BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we speak, British journalists are twiddling their thumbs in bored anticipation of an event that is as inevitable as rain on an English summer's day. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're waiting for the Queen Mum to die. The death watch began when the 101 year old royal suffered a fainting spell and retreated to a remote castle in Scotland.
BOB GARFIELD:There hasn't been a big royal funeral in England since 1952 when the present Queen's father died amid all the pomp and glory the British Empire could then afford. The BBC covered that one, of course, and will cover the next. Tim Luckhurst is an ex-BBC producer and has written an article in the Guardian newspaper called Please God, Not on My Shift.
Tim, if God forbid, Tony Blair were to drop dead jogging tomorrow, what would happen?
TIM LUCKHURST:If Blair keels over while jogging right now the coverage will just be the way that the BBC or any other broadcast would normally cover a big event, i.e., with objectivity and a degree of interest for the public. But don't expect anything like that if the Queen Mother dies which she is, let's face it, rather more likely.
BOB GARFIELD:All right, if the Queen Mother should pass away right now, I presume the BBC jumps right on the story and goes on the air with the bulletin and then let's nature take its course, right?
TIM LUCKHURST: Absolutely no way. Because you see the BBC's coverage of a royal death is governed by a set of regulations called The Royal Death Guidelines which are drummed into every BBC executive almost from the moment they join the corporation, and one of the key commitment in those guidelines is that the BBC will honor any embargo that the palace wishes to place upon announcement of royal death. What that means quite simply is that if the Queen Mother dies, and Buckingham Palace has decided not to announce the fact that she's dead, then the BBC won't announce the fact that she's dead either. It's that simple.
BOB GARFIELD:It's 2001. Why in the world would the modern BBC stick to this fairly ancient embargo that seems to be antithetical to all the principles of modern journalism?
TIM LUCKHURST: It's an exceptionally fair question, and many people in the BBC wonder as well. The simple answer is that the BBC quite simply is terrified of upsetting Buckingham Palace, and it will therefore drop all journalistic objectivity the moment the Queen Mother dies, or at least 3 hours afterwards if that's when Buckingham Palace decides it's fit to announce the information.
BOB GARFIELD: What about the BBC's viewers and listeners? ITV isn't subject to the embargo. Sky News isn't subject to the embargo. CNN--
TIM LUCKHURST:Right. These guidelines say, and I'm reading now absolutely verbatim from the text, the BBC will honor any such embargo regardless of what other broadcasters may do. Now the BBC knows full what other broadcasters will do. They'll treat it as a news story, and they'll break the news as quickly as possible and seek to assess it, and I suspect that the majority are going to be outraged by the way the BBC behaves.
BOB GARFIELD:Every major news organization has an obituary file of prepared stories ready should some prominent figure of some age or frailty expire. Obviously the BBC is prepared for the Queen Mother to die, but how prepared?
TIM LUCKHURST: Well this isn't just the standard obituary on file which as you say every broadcaster would have for most significant figures in national life. This is a complete set of reports already compiled, carefully vetted and approved for national hearing. Most of these things have already been recorded. Most of them are in a cupboard at a television center, and everybody who has responsibility for BBC output knows where that cupboard is and knows the precise order to follow, and they will follow it; they will follow it to the letter.
BOB GARFIELD: This reminds me of when you know some sort of Soviet-- when Brezhnev died.
TIM LUCKHURST:Yes, well remember that George Orwell it was who compared the BBC to the Soviet state. 1984 was in fact based on the rituals and internal bureaucracy of Broadcasting House. That is undisputed and a product of his experience of working as a producer for the BBC. But it has to be said -- nothing else in the BBC's news coverage would be treated in that way.
BOB GARFIELD:Is there any aspect of this which is a straw man - where the BBC is going to rigorously follow this policy's -- knowing in advance that people are going to at a minimum roll their eyes and maybe be outraged by this kind of anachronistic way of handling a royal death. Are, are they doing this in order to foment criticism so they can get back to normal journalism?
TIM LUCKHURST: [LAUGHS] Well the answer is simple. There are a lot of people inside the BBC who think this is exceptionally silly. I mean ludicrous in the words of one of my former colleagues who I spoke to when writing this piece. But there's a section of the population which would be black affronted if we didn't treat this like the end of civilization! So although lots of them resent it, they're going to treat it like the end of civilization, and then as the same executive said to me, when we've made ourselves look majestically absurd, the whole strategy will be reviewed and subject to the dictates of common sense! In other words they'll never do it again.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Tim Luckhurst, my, my condolences in advance. I hope well in advance, and thanks for joining us!
TIM LUCKHURST: Pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:Tim Luckhurst is a columnist and former newspaper editor whose column in the Guardian newspaper was titled Please God, Not on My Shift.