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A death in the family
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The British Broadcasting Corporation

A Windsor Family Servant Mourns

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BBC News logo

Although it gets it money from the most oppressive form of taxation the BBC hates to be seen as the state's broadcasting system. The preparations it made for the death of the so-called queen mother, the mother of Britain's hereditary head of state, tell a different story, however.

Until the 11 September attacks on the United States which resulted in the deaths of thousands, the BBC planned to treat the death of this Windsor as if it were a national tragedy, with what the Daily Telegraph described as "wall-to-wall tributes" replacing all other programmes. Before those tributes began, however, the Corporation intended to be as discreet as the ancient family retainer it is.

In an article published in The Guardian before the death of the senior Windsor former BBC news programmes editor Tim Luckhurst wrote that when ITN, Sky News and the foreign news media reported the death of the queen mum the BBC might remain silent. It would wait for permission from the Windsor family before broadcasting the news.

"The BBC will honour any such embargo (on reporting a Windsor death), regardless of what other broadcasters do."
BBC guidelines

Instead of giving the facts to the people who pay its bills the BBC would replace the normal programmes on Radios 4 and 5 with solemn music. The nation's leading news broadcaster would stop reporting real news from around the world. Every 15 minutes the music would stop. An announcer would recite "This is BBC radio. A statement is expected from Buckingham Palace shortly about the health of queen Elizabeth, the queen mother. The statement is expected at . . . . "

The death of other senior members of the Windsor family will be treated with similar discretion. According to Mr. Luckhurst the official BBC instruction states (in underlined capitals) that the BBC will honour any Windsor embargo on reporting of a family death regardless of what other broadcasters do.

The BBC has precise requirements for how its staff must deal with any senior Windsor death. It organises regular "royal death rehearsals." The number for the death of the queen's mother had been increased to three a year by the time she died. Mr. Luckhurst wrote that "Scripts and recorded reports are itemised along with exact durations and the order in which they must be run."

The death of the senior Windsor was to be marked by special programmes on Radios 4 and 5. They would begin with a solemn announcement and the playing of the national anthem. Then the announcement would be repeated. This would be followed by 50 minutes of pre-recorded paeans. There were to be no live comments from the public lest anything less than reverence be expressed on the air. The only live interviews were to be with what the BBC guidance calls " genuinely important Establishment figures; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prime Minister, Duke of Norfolk and so on." BBC directives requires " a tribute," not objective reporting.

Mr. Luckhurst believed that if the queen mum died away from her London home, a formal announcement of the death would not be made until the body had been brought to the capital to lie in state. The satellite trucks and radio links that the BBC kept at the taxpayer' expense close to her Scottish castle would be of use only to its competitors as the state broadcaster waited for permission to report the news.

Senior BBC staff had protested these absurd plans without effect until the 9 September attacks. After that tragedy in which ordinary citizens displayed genuine heroism and lost their lives prematurely it became anxious that its plan for the death of one controversial individual might be excessive. The plan was changed. The amount of coverage would depend on the public reaction to the death, the fact that the deceased had died at a late age and the change in public attitudes in recent years.

The BBC did indeed take a step forward in the way it covered the death. Monarchists complained that all scheduled programmes were not canceled, that a newscaster did not wear a black tie and that the 101 year old deceased was described as an "old woman". However, the Corporation was characteristically deferential and the amount of coverage was excessive. The death was treated as more important than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with the increasing number of civilian deaths it entailed. The BBC still chose to serve the monarchy rather than the people. But it recognised that more Britons than ever before would rather watch their favourite TV programme than mourn for a dead Windsor.

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