Reflecting the nation: the BBC and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee
Kilometres of space have rolled from presses and tumbled across screens in the past few days expressing criticism of the BBC's reporting of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, with particular opprobrium being reserved for its coverage of the Thames Pageant. Initially this household watched the BBC's programme, but soon turned to Sky News. While the BBC had more vantage points and more presenters than Sky News, the latter concentrated on describing the pageant and seemed better informed, with substantial thanks to the presence throughout of Alastair Bruce, whose multiple personas as soldier, historian, herald and broadcaster were thoroughly utilised during the entire weekend. The BBC instead regularly cut away from the pageant to the antics of their own presenters on shore or on their own boats, whether Angelica Bell meeting newborn 'Jubilee babies' and their parents in hospital, Anneka Rice doing something forgettable by the side of the river, Sandi Toksvig and Griff Rhys Jones looking puzzled as they interviewed guests and sheltered from the rain below deck, or (worst of all) principal anchors-away Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth sinking rapidly under a weight of conflicting expectations and watery instructions through their earpieces. Matt Baker, confident at the helm of Countryfile and The One Show, and one of the pillars of Blue Peter's now-passed third or fourth golden age of the 2000s, at least seemed conscious of his own inadequacy given how defensive his body language was.
The press have drawn upon the negative reactions to the coverage expressed on Twitter. At first it appeared that many of the critics weren't actually watching the BBC's coverage, as they mocked the supposed subservience of the people they expected and imagined to be leading the broadcast. However, their early targets, Huw Edwards and Nicholas Witchell, were barely glimpsed, despite a promise in the Radio Times - no longer published or licensed by the BBC, but still in the minds of many associated with them - that Huw Edwards would be the chief presenter of the BBC broadcast of the pageant. Instead much of the burden in the later part of the event fell to Chris Hollins, battling with rain and spray on a boat, who at least managed to describe what he saw competently, but athletics commentator and sometime Olympian Paul Dickenson was evidently thrown his hammer too far, and demonstrated no grasp of the symbolism offered by the different vessels and their roles in the event, nor the way the pageant related them to the existing furniture of the river landscape.
Some interests connected with particular vessels, led to believe that their effort was to be broadcast as part of a national expression of thanks to Elizabeth II, appear to feel cheated. The Guardian reports that the BBC coverage ignored the special compositions for the event performed on thirteen 'music barges', leading to outrage from composer Orlando Gough. I had the impression that Sky woke late to the presence of these barges too. Somewhere communications had been lost between the organisers and the broadcasters, with their conceptions of the event not overlapping as well as they might in the case of Sky, and barely touching in the case of the BBC.
Other media outlets have been crowing at the apparent absence of BBC management from the airwaves, presses and net cables as the reign of Elizabeth II seemingly gives way to that of the public broadcaster's critics. Gillian Reynolds, doyenne of broadcasting journalists, drew attention to the inadequacies of jubilee reporting when taking part in a discussion on Radio 4's Today programme, including Richard Bacon's alleged dismissal of the thanksgiving service, in his Radio 5 Live commentary, as "a bit stiff". In response Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4 and now master of St Peter's College, Oxford, defended what he thought was an attempt to be "informal and to use the modern idiom inclusive". Presenter Evan Davis seemed to miss the point as well, suggesting to Gillian Reynolds that she wanted every royal event covered by a Dimbleby, as if only members of a particular family were capable of communicating certain details to the public, and confusing contextualisation and information with tone and mood.
