The Media Today

After the death of Prince Philip, media mourning in the UK

April 12, 2021

Around lunchtime on Friday, BBC One, a TV channel in the UK, cut away from its scheduled programming, and faded to black. A “News Report” card, drained of the broadcaster’s typical bright color scheme, appeared on screen, followed by the newsreader Martine Croxall, who was set behind a desk in a black blazer. “We are interrupting our normal programs to bring you an important announcement,” she said. “A short while ago, Buckingham Palace announced the death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.” The channel then showed a picture of Philip—the Queen’s husband, who was ninety nine and had been in ill health—as the British national anthem played. The BBC’s other TV and radio channels cut into their programming, too. On the music station Radio 1, an announcer interrupted “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” by Lana Del Rey; on its dance-music substation, a pulsing dance anthem mashed right into the national anthem, with no prior warning. It was, Twitter agreed, quite the beat drop.

When (non-patriotic) music returned to Radio 1, it was notably low-key. On TV, Philip coverage remained wall to wall. The BBC preempted its entire schedule—the final of the popular cooking contest Masterchef, a satirical news quiz, a women’s soccer match between England and France—across all its main channels; BBC Two ran Philip tributes in tandem with BBC One, while BBC Four put a card on screen telling viewers to switch over to BBC One. Similar instructions appeared on CBBC, the BBC’s dedicated channel for children. (In case you’re wondering, there is currently no BBC Three on linear TV.) The BBC’s traditional broadcast rivals, ITV and Channel 4, also cleared their schedules to varying degrees, though the latter still made time for The Simpsons, among other shows. The typical bells and whistles of BREAKING NEWS coverage—always less migraine-inducing on British TV than in the US—were absent, giving way to a grave somberness of tone as networks cycled through packages about Philip’s life, interviews with prominent people, and live reports outside Windsor Castle, where Philip died, and Buckingham Palace, where members of the public paid tribute, despite the pandemic.

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As day turned to night, whispers that this all might be a bit too much grew louder. “Is anyone actually making the BBC do this?” Tom Peck, a journalist with The Independent, asked on Twitter, shortly before 11pm local time. “It’s genuinely making me feel uneasy now. If this was North Korean TV the world would be pissing itself laughing.” He wasn’t the only observer to make that comparison. “I’m sensing that very few people are giving much of a fuck,” Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, wrote the next day. “Even older royalist relatives of mine in England are moaning about the embarrassing overkill.” The early ratings seemed to match Welsh’s sense—according to Deadline, BBC One’s Friday-night audience fell six percent from the week before, with BBC Two down sixty-five percent, and ITV down sixty percent. The day’s highest-rated program (to appear only on one channel) wasn’t Philip coverage, but Gogglebox, a Channel 4 show—in which viewers watch other people watching TV—that attracted more viewers than the concurrent Philip documentaries on BBC One, BBC Two, and ITV combined. So many people complained about the BBC’s excessive coverage, meanwhile, that the broadcaster opened a special online form to make complaining easier. (Some prominent conservatives said that the existence of the form was, in and of itself, evidence of liberal bias.)

On the BBC and ITV, the special coverage continued through Saturday morning and into the early afternoon, when, more than twenty-four hours after the Philip news broke, viewers were finally allowed to watch sports. Those who didn’t want the respite may have turned, at that point, to their Saturday newspapers, which were also saturated with coverage. The Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid, ran an “HISTORIC 144-PAGE ISSUE WITH MAGICAL SOUVENIR MAGAZINE.” The Daily Express, also a right-wing tabloid, had forty-nine pages of Philip coverage, and even liberal newspapers, which tend to be less fawning of the monarchy, had huge front-page tributes and ample content inside. Some of the coverage made at least some attempt to explore the nuances of Philip’s character, but much of it was hagiography. The BBC dismissed a racist comment Philip once made about Asian people as a “diplomatic gaffe,” and wrote that “many saw” his many errant remarks as “nothing more than an attempt to lighten the atmosphere and put people at their ease.” The Oldie’s Harry Mount, who was once on the receiving end of a Philip “gaffe,” reached a similar conclusion; Madeline Grant, of the Telegraph, dubbed him “the Prince of Banter” in an article that was (somewhat confusingly) headlined, “To me, Prince Philip was the nation’s grandfather.” The colonial legacy of the royal family didn’t get much attention. Philip’s status as a deity to a “remote tribe” in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, did.

