The best-laid plans: How the Beeb covered the Queen Mother

The BBC has been planning its coverage of the Queen Mother's death for decades, yet it still came under fire from the press for getting it wrong. Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of ITN, asks what happened
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There is a well-established rule in broadcasting that if you are reporting the news you should not be in it. The editors and presenters of BBC News must be reflecting on the truth of that after an extraordinary week of controversy over their coverage of the death of the Queen Mother. I cannot recall a major news event since the Falklands war where the row about the BBC's coverage took newspaper front pages away from the event itself. Nor can I recall a situation where BBC executives and newscasters found themselves dividing their time between news coverage of a major event and trading insults with the half of Fleet Street who thought their coverage incompetent and inappropriate.

Relations between ITN and the BBC have always been marked by fierce competition but also by a genuine respect for the other's professionalism, and I have no desire to be caught in the crossfire of what has evidently become a bitter, politicised and personalised battle, now enlivened by the threat of writs.

Behind the bickering, though, there are serious issues. British journalism has been planning its coverage of the death of the Queen Mother for at least two decades. As a young BBC producer, I attended the BBC's first major meeting to rethink its approach, after the Queen Mother's near-fatal encounter with a fish bone. In the aftermath, it had become clear to the director of BBC Television then, the late Brian Wenham, that BBC News was not sufficiently well prepared, that the obituaries were out of date and that the plans for extended coverage did not make sense. Apart from that, everything was fine.

Wenham's concerns have an eerie resonance with the issues of last week. The fundamental questions remain the same. How should public service broadcasters deal with the death of the Queen Mother when society has changed so radically from the time of the death of her husband 50 years ago? How do you cover a major event for a mass audience when some people are far more interested and affected than others?

This is a minefield for broadcasters, as the BBC has learned to its cost. Unlike newspapers, which can say what they want about public events, television news is rightly under a statutory and charter obligation to be impartial. Newspapers can cheerfully embrace republicanism and restrict their coverage of the monarchy or proclaim themselves the Queen's most passionate supporters and offer their readers saturation coverage.

Television news, on the other hand, must never be seen to take a position on the monarchy. Too little coverage, too cool a tone and you run the risk of being labelled a closet republican or inappropriately politically correct; too much coverage or too warm a tone and your critics will accuse you of toadying to the Palace. Add to that the questions about the future role of the royal family after the death of such a dominant and popular member, and you have an environment in which anything out of the ordinary is liable to be misinterpreted. That helps explain why a few live and imperfectly phrased questions and a rather complicated guideline on what to wear and when to wear it can be such combustible stuff– seen not as evidence that we all make the occasional mistake but as proof of something darker.

In a sense, this is the fundamental challenge of television news in the modern world – a world in which, in terms of editorial approach, one size no longer fits all. At ITN we have developed tailored news services for each of our main broadcast customers – ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – to suit their requirements and the expectations of their audiences. But all three are public service broadcasters with obligations to provide high-quality, impartial news, including coverage of major stories as they develop. So although the style and tone of our coverage of this story varied from channel to channel, there were some fundamental principles in common. We believed that the death of the Queen Mother would be a major event and had planned accordingly. It was inevitable that it would happen one day and there was no excuse for anything other than the smoothest and most professional standards of presentation and production, when that day came.

We rehearsed the procedures for presenters, producers and technical teams until some of them started complaining – and then we rehearsed some more. Our reward was the highly professional output on the day the news broke, from all our three main news services – despite the fact that Bank Holiday weekends traditionally have short bulletins and resources in the newsrooms are at their slimmest. We believed that reporting the death of the Queen Mother and the reactions to it was a sombre business and that it was better to leave speculation about the longer-term implications for the royal family to a later date.

The tone of news programmes is not often discussed – but it is an increasingly important way of differentiating between programmes and trying to connect with different audiences. It is, however, a difficult art – go too far in one direction and you fall into the trap of editorialising, of bias, of twisting the agenda to suit preconceived ideas – the antithesis of what television news in the UK has always been.

In trying to get the tone right on the death of the Queen Mother, broadcasters were in uncharted waters. Precedents are helpful evidence, but can be treacherous. For example, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was a shocking, unexpected event, which quickly developed in ways few would have predicted. The funeral was unlike any previous state occasion, both in terms of what was happening inside Westminster Abbey, and on the streets and in the parks outside. One occurrence – the applause for Charles Spencer's speech, which began in Hyde Park and rolled across Westminster into the abbey itself – symbolised a new active role for the public in such events. That day, while the BBC focused on the formal side of the funeral, ITN's programmes for ITV and Channel 5 gave more emphasis to the public reaction outside.

However, for today's funeral, slightly different considerations will apply. It will be first and foremost a solemn church service without pop stars and angry orations. But there will be the public outside the Abbey who will also wish to play their part in the event, and we need to reflect that as well.

In trying to ensure that the tone and the extent of the coverage continue to be appropriate, journalists and broadcasters alike have been assessing all the avail-able yardsticks of public interest and public participation.

The size of the queues outside Westminster Hall, the evidence of quiet grief and sympathy around the country, reinforce our news judgement that today's funeral is one of the major events of the year – a moment of history that everyone would expect to be covered, even those who are unmoved by it. Ultimately, there is no mathematical formula or guideline to tell you whether or not you have got it right; editors, in the end, have to edit – and take the consequences if they get it wrong.