BBC has ‘lessons to learn’ over coverage of Prince Philip’s death, admits director-general

Duke of Edinburgh’s death became most complained-about piece of programming in BBC history

Sam Hancock
Friday 20 August 2021 21:01
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<p>Mourners, including the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, attend the funeral of Prince Philip at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 17 April </p>

Mourners, including the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, attend the funeral of Prince Philip at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 17 April

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The BBC’s director-general has said the broadcaster is looking for “lessons to be learned” after its coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death drew record complaints and low viewing figures.

Minutes show Tim Davie made the comments during a BBC board meeting on 22 April, during which he seemed to acknowledge that treatment of a royal’s death might be different in the future.

Some 109,741 people complained about the corporation’s decision to clear its schedules across major TV and radio channels in order to run a series of mirrored special programmes.

The complaints are believed to be the highest number ever published in the UK about television programming and made coverage of Prince Philip’s death the most complained-about piece of programming in BBC history.

Mr Davie made specific reference to the decision to devote BBC1 and BBC2’s entire output to the duke’s death on 9 April, according to the newly-published minutes.

This “resulted in a record number of complaints,” he admitted, as well as “lower than expected” viewers.

Viewing “on the night of the announcement [of Philip’s death] was lower than expected at 2.6 million across BBC1 and BBC2,” Mr Davie said, but added they delivered “a peak of over 13 million viewers” for coverage of the funeral itself on 17 April.

Still, “the Executive were looking at lessons to be learned,” he told the meeting.

It is believed the majority of complainants were left angry after missing out on shows including the MasterChef final and EastEnders. Elsewhere, BBC4, which was due to show an England women’s football match, was taken off air and regular radio schedules were also interrupted.

As a result, audiences for BBC1 and BBC2 fell 6 per cent and 65 per cent week-on-week, according to Barb television ratings figures.

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Competitors ITV and Channel 4 also cleared their channels to cover the duke’s death, but the BBC’s decision to set up a dedicated webpage for viewers to lodge their grievances meant it took the brunt.

The form said that the BBC had received “complaints about too much TV coverage”, before asking viewers to provide an email address and make their feelings known.

Despite accepting viewers’ disgruntlement, Mr Davie said the BBC’s coverage had had been “accomplished, both in the implementation of the technical plans and editorial” – and that it “reflected the role of the BBC as the national broadcaster”.

In a statement issued at the time, the BBC said: “The passing of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was a significant event which generated a lot of interest both nationally and internationally. We acknowledge some viewers were unhappy with the level of coverage given, and impact this had on the billed TV and radio schedules.

“We do not make such changes without careful consideration and the decisions made reflect the role the BBC plays as the national broadcaster, during moments of national significance.”

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