Programming is mostly back to normal by now, but the media tributes are far from over. The papers are still full of them (the Mail is promising “HISTORIC EDITIONS INSIDE ALL WEEK”), and Britain has now entered a period of national mourning that will last until next Sunday morning, during which time the government will not hold press conferences or let ministers conduct media interviews. Britain is hardly a news vacuum right now—the minds of many are preoccupied with the fact that pub beer gardens and other business are reopening today after months of enforced closure—but coverage of Philip will likely continue to dominate, much of it downstream of formal maneuvers that have been carefully choreographed in advance. (While major newsrooms often pre-write obituaries for famous people, few such figures have code-named PR operations planned around their deaths.) Philip’s funeral, which is scheduled for Saturday, is already shaping up to be a generational media event, even though COVID will limit its size and curtail mass popular gatherings, and Philip will not lie in state. (Apparently, he didn’t want any “fuss.”)

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According to Jim Waterson, of The Guardian, the BBC’s extensive Philip coverage was a reaction, in part, to the death of the Queen’s mother, in 2002, when right-wing newspapers tore chunks out of the broadcaster for what they saw as insufficient deference, and for failing to mandate black ties for anchors; according to Kate Duffy, of Insider, the BBC now has black clothes on standby, including the blazer that Croxall donned on Friday. The BBC’s tone, at moments such as this, is always closely watched on the right—including inside the Conservative government, with which the BBC is currently negotiating its public funding arrangement. As well as politics, those talks are being shaped by the splintering of the broadcast-TV landscape in this digital age. Taken together, twin forces of political and media fragmentation likely account for much of the reason that so many viewers tuned out on Friday; over the weekend, much commentary situated these trends as troubling for the BBC, which, more than being a news outlet, has mythic status, among many Brits, as a cultural unifier. The appropriateness and performance of this function have always been open to question—though the political trend here, in particular, has deeper roots. As Waterson put it, “the UK really needs to stop asking the BBC complaints department to rule on all our deepest cultural issues and just go to therapy.”

Below, more from the UK:

  • The view from abroad: Anchors on ABC, the public broadcaster in Australia, which is part of the British Commonwealth, also cut into regular programming and wore black after Philip died—but Waterson reports, for The Guardian, that in many Commonwealth countries, “the duke’s death was treated as a foreign affair with most focusing on British reaction to the news.” Philip’s death “was less noticeable in India, where the Times of India and the Hindustan Times carried small pictures beside the papers’ mastheads,” Waterson writes. “Newspapers in the Caribbean were more concerned with the eruption of La Soufrière volcano in St Vincent, but Trinidad’s Saturday Express found space for a small picture of the duke on its front page.”
  • The duke from abroad: This morning, Prince Harry, who now lives in the US, reportedly landed in the UK ahead of Philip’s funeral, which he plans to attend; Meghan Markle, Harry’s wife, is pregnant and has been advised not to travel, according to officials. Meghan and Harry’s relations with the royal family have been strained since they “Megxited” the institution last year, and especially so since their recent bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey, on CBS, which some British pundits—including the since self-canceled Piers Morgan—griped was insensitively timed given Philip’s poor health. We can look forward to the British press scrutinizing Harry’s every move this week.
  • Let’s talk about Lex: In recent weeks, David Cameron, Britain’s former prime minister, has found himself at the center of a lobbying scandal after the Financial Times and other outlets reported that he recently contacted senior officials on behalf of Greensill Capital, a finance firm founded by the Australian financier Lex Greensill, in which Cameron now holds shares. (Cameron also lobbied the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a camping trip that took place after a UN report already implicated MBS in the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.) Cameron has steadfastly avoided commenting to the mediawhen the Financial Times reached his cellphone, he told the paper to contact his office, which never responded—but yesterday, he finally broke his silence. In a lengthy statement, he denied breaking any rules but said he should have gone through more “formal channels.” He also said he raised “human rights” in Saudi.

Some news from the home front:
In the runup to Earth Day, on April 22, Covering Climate Now, a global climate-journalism consortium led by CJR and The Nation, is coordinating coverage on the theme of “Living Through the Climate Emergency.” This morning, we’re out with a statement—cosigned by Scientific American, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Noticias Telemundo, Asahi Shimbun, and La Repubblica—calling on the world of journalism to “recognize that the climate emergency is here.” Why “emergency”? we ask. “Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately.” You can read the statement here, and an introduction to Covering Climate Now’s pre-Earth Day coverage here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.