Charles’s first state visit took place in March 2023 to Germany, the same country as the last official visit of his late mother. The media narrative surrounding the trip was that Charles’ visit to Germany would strengthen ties between the two nations after years of diplomatic calamities. Details on the Buckingham Palace website also claimed a purpose for the visit was to highlight sustainability and community. Charles’s tasks were to fulfil expectations as the monarch, avoid mishaps, and cooperate with Germany to carry out a predictable and orchestrated event. The tabloids would then do their bit to claim the aims of the trip had been achieved. This demonstrates how the media and the monarchy work together to achieve a kind of synergy (zusammenwirken).


The Daily Express, which has long been the most jingoistic of the British tabloids, was the only paper to include news of the trip on their front page. It contained an image of Charles receiving a gift from a member of the crowd in the shape of a love heart, whilst grasping a bouquet of flowers in the other hand, presumably also given by another admirer.

The caption read ‘Charlesmania! Crowds go wild for ‘Climate King’s winning performance’, referring to his championing of various ecological issues and the supposed popularity this has garnered him among German journalists and the public. Another item in the online version of the paper selected these words from a citizen from Hamburg: “It is a difficult thing for him to do but it’s really nice for him to address it. People here feel positively about him, especially his ecological views.”

This framing aligned with one of the key purposes of the trip which was to promote sustainability. Furthermore, by employing public commentary, the news story provides the impression that this view is more broadly held by the crowds. It also conveniently defends against accusations that the King’s supposed apolitical diplomatic value is tarnished by the various political views he has espoused in the past.

The Daily Mirror also followed the traditional formula of portraying a foreign visit by the royals as successful. Charles is presented as enjoying his time in Germany and at ease with the people. Meanwhile, Camilla is said to have ‘bedazzled’ diplomats with her 1898 Boucheron diamond tiara. In this, the story evokes similarities between Camilla and Queen Elizabeth II, whose fashion sense and aesthetic splendour was a staple of tabloid commentary. The welcoming of crowds is emphasised, albeit with a more sober report of 1500 schoolchildren and Royal British Legion members, with ‘some’ holding banners and flowers. The public are described as ‘well-wishers’ providing the impression that the crowd had come out as an act of compulsion to demonstrate their affection or endorsement for the occasion, rather than simply invitees or people attending out of curiosity or obligation.

Do they mean us / him?

Positive reportage of royal visits often relays positive messages from foreign journalists. The King’s speech received praise from The Daily Mirror with one unnamed German journalist quoted remarking that the King ‘spoke with great honour’. The story also highlighted the King mentioning quintessentially British cultural products from The Beatles to Monty Python which it is said ‘had politicians and dignitaries laughing’. The bilingual turn during the speech to German, which was perhaps its most noteworthy moment, was mentioned in some dailies as an example of impressive diplomatic skill, but the tabloids largely chose to foreground the Britishness of the King and the standing ovation at its conclusion, rather than dwell on his historical family ties with Germany.

The above reporting reveals that the typical criteria used by tabloid journalists to portray the event as a diplomatic success was followed. Charles’s unique diplomatic skills, Camilla’s appearance, and their welcome by crowds and dignitaries all signalled that the King had done his job well and had been accepted graciously and optimistically by the nation he was visiting.

Other reports explicitly reinforced that the King had proven the worth of the monarchy in terms of its ability to promote the nation on the world stage. An item in The Sunday Express claimed that the visit was a veritable success from a UK diplomatic perspective; according to the item, the King ‘crowned an extraordinary month for UK soft power’. Similarly, The Sun described the trip as ‘triumphant’ and a reflection on ‘how much influence he wields on behalf of Britain’.

1953/2023: New monarch, same template?

This has been a brief look at the tabloid reporting of the King’s first foreign visit. If one of the primary functions of the monarchy is to exercise soft power and influence diplomatic relations, the press seemed eager to ensure that this perception is continued both home and abroad. They appear willing to play their important role in framing the event as a victory of British soft power by relying on the familiar formula which accompanied so many of the Queen’s official travels.

Over time, the British media played a large part in constructing a mythology around the Queen and, at the time of her death, she was seen by many as a diplomat par excellence4. Early signs seem to indicate that the newly crowned King can expect the same support from the tabloid papers. The actual capacity, of course, for the royal family to change the course of diplomatic relationships is difficult to measure or verify. But this perceived imperative function of the monarch will continue to be taken-for-granted, supported, and promulgated in British national newspapers.


1. Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz (1992): Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. Tristram Hunt (2011): ‘Monarchy in the UK’, Public Policy Research, Vol. 17, Issue 4, pp 167-174.

3. Michael Billig (2002): Talking of the Royal Family, Oxford: Routledge.

4. Martin Farr (2023): ‘Soft Power and Hard Choices: Royal Diplomacy in the Carolean Age’, Britain and the World, Vol.16, Issue 1, pp 1-10.

This chapter was taken from the new book, ‘Reporting Royalty – Analysing the media and the monarchy’, edited by John Mair and Andrew Beck with Richard Lance Keeble, published by MGM Books. Reporting Royalty can be purchased via Amazon.