It has been a busy year for fact-checkers. First, they had to navigate the uncertainty and mixed messages surrounding the coronavirus. Then they had to filter out all the smears and lies during the presidential campaign. And then, just when they thought their work for 2020 was complete, Netflix released season four of The Crown.
The arbiters of truth and falsehood had one job left to do: Defend the honor of Britain's royal family from the streaming giant's scurrilous script writers. And thanks to an overzealous government minister, the row about what did or did not happen between Charles and Diana has also become a story about a limp attempt by the British government to limit how Netflix presents its blockbuster drama to viewers at home.
In the weeks since the show's release, the gaps between the dramatic depiction of the royals and the truth have been pointed out and debated at soporific length. No detail is too minor to deserve close scrutiny. Here's a sample of the British press's fact-checking effort, courtesy of The Daily Mail:
Princess Diana was dressed as a 'mad tree' for A Midsummer Night's Dream when she first met Prince Charles: FALSE
Prince Andrew dated a 'young, racy American actress': TRUE
The Royal Family are bloodthirsty and obsessed with hunting: PARTLY TRUE
For some people, however, a widespread and thorough debunking of the blockbuster show was not enough. Step forward Oliver Dowden, British culture minister and Conservative member of Parliament. Apparently not confident in the British public's ability to treat a fictional depiction of the royals and Britain during the 1980s with the skepticism it obviously deserves, Dowden wrote to Netflix demanding that a "health warning" be attached to the program. Unless they did so, the minister worried that "a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact."
The first thing to point out here is that there is no agreed line between those two things. Much of what happens in The Crown takes place behind closed doors, and so, inevitably, involves some speculation on the part of the show's creators. Viewers know that and don't treat the show as the definitive truth. When there is a clear line between fact and fiction, TV directors and screenwriters should be free to cross it without a slap on the wrist from the government. Around the world, Netflix faces censorship from governments who protect religious sensibilities and gets criticized for "normalising homosexuality." Does the British government want to join that club to defend the honor of the royal family, or does it want to trust the people and stick up for free expression?
Now, to take Dowden seriously for a moment (but no longer), The Crown does perform a frustrating sleight of hand in the claims it makes, or implies, regarding historical accuracy. Netflix has spent lavishly on the show to deliver a high naturalism in its sets and costumes. Palaces and Parliament are meticulously recreated. Much has been made of the attention to detail with which The Crown recreates famous outfits worn by the figures depicted. The queen (Olivia Colman) wears military dress that is painstakingly true to life. Princess Diana's (Emma Corrin) coveted wardrobe is dazzlingly reverse engineered. Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) struts around in pussy bow blouses that are just the right shade of Tory blue.
And yet, when it comes to more consequential matters, the show is suddenly very relaxed about the truth, perfectly happy to prioritize compelling television over historical accuracy.
To inject drama into the narrative, The Crown depicts Lord Mountbatten writing a letter encouraging Prince Charles to marry on the same day Mountbatten was murdered by the Irish Republican Army––a small fib that belies the broader approach to the truth. It leaves viewers with the impression that her majesty is more in tune with the needs and concerns of the average Brit than grocers' daughter Margaret Thatcher––a contested idea to say the least. It falsely suggests that the queen wanted the press to know that she thought the then–prime minister "uncaring." When it comes to the disastrous marriage between Charles and Diana, it stretches the grim truth beyond its elastic limit to hammer home the point that the two could hardly have been a worse match and Charles wasn't exactly husband of the year. (Charles' friends have called the depiction of the prince as "trolling on a Hollywood budget.")
Peter Morgan, The Crown's creator, defends the creative license by arguing that "sometimes you have to forsake accuracy, but you must never forsake truth." He is right, though I think he falls short of the standard he sets himself. Whatever his script's shortcomings, Morgan is hardly the first person to take that approach to past events. Generations of audiences have watched Shakespeare's histories and learned something about the past while remaining fully aware that creative license is being exercised.
Dramatic depictions of past events, especially those involving people who are still alive, are unavoidably fraught. But the tensions and tradeoffs involved cannot be resolved by a government-enforced health warning.
Netflix's response to the British government was as unapologetic as it should have been. "We have always presented The Crown as a drama—and we have every confidence our members understand it's a work of fiction that's broadly based on historical events," said a spokesperson. "As a result we have no plans—and see no need—to add a disclaimer."
They are right. Viewers are not fools who can't understand the difference between drama and documentary.
It is telling that this controversy has erupted over the season that paints the royal family in the least flattering light. Ultimately, when it comes to the royals, British officialdom is not committed to the truth, but rather to preserving the reputation of the monarchy. When Wendy Berry, one of Prince Charles' housekeepers, wrote a tell-all memoir she faced a sinister legal assault from her old boss, was barred from publishing in the U.K., and was forced into temporary exile. The hounding was because of her honesty, not in spite of it. Meanwhile, many of those "fact-checking" The Crown are current or former royal correspondents whose existence depends on the delicate dance of keeping the Windsors happy. For many of them, access will trump the truth.
Censors always claim pure intentions. In the case of the soft censorship proposed by the British government, a purported commitment to the truth obscures the main concern: keeping the boss happy.