Thursday, 7 June 2012

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.


  1. Excellent new blog Matthew! I love that you've re-generated an old title/masthead. The historical comparisons you mention are really interesting. My view of it all is somewhat oblique as you'll see. I've been reading coverage of the events, which were shown here in full on UKTV (a pay channel, thru Sky, so I didn't see it, but relatives did), but not the state broadcaster TVNZ, which would have traditionally shown it (and indeed showed the royal wedding recently), which showed only clips. A lot of UK content is now shown free to air on Prime, also an arm of Sky. Some of this is down to Prime/Sky outbidding TVNZ, but also to the republican tendencies of some people working in the media/political sphere here, where British content (including monarchy) is politically incorrect. Kiwi views are mixed but statistically TVNZ is more trying to mould public views than reflect it. (They recently tried to move Coronation St off primetime for Aussie Masterchef, & met a furious backlash). Prime is very popular as it often carries the British (and serious US) drama TVNZ used to.
    Its ironic (given Murdoch's views) that Sky dealt with the Jubilee audience here, but its a business opportunity. As regards what I've read about BBC coverage, it seems like the BBC dropped the ball massively, yet broadcasters like Sky traditionally berate the BBC (also suffering funding cuts) for being not populist and out of touch. It sounds like the BBC went for what they thought was a youthful, populist 'commercial style' approach (and doubltess those presenters are less expensive than very senior commentators), while Sky did a 'bait and switch', by taking over the serious, heavy commentary, angling long term to take official broadcasts away from it. Sky is taking serious content off national broadcasters both in the UK and here (and doutbtless elsewhere), by creating and exploiting opportunities.
    Incidentally, Arthur Askey was one of the theatre performers my gran did dressmaking for back in the 1930s, and she recalls him with fondness.

    1. Thank you! The blog has been around for some time, but I'm using it a bit more at the moment. I'm glad to be reviving an eighteenth-century title, and one day I will get round to a post about the paper itself.

      I doubt that the BBC will lose the status of official reporter of state occasions, but Sky are certainly angling to build their reputation. Allegedly Alastair Bruce, their royal expert, had his services turned down by the BBC because he was 'too posh'. The fallout here continues: Clare Balding, whom I didn't mention but who was one of the most competent BBC presenters last Sunday, has publicly expressed doubts about the coverage, but pointed out that bad weather caused six of nine cameras to fail and wireless communications between presenters and base to be disrupted. Meanwhile Fearne Cotton has lashed out at internet bullies, and she has a point. I didn't see her walkabout in a park with biscuits, but I did see part of her review of Jubilee kitsch with Paloma Faith, and thought opportunities were missed - did royalty always generate this sort of merchandise? We could have seen or heard of odd items from previous jubilees or even coronations, and I'm sure there have been some.

      Arthur Askey is an under-explored giant of twentieth-century British entertainment, who played a significant part in determining what broadcast comedy would be like. Clips of the opening of BBC Television Centre in 1960 showed him an active presence, appropriating the new building as a giant prop or series of props for his act. He wrote or co-wrote and performed in most of the BBC Television pantomimes of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. I remember the daily bulletins on his declining health in the last week of his life; and while he seemed a touchstone for collective identity in his lifetime, his comedy style is from what I've seen unlikely to find an audience now.

  2. I was phoned at random this afternoon by Populus, and as the youngest male in the household (as none of our penguins were available) asked if I'd watched the coverage, whether I was aware of the coverage being newsworthy, could I score the coverage out of 10. I was also asked about my views on doctors and their pensions, and how easy I found it to adjust the picture setting on my TV.

    1. I wonder who has commissioned the questions on the television coverage? I'm sure the penguins would have had thoughts on the matter, however woolly.