Why the BBC can never get it right

By Charlie Courtauld
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The Independent Online

Picture the scene: the bowels of BBC Television Centre in the summer of 1993. As the first reports began to come in over the wires, Sue Cameron paused in a suitably somnolent way and read out the words from the autocue.

"We are just receiving reports of a helicopter crash in Scotland, near Balmoral Castle. No further details are available as yet. Now, on with our next story ..."

There was of course, no crash. It was all a pretence. A chore which every news programme was expected to endure once every six months. The Queen Mother Death Rehearsal. For most of us on Newsnight, this was an unnerving event because one knew that the BBC's top brass were somewhere up there, watching for gaffes.

But after all these years of regular rehearsals, last weekend the BBC was deemed to have "got it wrong". Various newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, castigated it for being disrespectful in its coverage of the death of the Queen Mother. Much of the flak was taken by the newsreader Peter Sissons for wearing a burgundy rather than black tie, and for his supposedly insensitive questioning of Margaret Rhodes, the Queen Mother's niece, about the 101-year-old's deathbed moments.

The last time the BBC updated its guidance as to what should be done in the event of the Queen Mother's death was after 11 September. Lorraine Heggessey, the controller of BBC1, said the coverage would be scaled back "in tune with the times". Scaling back would mean sober dress rather than black ties; hence Peter Sissons' choice of burgundy.

For most, this debate about the BBC – did it or didn't it get it wrong? – leaves them bemused and confused. Let's face it, they say. Peter Sissons' performance was not his best. "Below par" was an accurate description. The tie might well have been better replaced with a black one, but his questioning of Margaret Rhodes was intrusive, unnecessary, and fatuous.

So why doesn't the BBC acknowledge its mistake, and get on with it? After all, Greg Dyke has already been forced to grovel by the tabloids once, saying sorry for an episode of Question Time transmitted a couple of days after the World Trade Centre attacks, during which some hostile audience members verbally assaulted an ex-ambassador from the US.

It would be tempting for the BBC to cave in, but it would be wrong. For the battle over the Queen Mother is one that the BBC must win.

The BBC has great concern for the future. Not with the Queen Mother's funeral on Tuesday – David Dimblebywill ensure a smooth send-off. But corporation bosses must fear a far more divisive announcement which, at some point over the next decades, the BBC will have to make: the death of Baroness Thatcher.

While most people have a fairly balanced attitude to the death of the Queen Mother, the same cannot be said of the Iron Baroness. Everyone feels strongly about her. Half the nation will demand that Mr Sissons rends his clothes, and dons sackcloth and ashes. The other half will demand a rendition of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". Neither side will be happy with the BBC's tone, and will make their disgust volubly heard. Wait for the demands from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph for the breakup and privatisation of the Beeb – calls which, if the BBC acknowledges mistakes now – will be harder to resist then.

The niceties of royal protocol may obsess a few, but not many. Apologising to the Mail now would really prove the corporation to be out of touch with the nation – and in the long run it could prove fatal for a publicly funded BBC.

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