Prince Philip himself would have been baffled by the media coverage on him
The announcement this week of the death of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has opened yet another front in the culture wars. At midday last Friday, the announcement that the prince had died was released. Almost immediately, the BBC cleared the schedules on all eight of its network radio stations (Radios One, Two, Three, Four, Four Extra, Five Live, Six Music, the Asian Network) and all of its 39 local radio outputs to broadcast a series of mostly pre-recorded tributes and interviews about the prince.
In the evening, the arts and cultural TV channel, BBC4 was taken off of the air altogether and BBC One and BBC Two showed exactly the same programs all evening featuring yet more interviews and tributes, only this time with video footage. Even the children’s channel, CBBC, was closed down for the night with a message on an otherwise blank screen encouraging its young viewers to retune and watch the news.
It was clear that the BBC, who had obviously been gathering obituary material on Philip since he came to prominence in the mid-1940s, had a lot to share with its viewers and listeners -- and were determined that no one should miss a single minute of it.
The BBC received so many complaints about its blanket, North Korean-style coverage that it set up a dedicated form on its website to record them. The corporation refused to say how many complaints it had received, but the viewing figures speak for themselves; BBC Two, for example, lost around two-thirds of its regular audience bringing it down to an average of only about 340,000 for the whole of Friday evening.
The majority of the complaints were mainly expressions of disbelief that anyone should be surprised when a 99-year-old man passes away. Yes, he had been a very prominent figure in British society for as long as anyone living could remember. And yes, he could list many great achievements during his long and distinguished career, including his pioneering work as an early conservationist and his establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award program which is now followed in 144 counties around the world. But is that all worth knowing if it means missing the latest episode of Eastenders or Gardeners World?
On the other side of the cultural scales, we have the ardent royalists who, in spite of declarations from Buckingham Palace that they should not congregate outside the royal residences owing to the pandemic, still insisted on leaving their bunches of cellophane wrapped floral tributes on the royal railings. This mawkish custom seems to have begun in 1997 with the death of Princess Diana, when the area outside her home at Kensington Palace was festooned in a sea of flowers.
I can recall a TV interview with a tearful young man at the time clutching his bouquet of dahlias and lilies, telling the world: “My mother died last week. But the princess’s death has affected me so much more.”
Who are these people? They are the same lot presumably who camp overnight outside the maternity unit at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington at the conclusion of every royal pregnancy with a freshly knitted pair of baby booties ready to be presented to the latest titled offspring. I have never quite understood these royal superfans who invest their lives and so much of their money collecting the souvenirs and other trinkets commemorating a family they are never likely to meet.
It’s all about striking the right balance and of finding the nuance in the coverage of the royal family, something, as I have said before in this column, we seem to have lost across the board in Britain.
Of course we should celebrate the life of someone who has dedicated so much time and energy to the service of his country and to his wife, the Queen. But do we really need it across every radio network and TV channel? Equally, those who now are starting to emerge from the woke fringes of the left, who declare that Philip was a symbol Britain’s dark imperial and slave-owning past, should also take a good hard look at themselves and get some perspective back in their lives.
I think Phillip himself would have been amused by those that saw him as an anti-progressive throwback, which he simply wasn’t, and been baffled by all of the overblown coverage of him in the media. He came across and a modest man in spite of his rank and position. During his lifetime, he turned down the prospect of a state funeral when he died. Instead, when he is buried next Saturday, his body will be carried to its final resting place on the back of an open-topped Land Rover which he himself had specially designed. Even without the pandemic, his funeral, at his own request, would have been a relatively modest affair.
Prince Philip understood the meaning of balance, nuance, and perspective. It’s a pity that so many of his fellow countrymen still seem to lack that insight.
Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.