I only saw the end of the thanksgiving service on television, and have not heard Radio 5 Live's coverage, but didn't think what I saw of the service "stiff". Indeed, the relaxed post-party poses of the young senior royals in the front row would not have been imaginable twenty years ago, and Rowan Williams's archiepiscopal sermon was straining with some success to mix warmth with the inevitable formality of the setting. So I don't know whether the broadcasters put the thanksgiving service into context as part of a history of such services at St Paul's to mark public occasions, such as the several thanksgivings to mark victories in the War of the Spanish Succession during the reign of Queen Anne, or that in 1715 to mark George I's survival on the British throne after the defeat of the Jacobite rising that year, or those which followed later military victories and indeed the recovery of George III from insanity in 1789; or indeed that such services can still be controversial, leading to the designation of the 2009 service to mark the end of British military operations in Iraq as one of memorial rather than of thanksgiving. During the Thames pageant on Sunday comparisons with the river pageant with which Charles II welcomed his queen Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and 'that painting by Canaletto' were repeated, but opportunities for exploring the comparison were few and fewer were taken, beyond reminders that Canaletto's painting depicted London civic pageantry and not a royal event. Had I been wearing my royal historian hat and pressed into broadcasting service, I'd have wanted to contrast Charles II's pageant with this Sunday's one, emphasising the need for Charles II to depict the strength of support for his recently-restored monarchy to the Portuguese, as well as show respect to the Braganzas as a fellow-reigning house at a time when many European monarchies regarded that dynasty as only enjoying squatters' rights in a Lisbon where the more powerful Spanish Habsburgs insisted they should be reigning.
My perspective on these events is perhaps unusual. There is a direct line from my experience of the Silver Jubilee of 1977, to my undertaking a doctoral thesis on the eighteenth-century royal family in the 1990s. The relics which I have from 1977 suggest to me that it celebrated the House of Windsor as crowning a social democracy where old hierarchies of heredity sat alongside new ones of education and expertise, each validating the other; and it was probably a similar impression that made 'kings and queens' a childhood enthusiasm. Looking through the broadcasting schedules for the era, the Jubilee was a celebration of the generations which had fought the Second World War, in which Princess Elizabeth had herself ended the war a commissioned officer, which apparently has left her a dab hand with a car engine. Entertainers such as Arthur Askey were prominent. The interpretation of the 1981 royal wedding as a 'Thatcherite' event, much retailed by commentators last year during media coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, has never satisfied me; the Thatcherism of the late 1980s did not emerge fully-formed at the start of her ministry and the event seemed much more an attempt to perpetuate certain symbols of the early post-war consensus into the succeeding decade, with little understanding of the chief actors in the drama nor the surrounding context. My research into eighteenth-century royalty was inevitably coloured by perspectives formed in childhood and was probably at some level an exploration of them, though principally an attempt to show how the British ruling elite dealt with the emergence of a large 'family on the throne' for the first time since the Plantagenet and post-Plantagenet royal kindred of the later middle ages and early modern period; and while this might seem an odd comparison, there were many in the eighteenth century who would not have found it so and warned darkly of intra-dynastic warfare.
This background of childhood passions and academic interest means that I don't share the assumptions of the BBC's producers, if one can indeed infer them from the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts. If Mark Damazer's assumptions are right, then the emphasis on playing games with the crowds, or Fearne Cotton's notorious review of Jubilee merchandise with Paloma Faith, surely missed the point of why the crowds were there. To make them the focal point of coverage when they were there to watch and as spectators participate in the Thames pageant and Tuesday's carriage procession was to miscalculate and obscure the interrelationship of watchers and watched. (There were times when Sky News were just as bad as anything the BBC broadcast, given one Sky reporter's decision to attempt to conduct some royal-watchers she had corralled by the Mall in a chorus of God Save the Queen.) 'Inclusivity' belittled the experience of all participants, whatever their job descriptions. Interviews with crowd members on all channels worked when an attempt was made to reach a level of identification with them as members of the public, rather than as people to be belittled for wearing face paint.
The involvement of sport and leisure presenters on Sunday and the apparent dominance of general 'live events' specialists over news people during the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts suggests that the BBC, like other aeas of the political and media establishments, waylaid by the 'Jubilympics', the proximity of the Jubilee and the Olympics next to one another having led to preparations for the two events to merge and the Jubilee being treated by some bodies as a rehearsal for the Olympics rather than an event itself. This seems to be an unfortunate and mistaken consequence of the inevitable and necessary exploitation of synergies in an age of supposed public austerity. The controversy seems to have sparked keen reporting of BBC in-fighting relating to the succession to the director-generalship. This story is not finished yet.