The BBC vs. the queen mum.

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 3 2002 1:23 PM

Black-Tie Affair

The wardrobe of BBC newscasters covering the death of Britain's queen mother has sparked an emotional controversy in British papers this week. "The BBC stands accused of showing 'disrespect' at best, of betraying the nation and losing all right to call itself the national broadcaster, at worst," according to the Guardian.

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The crux of the complaints? As the Daily Telegraph reported, "Complaints poured into the BBC switchboard over the weekend about the amateurish and insensitive way in which the long-expected news was presented by the national broadcasting service." Newscasters who reported on the queen mother's death for the rival network ITV "wore black ties while Peter Sissons, the BBC's chief newscaster, wore a dark red one throughout the afternoon and evening." A Times editorial chided: "The BBC let its viewers down on Saturday.The BBC does not have to please advertisers. It has to do its duty. In its treatment of the death of a woman devoted to duty, the corporation showed a distinct lack of dignity."

The Times said that the royal family objected to the BBC's coverage. But the Telegraph reported that Buckingham Palace "publicly backed the BBC … over its coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, saying it had no complaints with the corporation's reporting of the event."

The Times also quotes "friends of Mr Sissons" who claim he was ordered to wear "a burgundy tie that was colour-coded to blend into the BBC's new matching corporate colour." (The BBC denies it banned traditional mourning attire.)

While tie-color and questions of funereal etiquette may provide the pretext for the debate, deeper issues are at stake. As the Guardian points out,

[The government and the BBC] have to speak in public as if the entire country thinks alike about the Queen Mother, even though they know it's nonsense. How far should they pretend, in order to appease the royalists, and how broadly should they wink at the rest? Both institutions are expected to represent and speak for a single Britishness, that, for better or worse, has disappeared. …

It's no good blaming the BBC for the fact that we are no longer one nation, with one national mood. The Queen Mother's passing did, indeed, mark the end of an era. It's time for the BBC's critics to wake up to the new one.

Beginning Friday, the queen mother will lie in state at Westminster Hall for three days; the funeral will take place at Westminster Abbey next Tuesday. BBC presenters and reporters covering the event, according to the Times, will be wearing black ties.

Susan Daniels is a former Slate staffer. She lives in Amsterdam.

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