Poppies and personhood: the construction of national identity and coverage of Remembrance Day

Social structures such as race, gender and class all have profound effects upon the construction of subjective experiences. Therefore, it is only natural that the media corporations that deliver these structural representations to us also play a large part in defining how we identify on a personal and communal level. In a British context, it is the BBC that has thoroughly defined so much of the British cultural identity, and of our sense of belonging to an interconnected, mediatised “nation”. According to its founder, John Reith, the BBC was (and perhaps still is) an undemocratic tool for achieving democratic ends, and it is by analysing its reporting that we may be able to discover why.

What is the epistemic status of cultural identity? Is it defined by individualism and selfhood? Or is it defined by one’s role as a citizen, as part of a larger collective moulded by the groups one associates with either by choice or by chance? Is it rooted in geography and the actions of one’s national government, in relation to space and time and changing as one moves through them? All of these questions, I believe, can be explored by looking at the media coverage of Remembrance Day, a microcosm of debate over what it truly means to belong to a nation and what one’s role as a member of that nation entails.

One of the most enduring symbols of remembrance in Britain is the Flanders poppy. In the First World War, the flowers were the only plants that could grow in the muddy war zones of the Western Front, their bright red hue seemingly symbolising the blood spilled over those fields. In 1921 the poppy was selected by the newly-formed British Legion as its official emblem and since then has become a symbol of remembrance to wear every year in November, with dedicated civilians electing to pin paper versions to their lapels to honour the war dead.

However, the ceremonies each year have come to elicit strong reactions from social commentators and ordinary members of the public alike, as has the role of the poppy as a commemorative symbol. Those in favour of wearing poppies argue that it is one’s duty to respect the memory of those who fought and died for your current freedom, but opponents cite the bullying and abuse of those who make a “free” choice not to wear one. No matter which side of the debate one falls on, though, the reasoning behind this passionate argument must not be overlooked. Why is it that people feel so strongly about the poppy and of Remembrance Day, aside from the obvious call to honour the dead, to the point of taking part in mobs of furious harassment? It is, I believe, not merely out of a sense of sentimentality, but rather due to the inscribed feeling of belonging to a nation, a community, and of nationhood itself — a feeling that has been nurtured and upheld by its media representations, most prominently of all by the state-funded BBC.

Nationhood, and the concurrent feeling of belonging to a nation, is often defined as being akin to a family — the word itself comes from “natal”, i.e. birth: a concept that you are born into, and, like race, sexuality, or any other individualistic criteria, apparently cannot escape. To begin examining the BBC’s role in forging a sense of national identity, and therefore joint remembrance, one must first remember its origins (or, indeed, its birth) of doing so, through its early promotion of the monarchy and the empire.

The theme of empire was dominant in the pre-war BBC. For example, programmes like the eight-part serialisation of A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers served to present imperialist values of heroism, courage and perseverance together with the “governing genius” of the British to the domestic radio listener. The empire was also an important source of support for the war effort. Programmes like In It Together praised the part played by commonwealth troops and deliberately compared and contrasted them to British ones. Similarly, early royal broadcasts all contributed to one of the most vital functions of the British monarchy: to serve as a symbol of a “British identity”.

The role the BBC played/still plays in the popularisation of Remembrance Day/Armistice Day, the two-minute silence, the Cenotaph ceremony and the poppy boom, is not to be downplayed either. One only needs to look at its website, where on the page describing the 90th anniversary (now the 100th) of the end of the First World War, it declares, regarding the Cenotaph ceremony: ‘the service has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, hymns are sung, prayers are said and a two minute silence is observed’. (The two minute silence was introduced two years earlier in 1919.)

However, the service has clearly changed in multiple ways over the years — just in ones that it seems unnecessary for the BBC to have included on their webpage. There are, for one, far more cameras, reporters, and security than there were back in 1921. There are cute children and interest groups who line up to place their wreaths under the glare of massed, globalised television cameras, there are political spin doctors trying to humiliate the opposing party by claiming a party leader has committed a terrible gaffe, royal correspondents commenting on Kate Middleton’s choice of attire, and a heavy police presence in a cordoned-off, not truly-public space to dispel any worries of terrorism. No longer a quiet moment to remember the dead, more of an international media blitz.

