BBC flooded with complaints over coverage of Prince Philip’s death
Corporation opened dedicated complaints form on its website to deal with high volume of comments
Viewers switched off their TVs in droves after broadcasters aired blanket coverage of Prince Philip’s death, audience figures revealed on Saturday, and the BBC received so many complaints it opened a dedicated complaints form on its website.
BBC One and BBC Two cleared their schedules of Friday night staples including EastEnders, Gardeners’ World and the final of MasterChef to simulcast pre-recorded tributes from the Duke of Edinburgh’s children.
TV viewers were not pleased. BBC One, which is traditionally the channel that Britons turn on at moments of national significance, was down 6% on the previous week, according to analysis of viewing figures by Deadline. For BBC Two the decision was disastrous – it lost two-thirds of its audience, with only an average of 340,000 people tuning in at any time between 7pm and 11pm. ITV suffered a similar drop after it ditched its Friday night schedule to broadcast tributes to the duke.
The highest rated programme on Friday, with 4.2m viewers, was Gogglebox on Channel 4.
The BBC’s national radio stations replaced their output with a pre-recorded tribute, with some later returning to special “sombre” music: Radio 1 played downbeat music interspersed with announcements that it would “sound a bit different”.
Some BBC radio cricket commentary teams continued to provide coverage of county cricket – one of Philip’s favourite pastimes – unaware that no one was able to hear them. Even the live blog was shut down.
BBC Four was taken off air and replaced with a notice urging viewers to switch to BBC One. It had been due to show the England women’s football team play France in an international friendly – the game aired on the BBC’s iPlayer service and BBC Sport website, apparently in the belief that showing women’s sport online is more respectful than allowing it on linear television channels. On CBBC, children were greeted with a banner encouraging them to watch the news.
The BBC would not say how many complaints it had received or make any other comment about its coverage.
Outside the UK and in many commonwealth countries, the duke’s death was treated as a foreign affair with most focusing on British reaction to the news, although in Australia and New Zealand broadcasters and newspapers gave substantial coverage to the death of their monarch’s consort.
ABC, Australia’s state-owned broadcaster, broke into its regular programming with presenters wearing black. But The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald newspapers kept most of their normal coverage, with pictures of the duke on their front pages.
News of Philip’s death was less noticeable in India, where the Times of India and the Hindustan Times carried small pictures beside the papers’ mastheads. News stories focused on the duke’s relationship with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy who oversaw Indian independence and partition.
In Kenya, the Daily Nation used black-and-white pictures of Philip in naval uniform while visiting the country. Newspapers in the Caribbean were more concerned with the eruption of La Soufrière volcano in St Vincent, but Trinidad’s Saturday Express found space for a small picture of the duke on its front page.
Beyond the Commonwealth, news of the duke’s death was covered on many front pages in Europe and the United States. Le Monde’s Philippe Bernard said Philip could have been known as “Prince of Blunders” for his “offbeat marks of affection, manifestations of British humour or frankly inappropriate or even stupid remarks”.
Although the BBC is used to finding itself in the middle of Britain’s culture wars, its handling of Philip’s death points to a deeper issue over the ability of a national broadcaster to force the country together to mourn a single individual in an era where audiences are fragmented and less deferential.
When Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in 1997, most of the UK population had only just gained access to a fifth television channel. Although the BBC’s reach among the UK population remains enormous, the growth of Netflix and YouTube means audiences have somewhere else to turn.
Matthew Bannister, who was controller of BBC radio in 1997, told the Observer: “It was an extremely difficult and extremely different set of circumstances. We had in 1997 the death of a 36-year-old woman in a car crash coming completely out of the blue in the middle of the night. Whereas now we’re talking about the death of a 99-year-old man, which is very sad, but not unexpected and not shocking in the same way.
“We were led by the public mood which was a complete surprise to us. We responded to the messages that we were receiving from the public, which overwhelmingly wanted us to err on the side of the mourning that was going on.
“There were obviously those who criticised it in hindsight, and, and sometimes at the time, but they were in a tiny minority compared to the numbers who were sending us messages of shock and sadness. Even with social media, it might have been potentially easier to gauge what some people were thinking, but social media is not entirely a reliable barometer of what most people are thinking.”
People working in BBC News suggested that the reason for the long-planned large scale of the coverage is that the corporation still bears the scars from the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, when its output was deemed insufficiently deferential by rightwing newspapers.
Among other issues, the media fixated on the BBC newsreader Peter Sissons for failing to wear a black tie as he announced her death. He later claimed that he had been left in the lurch by BBC managers, who the previous year had floated proposals to tone down the extent of the coverage of the Queen Mother’s death. Sissons said that as he entered the studio to announce her death he was told by the editor: “Don’t go overboard, she’s a very old woman who had to go some time.”
There is also the ongoing battle between the government and the BBC over the corporation’s future funding. With the new director general, Tim Davie, already battling Conservative MPs who accuse the corporation of not being sufficiently patriotic, the BBC will have been aware of the political risks of not being perceived to have struck the right tone. One issue facing the BBC is when to return coverage to normal and how to respond to complaints.
In a sign that the corporation is doomed to be criticised by all sides, the rightwing Defund the BBC campaign described it as “disgraceful” that the corporation was making it easier to complain about its coverage, saying: “The anti-British BBC has set up a form to encourage complaints about the volume of coverage of Prince Philip’s death.”
Another issue is how to serve parts of its audience who would like an alternative to the extensive coverage. By late Friday afternoon there was one death dominating the most-read stories on the BBC website: that of the rapper DMX.