Grief at gunpoint
The coverage of Philip Windsor’s death has reached new heights of absurdity, even for British royals, argues Paul Demarty
There are many stories to tell about the media reaction to the death of the queen’s consort.
The response was almost impressive in its unanimity. It is hardly surprising that the Mail and Express should spring into action, along with the rest of the Tory press. But The Guardian was also drowning in uncritical gloop - none of its army of right-on anti-racist columnists could find a critical word to say about this most notoriously vulgar of racists. The same was true of The Independent, which was founded on a promise not to resort to lightweight royal coverage.
In the black comedy column, reports circulated on Twitter to the effect that tributes to Philip had replaced social-distancing warnings in Birmingham city centre, which might make this the first period of enforced national grief to cause further deaths (I have been unable to independently confirm this, but whether that is because it did not happen or because space could not be found in the acres of newsprint dedicated to the shocking news that a very old, sick man had died is hard to tell).
It is the BBC’s response, however, which is most telling. Ordinary programming was cancelled more or less immediately. BBC1 and BBC2 were given over to rolling news coverage (‘I am standing here outside Windsor Castle, where Prince Philip is still dead …’). BBC4 was simply switched off, denying terrestrial viewers the rare opportunity to watch a women’s football match. Radio 1 switched from its usual playlist of contemporary bubbly pop to a more sombre selection, it presumably being thought that panegyrics to wet-ass pussies would be disrespectful under the circumstances. The regular schedule was only restored at 2pm on the day following Philip Windsor’s death.
By then, the real controversy had begun. The Beeb was flooded with complaints at this intrusive, absurd display - so much so that, as it sometimes does when it is under such assault, it added a separate web form for complaining specifically about the royal coverage. That, of course, brought forth a furious response from deranged Tories: “The anti-British BBC has set up a form to encourage complaints about the volume of coverage of Prince Philip’s death,” howled a pressure group calling itself Defund the BBC.
Several aspects of the BBC’s coverage interest us. The first is its overbearing quality. The director-generalship is now in the hands of Tim Davie, a former Tory council candidate and a man who has explicitly made the promise to ‘deBolshevise’ the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. The hysterical coverage of the royal death may be interpreted as a coming-out party for the new-model BBC, openly rather than discreetly craven before the Tory right. Not that it does them any good, as we have seen: nothing but the total extermination of the corporation - or its reduction to a completely anodyne shell like the American PBS - will satisfy its enemies in the rightwing press.
The second is, well, all the complaints. In themselves, they are not terribly interesting: in the age of social media it is easy to get a mob up to complain about things. It is notable, however, that the BBC refused for several days to say how many it actually received. That is no surprise, as the number topped 110,000 - almost double the previous record (when a fundamentalist Christian lobby objected to the screening of Jerry Springer: the opera in 2005). Exactly 0.01% of the complaints - a mean 116 in total - objected to how easy it was to complain, and a few hundred others to the uncritical treatment of Prince Andrew in spite of his unsavoury American associations. The rest objected to the relentless brown-nosing. (In a sign of how laughably biased even the liberal media is on all this, The Guardian claimed without apparent irony that those 116 were “a sign that the BBC is destined to be criticised by all sides” - surely the false equivalence of the century.)
Even more telling are the viewing figures. Compared to the BBC TV channels’ usual performance on a Friday evening, they were dreadful. People fled for the exits. Lest we assume that the BBC coverage was merely insufficiently patriotic for the country, ITV’s audience also dropped by about 50%. Channel 4 shook out all right (down 8% or so) - and, notably, did not significantly alter its programming to accommodate the turning of our nation into a vale of tears. On the BBC website, meanwhile, there was an obituary at the top of the most-read listing for most of Friday afternoon, but it was that of moderately-famous rapper, DMX, who died suddenly of a heart attack the same day. These are indications that the nation is not, in fact, in a state of grief - one has instead been simulated by a hermetically sealed media apparatus.
It is not only the media who are indulging in lachrymose absurdity, of course - MPs queued up to offer tributes to this most forgettable of men. The usual suspects were out in force: we cannot even bring ourselves to quote Tories, but knight of the realm Keir Starmer was on hand to praise an “outstanding public servant” - a piece of praise so meaningless, it takes a little while to realise that it is also obviously false (Philip did not ‘stand out’, since he avoided the limelight on the whole, except on the occasion of his racist gaffes; and he fitted no reasonable definition of a “public servant”).
