(Image: EPA/Andy Rain)

When Prince Philip died last Friday, it was a moment the world’s media had long been waiting for — the Duke of Edinburgh, 99, had been looking particularly cadaverous for months, if not years. The obits were ready — though, as Charlie Lewis reports in Tips and Murmurs today, some were missing vital facts, and others had some embarrassing typos.

Still, the death of Philip — husband of the Queen, World War II veteran and a man who spent most of his time in the public eye going around with a foot firmly in his mouth — brought forward a frenzy of media activity over the weekend. For a man whose main contribution to recent Australian public life was accelerating the downfall of an unpopular prime minister and getting CV-stacking high schoolers to go camping, it all seemed a bit much.

Sycophantic coverage

Over the weekend, TV networks rolled out the big guns for their coverage of the duke’s long-awaited demise. On the ABC, as well as the commercial channels, star programmers returned to work a weekend shift, adding a bit of gloss to coverage that was pretty much wall-to-wall.

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The newspapers dutifully followed suit, marking the duke’s passing with pages of misty-eyed hagiography. For the Nine newspapers, Royals Europe correspondent Bevan Shields produced a staggering 6500-plus words of copy on Philip over the weekend, without a single mention of the duke’s long history of antiquated, racist, sexist mutterings.

At least The Australian had a crack — documenting some of Philip’s greatest hits in an article headlined “Goodbye and thanks for all the gaffes”. That’s quite a way to describe the duke’s musings — including telling British students in China they’d get “all slitty-eyed” if they stayed around too long, or asking Indigenous leaders in Australia if they still threw spears.

How did Australia stack up?

In Britain, the BBC’s own wall-to-wall coverage of his death was met with backlash. As TV ratings fell, the public broadcaster was forced to set up a new website to deal with the deluge of complaints it was receiving for wasting too much time on the Duke of Edinburgh’s demise.

Here in Australia, there was a slightly more muted outpouring of rage, concentrated largely among viewers of British crime show Vera, which had its broadcast stopped to cut to news of the duke’s death.

The broadcaster received about 200 official complaints, and plenty more on social media. It even set up a (now defunct) link on its help site for viewers trying to watch Vera.

How did Australia’s seemingly endless weekend of Philip stack up with the rest of the Commonwealth? In New Zealand and Canada, Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau both offered the kinds of glowing tributes one would expect.

And like Australia, both countries are sending off the Duke of Edinburgh with a 41-gun salute. Still, by Monday, major news outlets in both countries were easing off their Philip coverage, with only a handful of stories halfway down various homepages.

But there’s one thing Australia has in the Philip stakes that the rest of the Commonwealth doesn’t: Tony Abbott. The former prime minister’s monarchism was, famously, so blindly ardent he brought back knighthoods and gave one to Prince Philip.

It was the captain’s call that would begin the unravelling of Abbott’s leadership. Over the weekend, Abbott, who said the world felt “a little emptier” without the duke, wrote an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph explaining why he was correct to give out the knighthood.

But the fawning response to the Duke of Edinburgh’s death went well beyond Abbott. Philip was a man whose commitment to uttering a dying empire’s quiet parts out loud was truly stunning. The way he’s being remembered makes a republic seem very far off.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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