Unbefitting of a democracy

Prince Philip's hearse: a green open-backed Land Rover. His coffin (draped with his coat of arms) lies in the open back. Soldiers in formal uniforms can be seen behind the hearse in the grounds of Windsor Castle, the turreted walls of which can be seen in the background.
Prince Philip’s hearse

Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on
To everybody

What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter
To tears and pain

Stevie Wonder, Love’s In Need of Love Today (last song played on BBC London before it was interrupted for news of Prince Philip’s death)

Yesterday (Friday) the BBC broadcast a Feedback programme largely dedicated to the public reaction to the corporation’s decision to suspend most of its programming the Friday before last to broadcast the announcement of Prince Philip’s death and not resume normal programming for several hours and in some cases days. Most of the response was critical of it; the fact that Prince Philip was a consort, not the sovereign, was mentioned and the coverage was described as sycophantic and one writer asked where BBC executives were trained and suggested North Korea, echoing similar comments on social media. There have been a number of clips published on YouTube of how the different channels, BBC and commercial, announced the prince’s death and how if at all they then diverged from normal programming. The clips reveal something that was not mentioned at all in Feedback: the quite ungraceful way some of the existing programmes were interrupted. You can hear an example from Radio 2 here; the interruption takes place just after the six-minute mark.

Some of the stations, including BBC Radio 2 and BBC London, were simply switched off, sometimes mid-song and sometimes with the presenter in the middle of a sentence (the last Robert Elms show before the cut-off is still available on the BBC’s website at the time of writing and just cuts out mid-way through the Stevie Wonder song quoted above). There was then several seconds of silence before an official announcement from BBC News was made. This must have led some listeners to wonder what on earth had happened; had there been a power cut? Was their radio defective, or had the station itself “gone down”? A news announcement that was that important — had the bomb dropped? Were we at war? Had there been a military coup? “Buckingham Palace …”, oh, the Queen’s died. How sad. What? Prince Philip?!

I’ve heard BBC reporting of major disasters and of terrorist attacks and not once have I heard stations simply cut off at the flick of a switch in the middle of a presenter’s sentence. When the 2005 London bombings happened, the story was allowed to develop with the morning phone-in continuing to talk about other matters until it became clear that this was a terrorist attack and not a set of unrelated mishaps on different Underground lines; when this happened, the phone-in was ended and the station began broadcasting as one station with the Asian Network and one national station. True, this was not a single announcement but a developing story, but more than 50 people died and they still didn’t just cut into programming.

In comments under the various YouTube clips, there are a number of people trying to ‘school’ those of us who said this was over-the-top or redolent of North Korea, telling us that we don’t understand that Britain is a monarchy. Someone even claimed that Britain isn’t a democracy. Many of them seemed to have been overseas and did not realise that some of those objecting were British. I told them that this behaviour wasn’t befitting of a democracy and was asked why. The answer is that among the principles of democracy are that everyone is equal and that the media is free and not subject to interference. The idea that public broadcasting should be stopped dead to tell us of the death not even of the Queen but of a member of her family is just not what you expect in a modern society, and the sight of presenters on the edge of tears for someone they probably did not know very well was also rather unsettling.

I don’t think for a moment that the Royal Family demanded or expect any of this. It’s odd that people associate the Queen with graceful behaviour, yet this was anything but graceful; it was rude and imperious. It looks a lot like the BBC running scared from a resurgent Right which sees the monarchy as central to British nationhood and would regard anything but the height of ‘respect’ at a time like this as unpatriotic. It’s no denigration of the Prince’s achievements to say that the rest of us should not have been expected to stop what we were doing and sit up and listen as if something really important had happened when he died. He’s not the only person who fought in World War II; he’s not the only man who stood by his wife for 70 years. I had no objection to programmes being run on his life and achievements but for programmes to be rudely interrupted and then replaced by gushing tributes for the whole of the rest of the day is simply excessive and more redolent of a dictatorship’s media than that of a free country.

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