The case of Jeremy Corbyn is even sadder: he put out a completely empty ‘thoughts are with the family’ statement after being monstered for tweeting his support for the ‘Bolivian people’ (ie, for the new leftwing Bolivian government that dares to imprison the people who overthrew it and massacred dozens of people in a short-lived coup). His tweet committed the cardinal sin of admitting that anything else was happening in the entire world that was more notable than - again - the death of a very old, sick man. The tweet was deleted. We suppose the Bolivian people will have to cope.
Only the Scottish Greens, of all people, dared to break ranks. Co-leader Patrick Harvie delivered a measured statement to Holyrood that pointedly reminded those assembled of the republican convictions of his party, and concluded:
This has been a year of terrible loss for the world, including up to 150,000 Covid deaths across the UK - most of them announced without ceremony as daily statistics. The toll has been heaviest on those with least. But, while there is no great leveller in how we live our lives, we are today reminded there is no extreme of wealth, privilege or status that can protect us from mortality.
Harvie’s statement is, on the whole, too soft for our tastes, but his courage is admirable, for in these artificial ‘national moments’, any dissent whatever is more or less equivalent to grave desecration. This is especially difficult for someone like Corbyn, who long ago capitulated on the question of the monarchy in his attempt to secure the keys to No10 on the basis of not alienating the centre and centre-right of his party.
It would be good for him to regain his principles on this matter, but even we would have to admit that the death by natural causes of the Duke of Edinburgh would be a politically difficult moment to do so with any class. Corbyn’s pathetic response is rather a sharp demonstration of the fact that principles, once abandoned, are devilishly difficult to regain. The Scottish Greens, by contrast, have remained faithful to their political character throughout - petty-bourgeois, left-liberal and soft-nationalist on a ‘small is beautiful’ basis - so Harvie can be freer with his tongue. It may even win him some votes, given the strength of anti-Westminster feeling in Scotland today.
The hysteria of the moment is, in the end, a function of its artificiality. We are reminded of Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty in Through the looking glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - that’s all.”
As with words, so with deaths. All of us die, despite the idiotic fantasies of Silicon Valley transhumanists; most of us will die privately, and be mourned on a human scale. Many of us will die, as Harvie reminds us, in ‘mass death events’, where we will be some aliquot part of a bigger story. The death of a royal is a particular thing, halfway between that of a celebrity and of a politician. As with a celebrity, the death is universally notable - those with no obvious personal connection to the deceased expect at least to be informed. As with a politician, responses tend to be polarised around political questions.
But, since the very ‘celebrity’ of the royal is implicated in political structures, the question of mourning the dead cannot be left to personal preference. Many people are sad that DMX died, and I am essentially indifferent, because I don’t care for his recorded output - but I doubt the letters page of the Weekly Worker will be filled with DMX fans outraged at my having given him short shrift. So far as this paper goes, the same is true of Philip, since our readership is presumptively - if often platonically - republican. But partisans of the monarchy find the withholding of tears so irritating because it rebukes their political project. It does not consent to their ‘being master’.
The coercive mourning of the media establishment reflects the prevailing sense that the things so defended are in danger of busting apart. Harvie’s guarded rebuke to the pomp and circumstance of the British monarchy coincided with fighting talk from Nicola Sturgeon, who claimed that a second independence referendum would be irresistible if her party obtained a majority in Scotland; meanwhile, Philip’s death came at the end of weeks of riots in Northern Ireland. The entity over which his wife is queen is in real danger of breaking apart very soon.
As for the family itself, need we recount its torrid progress of late? The disappearance of the prodigal grandson to California in the arms of a wife (whose background no doubt brought out Philip’s very best table-talk); the catastrophic unpopularity of the crown prince; the favourite son’s unnerving proximity to a child prostitution ring … How many things must be glossed over to make the monarchy work?
The Beeb, the Daily Mail and the rest of this shabby consensus have just about won the day. But the real question is ‘which is to be master’ of the future - of the resolution and ultimately the memory of this crisis of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.