Thursday, 7 June 2012
Reflecting the nation: the BBC and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee
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.
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.