The death of the Queen has been the most planned-for event by television and radio journalists, and the subject of rehearsals that go back decades. In the second half of the 20th century planning exercises focused on the Queen Mother, then came the even bigger challenge of determining how to cover the first death of a British sovereign since 1952.
The preparation paid off. Overwhelmingly, the tone on 8 September was right and due respect was shown and the complex technical operations were pulled off. Rehearsals always had two main scenarios, the first an unexpected death in which the news operations have to move fast from a standing start. Despite her age, this turned out to be the case with the Queen Mother, who died without any early warnings to the media on Easter weekend 2002. It had been an even greater shock when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, on another Bank Holiday weekend and at an hour when almost no staff were in the newsrooms. This past Thursday’s events were more like the customary second scenario, in which there is growing concern about an individual’s health and there is some time to prepare. Many users of social media were bemused by the many hours of BBC and Sky News rolling coverage devoid of much information before the death was announced, but the broadcasters were right because they could see that events were moving to an inevitable outcome.
A key part of the technical rehearsals concerned how the announcement of the death was to be made. The BBC collapsed all its channels into a single stream, requiring deft work in the control rooms, and there was the announcement and the playing of the national anthem and the repeat of the announcement. It was handled immaculately by Huw Edwards, and had an emotional force even for those who had seen it practised scores of times before. There was a less happy experience on ITV, where the statement from the Palace wasn’t immediately to hand; GB News initially failed to deliver anything at all. From then on, the major television channels conformed to their type. BBC television was stately, while Channel 4 News, led by Cathy Newman and Matt Frei, was more journalistic and even mentioned the government’s energy announcements of earlier in the day when talking to their political editor in Downing Street.
The revelation for me was the style of the BBC radio programming. Mishal Husain and Evan Davis, assisted by James Naughtie and Jonny Dymond, the royal correspondent, were respectful and aware of the moment of history but also included something that would have provoked conniptions in the channel controllers assessing the royal obituary rehearsals of the past. That was the sound of laughter, and on more than one occasion. When Husain was interviewing Theresa May the former prime minister referred to the Queen’s sense of humour, and Husain asked for an example of Elizabeth II’s jokes. The question was amiably batted away by May, but it fitted into a style in which Naughtie could talk not of grief but about the Queen’s film with Paddington Bear as a memory we could all share about the happiness of the Jubilee. This marked a shift from some of the television coverage of the death of Prince Philip, which felt as if we were being coerced into what we were supposed to be thinking by broadcasters’ sombreness and over-long, repetitive scheduling.
The more modern approach was evidence of a fact stated repeatedly on all channels: we are a very different nation to the one that Elizabeth II inherited 70 years ago. It is no longer possible for broadcasting to be as monolithic as it was then, and this sometimes fractious and disputatious nation will overwhelmingly share the sadness and be moved by the ceremonial that is to come – and yet also flick the remote control to see how Manchester United are doing or to catch a drama on ITV3.
It was noteworthy, too, that broadcasters observed on air that not everyone is a monarchist. This thought was mentioned, briefly, during some of the Jubilee coverage too. The immediate aftermath of a death of a much-loved monarch is not the time for this theme to be developed, but there will come a time soon when it should be more prominent on the mainstream outlets as well as on the social media fringes. There are questions to be asked about what kind of king we want Charles III to be, and – in some of his realms – whether he is wanted at all. The obituaries reminded us that this area was taboo in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and it is surely healthy that we can now develop the debate. That too is something that should be a core mission of public broadcasting: not just there for the biggest moments but for a sustainably enhanced understanding of our nation and ourselves.