It didn’t take long. Within an hour of what seemed like a respectful and polite greeting by the Australian Prime Minister to a foreign head of state, media companies had spun it into an apparent breach of “protocol”. The online editions of all Australian newspapers and broadcasters were posting a story about a word that doesn’t stray often on to the tongue: curtsy. Wikipedia says a "curtsey (also spelled curtsy or courtesy) is a traditional gesture of greeting, in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. It is the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures.” (photo: Debutantes practise a form of the curtsey known as a Texas dip)
If the Queen, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom and of the Commonwealth (in which capacity she is visiting the country) is upset a woman didn’t bend their knees in greeting to her, then she is getting more doddery in her dotage than she is letting on. She would have had a lot more on her mind than a knee gesture. She would have been thinking about her role as conduit between the UK and Australian Governments or discussing practical considerations about the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. After all it is an important meeting of 60 leaders she and Gillard will be co-chairing. It happens every two years and brings together a strange brew of countries who all share British colonial history, law and culture with varying degrees of adherence (we Irish need to get over our historical gripes and enter this intriguing league of nations).
The theme of this year’s conference is “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” which is not very sexy sounding but of great importance to most of the leaders present as it talks about transnational responses to global poverty and climate change. Yet a Google news search of the theme of the conference found just two occurrences – and one was the official press release from CHOGM.
The other was in Trinidad Express Newspapers which quoted Trinidad & Tobago Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan. Ranbachan noted the theme would mean discussion on the challenges of food security, sustainable development and natural resource management. All these themes have much greater importance than a misunderstood gesture but attracted no media attention outside the Caribbean.
Compare articles on “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” to "curtsy". A quick glance again at Google News found 1,160 or so articles on Gillard’s failure to bend her knees. Britain and Australia in particular were all over it. The British Telegraph noted a contrast with the Governor General “While Mrs Bryce curtsied to the Queen, Ms Gillard, an avowed republican, opted for a handshake and shallow bow.” Presumably they don’t mean shallow in the sense of lacking depth. The Australian Telegraph was showing Gillard up by pointing out in their headline that two eight-year old were practising their curtseys ahead of an engagement with Her Majesty. Gillard meanwhile had to “explain” her behaviour: "As I greeted the Queen she extended her hand to shake hands and obviously I shook her hand and bowed my head. - That's what I felt most comfortable with".
News Ltd’s Melbourne paper Herald Sun lived up to its motto “stories start here” and read far more into it, saying Gillard’s “decision” was a “sign”. Australia, it trumpeted, was "catching up with the modern monarchy". While most are unaware the modern monarchy had left Australia behind, the Herald Sun found a TV chat show host, an etiquette expert and the deputy chair of the Victorian branch of the Australian Monarchists League who agreed Gillard had blundered by not curtsying.
In the quick way of these things, someone added "–gate" to it. Watergate was the foundation meme because it was a scandal that eventually brought down the president of the US. And adding “gate” to something is fun because the new word is instantly memorable. But the suffix has long since jumped the shark. It is also lazy journalism as it ascribes a whole set of motives to the event that may be entirely absent. To be fair, I can find no evidence any newspaper or website journalist has referred to "curtsygate", but it took off in Twitter.
The phrase was attributed to Sydney 2GB radio shock jock host Ray Hadley, which is plausible but I cannot verify if he actually said it. Whoever said it, the reaction in Twitter was typically either one of head-shaking weariness at the thought of this latest gate abomination or else the cause of sarcastic glee it was the end of democracy.
But if journalists did not gate it, they should not have left curtsy past the gatekeeper either. If they really want to talk about the significance of the Queen’s visit they need to look beyond etiquette experts and Lisa Wilkinson’s Twitter stream. The real villains here are the chiefs of staff and the news editors who select these stories and give them prominence. They not only fit the ongoing destabilisation of an unpopular Prime Minister in contrast to a hugely popular monarch, but also hyperinflate the primary news value of “conflict” (the fact that someone might be outraged by Gillard's behaviour) which editors believe most news users want to read about.
But here’s an idea. If the news editors are seeking genuine conflict - perhaps the sort of conflict that changes people's lives - then they should give their staff the link to the CHOGM paper and tell them to chase down the Trinidad foreign minister. I’m sure he has some enlightening and possibly non-complementary things to say about Australia and other first world countries. The Queen might even give them his number if they bow politely enough.