WHAT are we to make of the 100,000 complaints that the BBC has received in protest at the broadcaster’s “excessive” coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh? Not to mention the surge of mean-spirited comments on social media from individuals outraged that MasterChef had been dropped in favour of tributes to Prince Philip?
The BBC, of course, was damned either way. When the Queen Mother died, the right-wing press criticised it for being insufficiently deferential. Now, it is chastised for the opposite. And when, last weekend, it received so many complaints that it put a dedicated form for complainants on its website, it was criticised as “anti-British” for doing that, too.
Let’s not get this out of proportion: 100,000 complaints sounds a lot, but it’s only a small proportion of the 2.4 million people who watched two very fine tribute programmes from Andrew Marr and Sophie Raworth. And it is not many more than wrote to complain about Jerry Springer: The opera, or a bad taste prank call by Russell Brand. But what is interesting is what these complaints tell us about the increasingly atomised nature of British society.
I hold no personal brief for the Duke. I met him only once. When I was a young reporter on The Times, he and the Queen visited to mark its bicentenary. All the paper’s luminaries were placed in line-ups to shake hands with the monarch and her consort. I was too junior for that, and was told to carry on at my typewriter, creating some background hubbub to the visit.
Prince Philip, characteristically, ignored the official line-ups and came over to speak to the only person who was actually doing any work. He was pleasantly inquisitorial, but, to my callow judgement, he seemed just an old man doing a dull job.
Now, we all know that he was, in his day, a royal innovator: the man who introduced television cameras to the Coronation, and who, over the years, pressed for the steady modernisation of the monarchy. That this monarchy now seems stolidly set in stone is in no small part thanks to a prince who had, in his youth, seen Europe’s monarchies tumble one after another — and knew that stability could not be taken for granted in a modern world in which popular support for the royalty was vital. It is only through the tributes that have, post-mortem, been paid to him that we understand the range and depth of his public service over seven decades.
Thankfully, the BBC has not entirely thrown off its Reithian mantle. It knows it must speak to and for the nation at nodal moments of our history. We live in an increasingly solipsistic age, in which so many people’s worlds are reduced to the digital choices enclosed in their headphones. But shared experiences are what bind a society together.
Pausing for a moment, collectively, to pay tribute to a long life of service and to commiserate with the Queen in her loss — in a public echo of the private gratitude and sadness that we feel for those we each have lost in this terrible pandemic — is part of what makes us a nation. We would all be the lesser for losing that.