Interpreting the Queen

by Martin MacConnol – Mar 10, 2021

Mark Twain once wrote: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one”. 

It takes a lot of skill to be brief. Twain’s words came to my mind when I read the very short statement from the Queen in response to Meghan and Harry’s two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey. It’s clear a lot of time and thought went into writing those 61 words by the monarch and her advisers. 

I am not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the Royal debate. But I am fascinated, as the founder of a content agency and one-time Fleet Street journalist, by the language used in the Queen’s response. Every word counts in the statement and there are layers of meaning. It is a great piece of copywriting. It’s worth looking at in a little detail. 

“The whole family is saddened to learn...” The inclusion of the word “whole” is important. A sub-editor would have been tempted to strike it out as unnecessary. Therefore it being retained says something. It conveys a sense of a united front within the institution. It also implies that people, who the Sussexes may not have intended to involve, have become involved. 

“…the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan…” “Challenging” is such a poised word. “Challenging” is so different to “Hard” or “Difficult”. This communication is from a monarch who grew up amid the bombs of the Blitz, and who is reigning during a pandemic killing thousands and with a husband ill in hospital. Life is “challenging”, and the word begs the question: how does one respond to these challenges?   

“The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning.” The clause in the middle is significant. There is no dodging of the key issue raised in the interview: it is acknowledged head on. 

“While some recollections may vary,…” Surely this phrase will become a verbal meme for years to come? It interrupts the flow and feels to me like an addition by someone senior, editing the work of the communications team. It is pointed and such an English way of saying “we don’t agree” without saying “you are wrong” or accusing the other side of lying. Be that as it may, it leaves no doubt that the Queen thinks Harry and Meghan’s view of events is not the only one. 

“…they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” This is the conclusion of the sentence interrupted by “While some recollections may vary”. So much is going on here. It finishes the idea that the Royal Family will not shy away from tackling the key allegations. And of course that word “privately” is very important. It is a rebuke to Meghan and Harry for going public on “challenges” and “issues” that the whole family has only just learned “the full extent of”. It is also a sign to all of us not to expect the Royal Family to make this a soap opera for the wider world. 

“Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.” I suspect, that as Royal statements go, this one is pretty unusual in not referencing the individuals by their official titles. Again this must be deliberate. It reinforces the idea that this is a private family matter. And of course this conclusion leaves the door open for reconciliation. But reconciliation that has to understand “recollections may vary”. In addition, the language of love is not one we usually associate with official statements. To respond to criticism with love is even more impressive and hard to do. This then is surely an exemplar of a Royal Family that is moving with the times and becoming more human? 

There is so much more that could be delved into here. But I am a great believer in brevity. Do you want to know the shortest story in the world? Hemingway did it in just six words. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”. There is a wealth of meaning in those six words, just as there is in the 61 drafted by the Palace. The Queen’s statement is a master class in communication to both a specific audience, the Sussexes, and the wider world. 

Published Mar 10, 2021

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