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Tuesday, 2 April, 2002, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Taking measure of royal coverage
The Queen Mother
Queen Mother: BBC criticised over coverage of her death

In the last couple of days conservative newspapers like the Telegraph, the Mail and the Times have had a field day attacking the BBC's coverage of the Queen Mother's death.

"Red faces in BBC newsrooms as corporation is caught on the hop", "Royal fury at the BBC" and "Palace fury at BBC's black tie ban" are just a few of the headlines.

In the process they have helped to highlight real differences in society over the role of the monarchy and the media alike - and especially of a national broadcaster like the BBC.

According to the Daily Mail, Prince Charles is furious at the BBC's coverage, which he describes as "lamentable".

Prince Charles
Prince Charles: Was travelling back from Switzerland

The Mail also points that the prince was travelling back from Switzerland on Saturday night, the day of his grandmother's death, and didn't see it.

The Times described the royal family as "unhappy" and "upset" that BBC presenters like Peter Sissons were not wearing black ties and by intrusive or insensitive questions in the live programmes that followed the announcement.

Sissons asked the Queen Mother's niece Margaret Rhodes, who was at her bedside when she passed away, who else had been there and she refused to answer.

James Cox on BBC Radio asked Lady Pamela Hicks, the daughter of Lord Mountbatten, whether the Queen Mother had "outlived her time".

Both newspapers claimed the Prince of Wales had deliberately chosen an ITN crew to record his tribute at Highgrove on Monday as a snub to the BBC.

ITN said the decision had been taken "in consultation with the Queen". The truth seems to be a good deal less highly-coloured.

Sources close to both Buckingham Palace and St James's Palace (the Prince of Wales's London base) conspicuously failed to substantiate the newspapers' claims on Tuesday.

'Distorting'

Although it may be that journalists from the Mail and Times asking about these matters are told one thing, journalists from the BBC something different.

Colleen Harris, the Prince of Wales's spokeswoman, said the decision to ask ITN rather than the BBC to record the prince's tribute was taken by her without consulting the prince.

Peter Sissons
Peter Sissons: Not 'respectful enough', say some

The BBC had recorded his similar tribute a few weeks ago to Princess Margaret: This time it was ITN's turn.

The BBC agreed with that interpretation. In a statement the corporation said: "To read too much into this is really distorting the facts."

The BBC's statement also denied it had banned presenters from wearing black ties.

The guidance to presenters was that they should wear sombre clothes for the announcement of the Queen Mother's death and black ties for the funeral.

At Buckingham Palace the word was that people were "at ease" with the BBC's coverage.

'Support'

Nothing had been said in protest to the BBC formally or informally; the newspaper stories were being attributed to axe-grinding: "We know the Mail hates the BBC," in the words of one aide.

The palace has denied on the record the suggestion that the Prince of Wales deliberately snubbed the BBC.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace: Did not want to appear biased

But it will not be issuing a statement rebutting the overall thrust of the newspaper stories that members of the royal family were personally unhappy at aspects of the coverage.

The palace doesn't want to appear to be "bending over backwards to support the BBC", it seems.

In the absence of outright denial, the suspicion must remain that some royals are indeed unhappy.

The truth seems to be roughly this. There are people - at Buckingham Palace and St James's Palace as elsewhere - who think the BBC's television coverage on the day of the Queen Mother's death was unexpectedly ragged and unprofessional.

And some older retainers and friends of the Queen Mother may well have been upset by its tone.

Significance

But equally the BBC claims to have had more than 1,000 calls each day from members of the public about the coverage.

I understand the vast majority have been from people complaining that too much time has been devoted to the story, or unhappy at the way expected programmes have been rescheduled.

Less than one tenth of the calls have been critical of the BBC's "insensitivity".

Those at the palaces who think the BBC got it wrong have their counterparts among the general public.

There are many for whom the death of an anointed Queen of England is a matter of deep seriousness and national significance, and who expect the national broadcaster to reflect that with the proper sobriety and sombreness.

Equally there are many for whom the Queen Mother's death at the age of 101 is neither especially surprising nor especially significant.

They see it as an interesting story, but not one on the scale, for instance, of 11 September.

The BBC - like other broadcasters - has to serve both constituencies. This is an impossible task and one likely to provoke plenty more hostile headlines in the weeks and months to come.


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