I'll drink to a hero, not to diluted royals

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The Independent Online
I HAVE a new hero, and hope that many others in the nation will also rise to acclaim him. He is the editor of the BBC's Nine O'Clock News, and has himself become the subject of reports because of the absence from his bulletin last Friday of footage of the wedding of Viscount Linley, 12th in line to the British throne, and Lady Serena Stanhope. The editor decided that the splicing of these doubtless pleasant but irrelevant people was not one of the main news stories of the day. A singed switchboard and boiling tabloid editorials disagreed with him.

The decision has been widely interpreted as a piece of republican grumpiness, an ideological boycott, but I hope the BBC, which has not always been steady under external pressure, stands by its man. This seems to me to be a piece of mature, intelligent and even sensitive news judgement, evidence that the corporation's journalists make their decisions on the basis of individual cases rather than a spurious consensus about the traditions of their profession or their nation.

Here is a young man, a carpenter and restaurateur by trade, who surely has only the mildest curiosity value even to those who consider themselves monarchists. He would matter historically (and thus to serious journalism) only in the highly unlikely circumstances of virtually all his blood relatives - many of them now scarcely on speaking terms - sailing off together into tax exile on the royal yacht Britannia. So his marriage is no more a serious story than that of Naomi Campbell and Adam Clayton: rather less so, in fact, as at least the supermodel and the rock star have come to celebrity through their own efforts rather than an accident of bloodline, a freak of genes.

There will be those, mainly of the older generation, who believe that the bloodline Viscount Linley represents, in however diluted a form, is worthy of coverage, regardless of the events involved. But it is in this respect that the BBC's news judgement was most impressively sensitive, both historically and personally. There exists much evidence - through poll and anecdote and the size of the print runs for disrespectful exposes - that the mystique and respect accorded to the Royal Family have significantly diminished. This social shift is a phenomenon far more widespread than the growth of specifically Republican sentiment. The ending of the divine right of royals to airtime is a quite proper response to this cultural realignment.

There is also the delicate question of the particular species of event that the BBC declined to screen. You could argue that for the bulletin to make much fuss of a royal wedding, given the outcome of the previous ones, would have been a little like giving a second peak-time series to a juggler who had dropped all the balls in the first set of shows. It could be regarded as a generous and charitable act to accord some privacy to these latest, minor entrants to the media circus, particularly as the public hoo-ha over the original ceremony is traditionally one of the excuses used by the media to justify later intrusion into the royal marriages. Indeed, it suddenly occurs to me that the editor of the Nine O'Clock News may be a rabid monarchist and that his loyal instinct to protect the family from future ridicule has been, on this occasion, sadly misunderstood.

In fact, I would guess that the reasoning behind the exclusion of the couple's wedding was that, after the events of last year - the separations, the biographies, the submission to taxation - it would be bizarre to cover the royal beat with the kind of nave gaiety and sycophantic overkill that might have been the rule before. The fact that many of those British newspapers that were at the forefront of last year's debunking treated the Linley wedding much as if it was Anne and Mark circa 1973 all over again, is merely another illustration of the huge confusion in current British attitudes to the monarchy. The Nine O'Clock News has at least applied thought rather than superstition to the question.

Nor, I must say, have the complaints against the BBC always smacked of the right constitutional gravitas. Phone calls and letters to the corporation, echoed in tabloid editorials, object that millions ('of women' is the standard patronising addition) were denied a sight of Viscount Linley's bride's wedding dress. Ah, so that's the problem. I had not, until this moment, fully understood the meaning of that phrase so favoured by Lords St John and Rees-Mogg and others about the importance of the 'fabric of monarchy'.

But the Nine O'Clock News, whatever its other strengths, has never really been the place you went for informed reporting of couture. It would seem to me that the solution for the BBC, on any future occasions, would be for the fabric of monarchy to be displayed on The Clothes Show - hosted, neatly, by that friend of royalty Selina Scott - while the corporation's main journalistic bulletin of the day is left free for happenings of actual importance.

The attitude of middle England to the clock - a solid grandfather clock, as they probably fondly imagine it, of the kind they have seen on Lovejoy - will always be to turn it back. Better a dusty fantasy than a new idea. Those calling at last week's Tory party conference for the return of birching for young offenders cannot really imagine that it would have a practical effect on crime. Such sentiments are merely a reflex - a burp - which make those who experience them feel better. The desire to convert a family wedding into a mystical national event is another such reflex.

The best speech in David Hare's splendid new play about British politics, The Absence of War, just premiered at the National Theatre, rails at precisely this fixation. A Labour leader, about to be defeated, laments the fact that discussing the state of the nation - its historical decline, its structural stupidities - is somehow regarded as unpatriotic or, in the Tory phrase, 'talking the country down'. Hare's character says: 'We live in a country spavined with ancestor-worship. This country will never, can never prosper until it escapes from its past.'

If you think Hare is being unfair, dig out the sugary 90th birthday tribute to the Queen Mother which that former egalitarian firebrand Neil Kinnock felt, as Labour leader, it was prudent to make. If you still miss his point, then consider carefully why the marriage of the Queen's nephew and marathon-distance aspirant to the British throne should be thought a scandalous omission from the headlines of the day. You may raise your glass to Viscount Linley and his wife, but I will raise mine to the editor of the Nine O'Clock News.