The response of British broadcast media to the death of Prince Philip.
When the death of the Duke of Edinburgh was announced yesterday (9 April 2021) the BBC immediately switched into mourning mode. A newscaster changed into a black suit in a live broadcast, whilst continuing to voice over a prepared video clip. The BBC Radio dance music broadcast switched mid-track into the national anthem. The broadcasting schedule across the entire network was changed, to a rolling broadcast on all channels of hagiography and interviews with pundits over the Prince’s contribution to British and international society over the past 70 years. As a result, the BBC has received so many complaints about what they’ve done that they had to set up a separate webpage and system just to handle them all.
This is similar to the last major royal death — Process Diana. When that was announced, not only did the TV schedules get similarly overridden but even pubs, cinemas, restaurants and some shops closed. A period of national mourning was thus forced on the public, whether they felt affected or were indifferent to the news.
It might not surprise some readers that in the UK as with other countries across the globe, you need a license from the government in order to perform certain activities, such as driving on the public highway or owning a firearm.
In the UK, you also need to have a license to possess and use a television.
The British Broadcasting Company, the state broadcaster, is primarily funded by the licence fee, a blanket tax applied without consideration of ability to pay, enforced under pain of possible imprisonment (current fee is £157.50 per annum). Despite this it claims that it is not an arm of the state, despite the fact that under certain circumstances it has an explicit propaganda function in its constitution, and the Director General is all but an appointment of State (selected by the Board of Governors — that is directly appointed by the Crown).
We are living in a time when the concept of royalty is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The idea of enshrined, ‘divine’ privilege is looking even more questionable after the recent treatment of Prince William and Meghan Markle, and the ongoing scandal over Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffery Epstein. Royalty is looking more like a massively expensive irrelevance in Britain in the 21st Century, a country where where abject poverty is rising out of control after over ten years of ideologically-driven austerity. Even before the pandemic, and the woefully incompetent response from the Tory regime, inequality particularly in ethnic minority and working class communities was being baked into the system, with the increasing privatisation of education and healthcare, whilst at the same time public services were decimated.
Thousands of people over the past year have become increasingly reliant on the broadcast media as their only source of human contact, interaction only possible when mediated by screens. Old people and also the poor do not have the option to switch to streaming services, cannot go to libraries that in many cases closed long ago. And over the past two days, not just the BBC but other ‘independent’ channels gave these people no choice, no release, no diversion. It forced them to mourn for an old man they had never met — a man who had lived a life well beyond the average life expectancy of the poor in the UK, a life of almost unimaginable privilege and luxury. It pushed the myth of royalty continually, hour after hour. It stopped all entertainment and even educational broadcasting. The only option that remained was to switch off.
What public service was the BBC performing by doing this? Was any consideration given to the possible trigger effects this enforced mourning would have on people dependent on their service? Was this solely out of deference to its masters, or to further serve the government by covering the latest allegations of ministerial corruption and the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement?
Every year in the UK we do have one day when we have a two-minute silence across the country — Armistice Day, at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, to commemorate the end of the Great War. There is another silence on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday that falls closest to Armistice Day, where the royal family and political leaders lay wreaths at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in London. This ceremony and the ensuing military parade is always covered by the BBC, and over the past number of years this too has been attracting an increasing number of complaints, as it unashamedly promotes militarism over and above any aspirations of peace. Tales of heroic acts — that inevitably resulted in many ‘enemy’ deaths — are told, lauding the idea of personal sacrifice for King and Country, ignoring that many of these heroes were conscripts, doing what they had to do to save themselves and their pals, ordered into situations they did not create. It doesn’t tell of the years of PTSD they suffer, the lack of care they received from a ‘grateful nation’, of the hundreds of casualties after the conflict had ended to addiction, mental illness, domestic abuse and suicide.
But at least on that day the viewer has the option to switch over, to remember, honour or mourn in their own way and at a time of their choosing. But not today.
There is a function for ritual in society. We most commonly associate ritual with religious acts and observance, but they can also be observed in the ritualistic aspects of what we call tradition, and these can be acts of state or even within sporting events. Many times over the pandemic, the British government tried to create ritual in order to forment national unity or perhaps cover for their failings. The ‘Clap for Carers’ was one such example, where people were encouraged to come to their doorsteps every Thursday at 8 p.m. and applaud as a sign of gratitude for NHS and healthcare staff. This fell particularly foul of accusations of hypocrisy when the government refused to grant a substantial pay rise to NHS staff (1% represents a real-terms pay cut). But what could be achieved by the enforced, national mourning for the occupant of an office that nearly 30% of the population thinks holds no validity?
Has the BBC, in aligning itself ever closer to the current right-wing government and its nationalistic drive really got the mood of the viewers it claims to serve so desperately wrong? It’s a sad fact to recognise also the if the BBC changes its policy after considering all the complaints, it will probably not be the wellbeing of its more vulnerable and dependent viewers that will be the driving factor — but the drop in viewer ratings.