By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow
Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has highlighted some key fragilities and controversies within the monarchy, arguably the most prominent being Prince Andrew and his affiliation with convicted child sex traffickers Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
The association was also coupled with accusations of sexual assaults on the then 17 year old Virginia Giuffre when he was in his early 40s. Whilst no criminal conviction was made, an out of court settlement – reported to be £12 million – was paid to Guiffre with some intelligence pointing out that this was, at least in part, paid by the Queen out of public funds. Although Andrew did accept that Giuffre is a victim, and Buckingham Palace report that he regrets the association with Maxwell and Epstein, no statement of liability or innocence in relation to the accusations was issued.
Andrew had his title stripped and had to give up his patronages and honorary military roles. Shortly afterwards, Andrew seemingly withdrew from public life.
This was until the death of the Queen, when there appeared to be a turnaround in the public presence of Andrew. It is reported that Epstein and Maxwell’s victims were deeply troubled by this unquestioned return and found the subsequent praise Andrew received by large swathes of the public upsetting. This return to public life was raised by the lawyer who represented many of Epstein’s victims, asserting that due to the pain that this could cause Andrew should have grieved in private and was potentially using this to rehabilitate his image and exonerate himself in the eyes of the media and UK public.
As a result, this shapes social perceptions amongst victims and their advocates; that wealth, power and monarchy are seemingly differentiating factors when considering serious allegations of sexual exploitation of young people. The impact of this on victim-survivors will be largely immeasurable. There is a risk that many may now be reluctant coming forward when the accused is a person in power who is respected in the media. This is a key example of how media can steer thinking, particularly as we saw more positively skewed coverage of the monarchy following the Queen’s death. This may have contributed towards the seemingly rapid acceptance of the return of Andrew by the wider public.
This is where things start to get more troubling.
Firstly, many instances in the immediate period after the Queen’s death highlighted the restrictions around the right to protest. A barrister holding up a blank piece of paper in Parliament Square was threatened with arrest if he attempted to write ‘not my king’ on it. Others were arrested for protesting against the monarchy and one protester who shouted at Andrew that he was a ‘sick old man’ was handcuffed and arrested by the police.
These instances of censoring peaceful protests raise important questions about freedom of speech and the right to protest. The right to protest is not malleable, it is underpinned by democracy and cannot and should not be moulded around what those with power and wealth do and don’t want to hear and how they want to be represented. There appeared to be an informal media embargo on how the monarchy was represented in the days after the Queen’s death. The silence of all things negative against the monarchy, at this time, perhaps points to the unspoken control that the powerful and wealthy have over the media. However, the protesters could not be silenced and this may have led to the unusual hostility that they received.
Another blow to victim survivors is that Andrew, whilst he was originally stripped of all his titles, patronages, and honorary roles, is now a Counsellor of State. This means that if the King is taken ill or cannot perform his duties, there is a possibility that Andrew could step in as Head of State, as set out in the Regency Act of 1937. This runs the risk of the stripping of honours being seen as largely symbolic and meaningless.
Why has there been a lack of scrutiny of this return to public life for someone who has seemingly disgraced the royal family and has been stripped of his titles and honours for something that normally generates vilification from society?
Sexual abuse, in the context of grooming and exploiting young people, normally evokes visceral reactions from the wider public. This is due to how sex is framed in western culture and how the innocence of children and young people are perceived. However, the visceral reaction to the appearance of Andrew was apparently non-existent and muted at the very least. Interestingly, this has not been seen in other powerful men who have been accused of sexual assault, grooming and exploitation, such as Harvey Weinstein and R Kelly. In these cases, the public broadly appeared to be firmly on the side of the victims. With these situations, the key difference with Andrew is his royal status and the media portrayal of the monarchy after the death of the Queen.
This all highlights the very real issues of the right to protest, freedom of speech, the power of the wealthy, the influence of the monarchy, and the control the media has on public thinking. All this with little regard to victim survivors of grooming, sexual assault and exploitation. We must all question where we draw the line and the damage that has been done to democracy in the name of the monarchy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.