INSTINCTIVELY I’m a republican. Yet I hope that doesn’t make me insensitive to those of a different persuasion in such matters. However the behaviour of some of the media, the BBC in particular, in the hours since the 99-year-old, retired consort of the Queen, died in his sleep, left many of us utterly perplexed.
More about the national broadcaster in a moment, but first a thought about the burgeoning “special issues” of the tabloids. Some 144 pages of the Daily Mail, in its own words, “much of it devoted to the Duke of Edinburgh”. 144 pages! The fattest newspaper in its history, it advised us. What on earth will they do when the monarch herself passes on, as is not unexpected of a woman in her nineties?
And what, indeed, will the BBC come up with now that it has already wiped all its schedules for Prince Philip and broadcast the same material across its channels except for BBC4 which it took off the air altogether. Some people will doubtless think that fitting. To me, as a broadcaster, it seemed completely over the top. The benefit of having many channels is that you can offer an appropriate response to a major news story such as this one, without losing all your programming and, arguably, all sense of proportion.
There are preparations and protocols in organisations like the BBC. Instructions to newsreaders, pre-packaged obituaries and interviews, all oven ready for the death of a head of state. (When the Queen Mother died at the age of 101, one poor chap was excoriated for not having a black tie on. She lay in State before a massive funeral procession and a service attended by 2200 people in Westminster Abbey.)
File photo dated 09/04/02 of members of Britain’s Royal family following the coffin of the Queen Mother on its way to her funeral in Westminster Abbey
BBC royal correspondents, past and present, are wheeled out for all these broadcasts, and currently the no-nonsense Jonny Dymond is a welcome counterpoint to the lugubrious Nicholas Witchell. The latter behaved all yesterday as though a member of his own family had been lost, which, in a sense I suppose, they had.
The Queen Mum, having been Queen in her own right, was much admired by the generation who shared London with her during World War 2. The less flattering aspects of her life and politically incorrect views were not allowed to intrude on the many media and political tributes on her death. The convention of not speaking ill of the dead applies across all cultures, but sometimes, where royalty is involved, you cannot help wishing for a little more perspective.
Yet there is a section of the public for whom this plays well. The people who, this very day, boast of their intention to ignore very specific instructions and travel to Buck House or Windsor Castle with floral tributes and personal notes. The people who camp out overnight at royal weddings so that they may be at the front of the crash barriers to catch their 30-second glimpse of a passing carriage.
I don’t pretend to understand their motivation; what prompts such emotional attachment to the distant figures they worship. When my own mother-in-law died, her house was found to harbour commemorative mugs and plates from every significant royal occasion during her own long life. To each their own, as they say.