The historic significance and importance of the ceremony has even directly affected technological advancement. Indeed, this culminated in the first public transmission of recorded television on November 20th, 1947, when the BBC television service televised the Cenotaph ceremony in the morning and a recorded version the same night. This film recording was later transmitted in America by NBC.

It is in this context that we can propose a definition of the nation as an imagined political community — imagined, that is, as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because one cannot possibly meet and know all the members of a national community, but bears a certain kinship with them anyway. Just because something is “imagined” does not necessarily make it not real. Whether it be by watching television programmes together (cheering at sport, or voting for one’s favourite Strictly Come Dancing contestant), or taking part in these “massed” displays of national collectivity and pride, the media is assisting in the “invention” of nations themselves.

In that case, what does this concept of a “nation” represent — and perhaps more importantly, how do we define ourselves by it, and it us, within a media landscape?

A New Critical viewpoint is that one may be able to take any reading from any text. However, according to the Foucauldian New Historicism, the study of how media functions within history and the canon as a whole, texts are not produced in a cultural and economic vacuum, and neither are its critics. If all media comes about as part of a gradual process, inseparable from its history, then surely the coverage of so-called “national” events does as well.

New Historicism can also act as the disciplinary agency that returns questions of class, race, and gender to the field of nationalism studies, all of which are not exempt from differing representations when the role of national identity during remembrance is called into question. These facets of identity exist within and parallel to national identity, sometimes coming into conflict with one another.

For example, in 2014 the Daily Mail backed a campaign to get British Muslim women wearing hijabs decorated with a poppy motif in the run up to Remembrance Day. A few weeks earlier, the Sun used a front-page image of a woman wearing a Union flag hijab, urging British Muslims to stand against ISIL extremism. Meanwhile, television presenters such as ITV’s Charlene White (who is black) who choose not to wear a poppy receive death threats and abuse online — often racist or similarly bigoted abuse — and are vilified in the Mail, Sun, and other right-wing, more pro-nationalist newspapers. A multicultural, liberal/libertarian identity may sit uncomfortably with the British concept of heritage, proudly embodied in the BBC’s coverage of Remembrance Sunday, being a collective representation of the British version of tradition, and thus often disappointingly exclusive or inward-looking.

Another issue regarding nationalism when it is melded to another identity is the role of masculinity in propagating aggressive displays of national pride, often as a defensive mechanism. The oft-times violent reaction to the white poppy, an alternative flower used as a symbol of peace, is one example of this. It was originally created by a group of pacifist women in the 1930s against the steadily increasing militarisation of the time (as well as the rise of fascism), and has been the subject of campaigns against it by publications such as the Daily Star (which has a primarily male readership). ‘The White Poppy was first introduced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933 [… It] was produced by the Co-operative Wholesale Society because the Royal British Legion had refused to be associated with its manufacture. While the White Poppy was never intended to offend the memory of those who died in the Great War, many veterans felt that its significance undermined their contribution and the lasting meaning of the red poppy. Such was the seriousness of this issue that some women lost their jobs in the 1930s for wearing white poppies’.

If, in this oh-so-public, controversial sphere, state authority is monitored by critical discourse by the people, then why is it that the representation of national events, that theoretically involve the entire public, are so one-sided? While almost every person who appears on television, and especially the BBC, gets a poppy pinned to them before they appear on our screens (unless, like White and Jon Snow, they deliberately choose not to), there is little coverage of any sort of alternative view of Remembrance Day and its increasing, worrying militarisation. When BAE systems, a prominent supporter of the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal, hosted a entirely unironic ceremony at one of their arms bases, complete with children laying wreaths and paper crosses, there was no mention of these actions in the mass media, no storms of controversy or complaints, no coverage.

Rather, there is a new kind of partnership between capital, the people, and the state, one that effectively shapes public tastes and opinions, and above all encourages a sense of national, patriotic togetherness: of social and intellectual betterment through shared viewership with one’s fellow man, or rather, media consumer (embodied in the BBC’s original motto: to inform, educate, and entertain).

The BBC, in particular, thus cements its role as the voice of Britain in both war and “peacetime”. Its role is and has been prominent and a source of great societal inspiration. However, whether that inspiration is one that a true “public sphere” should critique or not, and what the reactions to that critique might mean — now that is another matter entirely.