#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Professor Chandrika Kaul

Chandrika Kaul is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Her research interests include the British empire especially in South Asia, the British Monarchy, and the British Media with a focus on the British Press and the BBC. She is currently completing a book on the BBC and India.

She will be on the panel of Britain: a crisis of identity? on 31st March at 7.30-9pm with Professor Michael Kenny, Professor Saul Dubow and Zoe Billingham from IPPR North. The event will be chaired by Peter Geoghagen, editor of Open Democracy.

Why does your research matter?

Understanding recent British history at home and overseas is an intrinsic part of understanding who we are today and how we came to be what we are. It is interesting in itself, but also important to appreciate our culture, values, achievements and shortfalls. In addition, and at the risk of sounding clichéd and even though history does not repeat itself, I am a firm believer in learning from the past as we look towards building a better future.

What first sparked your interest in modern British, Imperial and Media History?

My mother was my chief inspiration and supporter in all things historical. She is an academic herself and had a deep regard for British educational institutions and liberal values, whilst keenly aware of her imperial past and the burdens of history. (I also grew up enjoying classics like Rudyard Kipling!) My mother encouraged me to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. I was fortunate to get offers from both, but I also received a generous scholarship to Oxford, so that’s where I ended up! Oxford has a strong academic tradition of imperial history which was perfectly suited to my own interests. My specific focus on the media came from my father who was editor of major newspapers. It appeared to be a really exciting world with journalists holding those in power to account. I combined both these interests by examining how the powerful British media reported the British Raj in India which formed the subject of my doctorate and subsequently my first book, Reporting the Raj: The British Press and India (Manchester University Press, 2003).

What is the main way the UK media treats the monarchy changed over time?

I have been researching the Crown and related issues for the past two decades from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II, and now Charles III. Over the past 150 years, both the British media’s coverage and engagement with the Crown, and the Monarchy’s interaction with UK and international communication networks, has changed dramatically and in many respects deepened. The younger generation, including the heir to the throne, Prince William and his wife, are frequent users of modern social media too. Both institutions have come to better understand how the other works, but also developed more sophisticated ways to engage and exploit the other! Read my books to learn more about the historical angles to such themes – for instance, about the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII (in Reporting the Raj); or the Coronation of George V in Delhi in Communications, Media and the Imperial Experience (Palgrave 2014). Or watch me on television series about members of the more modern Royal family (for instance, on the BBC, or Channel 5 Saturday evening slots, including on the Queen Mother; Wallis and Edward; Princess Alexandra; the Duchess of Kent; William and Harry; Catherine, Princess of Wales, etc. Or listen to my occasional podcasts, for example, on the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sky News or my interview on BBC Woman’s Hour.

What has stood out for you in terms of all the coverage of the death of the Queen?

Unlike a lot of commentators who claimed to be amazed at the public emotion expressed at the death of the Queen, I was not surprised at all! From my long years of research into popular culture, I was well aware of the deeply felt and wide public affection for the Queen, as well as admiration for her 70 years of dedicated service across the UK and indeed the globe. The media coverage reflected this public response and there were many intelligent essays about the role of the Queen and of the constitutional monarchy. However, in the UK as well as overseas, there was also coverage featuring criticism of the role of the monarchy in countries that had been formerly part of the British empire, combined with a more insistent call for reparations from some parts of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth realms. There was also some debate about whether we need to continue to have a monarchy in the future, but this sentiment was relatively muted.

Has education in the UK resulted in a narrow understanding of British history and are you optimistic that this is changing?

Over the past two decades of teaching, I have often been struck by how little imperial history is taught in British schools. In general, the British have a very limited grasp of the history of the largest empire in modern history – i.e. their own! When they travel overseas to visit countries that had been in the past subjugated by Britain, this becomes even more apparent. This is not just an embarrassment, but has a profound impact on how we relate to multiculturalism at home, and interact with countries overseas situated differently to us in economic and political terms. This needs to change and change fast. I have been involved with some curriculum reform in secondary schools in the past, and I am willing and able to help advise and undertake such discussions further – so if any policy advisers or politicians are reading this, they know where to reach me!

Are we seeing a period of self-reflection about Britain's place in the world?

Yes, the end of the Elizabethan era and the start of Carolingian one can provide an impetus for greater self-reflection. In order to better understand global problems and play a useful international role especially in the Commonwealth, Britain needs to get its own house in better order. Change must begin at home, and I am very hopeful that this is already underway.