There was not one, but two deaths that night - the Queen Mother, and the career of Peter Sissons

The BBC's Peter Sissons discovered last Saturday night that burgundy is not the new black. For senior members of the royal family and millions of viewers, that tie has become a symbol of disrespect, of the night Auntie cocked a snook at Granny.

As it happens, there was not one, but two deaths that night - the Queen Mother, and the career of Peter Sissons. When the dust settles, it will not be the colour of ties, nor the length of royal coverage, that is remembered. It will be the sheer ineptitude of one of the BBC's most senior presenters, his inability to carry off what must be the most prepared for, most rehearsed and most predicted event in recent British history. The BBC's first mistake was not to pull him off air after the first half-hour. Privately, senior executives at the BBC are conceding that their anchorman was more of a drag than a secure mooring that night. Looking for all the world like a man who would have preferred to be at home attending his barbecue, Sissons reverted to MPS (male presenter syndrome) - if you start to lose the plot, substitute sneering. Watching Sissons do his James Dean impersonation was unedifying. Sadly, it set the tone for the night's coverage.

Equally unforgivable was the BBC's royal correspondent, Jennie Bond, being lost for words. If the most royal of royal correspondents can't keep up with the story, what hope is there? Bond - shaken but not stirred - stumbled and mumbled her way through the first hour of live coverage. This might have been understandable if it were the sheer emotion of a novice reporter hampering her performance, but there were no tears, just fear.

The BBC was right to revert to normal scheduling when it did: there was neither an appetite nor a need for any more.

And the "black tie" debate is, in the end, a distraction. There is nothing more embarrassing, as the Tory party has discovered, than an institution struggling to modernise itself and appear "normal" in the brutal glare of the public spotlight. This was not the time to experiment with a coloured-tie policy. What next - open-necked shirts for the death of Prince Philip?

And if it is true that the BBC sent more correspondents to the Oscars than it could rustle up on the Saturday the Queen Mother died, then it has some explaining to do.

In the final analysis, it was not all right on the night. BBC TV, the self-proclaimed "voice of the nation", was bettered by ITV, Sky and Channel 4. Its tone was at best nonchalant, at worst sneering, its reputation for professionalism damaged. BBC Radio, in its various forms, performed far better. But BBC TV is the flagship, and let us not forget that our licence fee pays for those "professionals". No one knows better than the director general, Greg Dyke, that this level of performance would not be tolerated in the private sector. Why should the taxpayer have to settle for, and subsidise, second best?

The BBC has a choice - try to be cool and find a future without the licence fee, or fully accept the constraints of being funded by a compulsory levy.


The BBC was not the only loser. Under the headline "Uncertain farewell reveals a nation divided", the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland argued on 1 April that Britain was united in just one thing, its "ambivalence" towards the death of the Queen Mother.

His piece lent more weight to the left than the right, to the liberals than the traditionalists, to the republicans than the monarchists, to the young than anyone over 40 - and it was about as predictable and as interesting as Joan Collins denying that she's had a facelift.

Freedland defended his argument on Channel 5 News that night, claiming it was the shared view of all the people he had spoken to. The Guardian newsroom and an Islington wine bar provide hardly the most reliable of straw polls.

There was a commercial opportunity missed here. Events of this magnitude rarely happen. They provide what is known in the trade as "sampling opportunities", when newspaper sales increase because people buy more papers .

At times like these, smart papers reach beyond their own prejudices. On 12 September 2001 and beyond, the Guardian did just that, and was rightly rewarded and awarded for it.


There is one thing you can say about the royal family - death becomes them. In the 1980s, their forte was "the wedding"; in the 1990s, "the divorce"; now the royal family's piece de resistance is "the funeral". With every death - Diana, Margaret and now the Queen Mother - affection for the survivors has increased. We await the next poll to show that support for Prince Charles has grown, as predicted by both the Mirror and the Sun after his moving granny broadcast. (And by snubbing the BBC and inviting ITN to film his tribute, the future king also showed media savvy.)


When the assistant editor of the Times, Andrew Pierce, joins the Sun, he will be introduced to its readers as assistant editor, diarist and the first openly gay columnist on a British tabloid. In a piece of audacious repositioning, the Sun's editor, David Yelland, is attempting to break down some of the red-tops' traditional taboos. It's an intelligent move forward, what Yelland, in an internal memo announcing the appointment, described as "a step-change for the paper".

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