BBC presenters and editors pray for the eternal life of the royal family – or, at least, to be absent from work when the death of one of its members is announced. Royal obituaries are difficult to get right, to achieve that balance between proper respect and honest scepticism. The scars are still there from the coverage of the death of the Queen Mother in 2002 when the tone of the BBC’s coverage was deemed to be insufficiently reverential. A burgundy tie worn by newsreader Peter Sissons when he announced her death was tightly wrapped around all our necks.
As the head of BBC television news at that time, I was pleased to see this generation of editors and newsreaders do much better with the announcement of the death of Prince Philip on 9 April. The lead presentation by Huw Edwards for television and Mishal Husain and Evan Davis for radio managed to be sombre but with enough of a journalistic edge to stay on the right side of sycophancy; there were correspondents in all the right places; and the corporation’s newsgatherers can see this as a job well done.
But the BBC still seems to be heading for a record number of complaints – fuelled by temporarily setting up an automated link on its website for people to complain not so much about what was said but the sheer volume of output. After a flurry of protest about saturation of coverage, the phrase “Dear BBC” started trending on Twitter.
It was caused by the corporation shutting down alternative coverage across all of its channels and services, so that viewers and listeners were offered tributes to Prince Philip wherever they sought out BBC TV and radio for the whole of Friday afternoon and evening, and beyond.
The decision surprised even senior insiders, and it was opposed by some editorial figures. “It felt like an echo of a different, past age,” one ex-member of the BBC board told me. ITV also stayed with rolling coverage. This was in contrast to the death of the Queen Mother, when the BBC played a Nick Hornby film shortly after the obituary, and the death of Princess Diana, when ITV reverted to a normal schedule by mid-evening.
Audiences in 2021 reached for their remote controls instead. The most popular programme across the whole day’s schedule was not the royal obituary but the reality show Gogglebox, wisely left in place by Channel 4. BBC bulletins had only average viewing figures, and ITV’s audience declined by 60 per cent compared to the previous Friday.
One problem was that the rolling coverage had little new to say: it was reporting on the not-unexpected death of a 99-year-old, and on a consort rather than a monarch. Ranks of guests appeared on screen, including the broadcaster Gyles Brandreth and the actress Penelope Keith, who in normal times would have been chased away by commissioning editors for their advanced age and lack of diversity.
Most of the coverage was harmless enough. “It was slightly comical,” said one BBC news producer. “Not quite dinner jackets gathered around the wireless. But not far off.” But in an age of diminishing deference to the royal family, broadcasters must ask themselves why the royal news excluded all the other stories of the day. There was compelling testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with killing George Floyd, in the US; Northern Ireland was in chaos; and there is still a global pandemic. None of this featured even on BBC World news, where the same Prince Philip tributes ran for many hours for an audience that stretches from Seattle to Singapore.
There is also the question of who decides the tone of the reportage and analysis. There are, of course, proprieties to be observed about the death of anyone, especially the husband of the monarch. But it felt like the coverage and its scale was designed for the readers who would devour the Daily Mail’s 144-page commemorative special rather than those who would be content with the more limited and sceptical coverage in the Guardian or the New Statesman.
The BBC is paying more attention to the diversity of modern Britain, but suddenly we were all expected to watch the same thing and feel the same way. It is unlikely that young people in Bradford will have responded to the news of Prince Philip’s death in the same way as a retirement community in Sussex, but there was no doubt about the perspective the broadcasters chose.
When audiences have greater choice than at any time in the history of media, it was self-defeating for the BBC not to allow any alternative schedule. Republicans pay their licence fees too.
In the past, the policy on covering the death of a royal or other national figure had been driven by concerns about something inappropriate being transmitted at a time of widespread mourning – such as a wayward joke from a DJ on Radio 1. But classical music on Radio 3 was abandoned for hours, and an England women’s football international was booted off BBC Four. “This feels like a frightened BBC, frightened of doing the wrong thing,” said one former senior executive.
The view from inside the corporation was that it was opting for “safety”. What must have been in the decision-makers’ minds is the far greater test that awaits when the Queen dies. It will be different in every respect – from the extent of the national mourning (I have seen some of the obituaries and they offer powerful observations about our country and our times) to the genuine constitutional significance of the events.
News will keep happening, including the proclamation of the new king. There are discussions of historical importance to be had about the monarchy under Elizabeth II and under Charles III. If the nation is to come together for solemn events, and also to have that debate about its future under a new monarchy, the BBC will be an essential component. It should be bold in enabling that to happen, and not afraid to embrace the widest range of emotions and opinions.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people