The BBC’s Crowning Moment

The Queen’s death underscored the central—and, at times, conflicting—role the broadcaster plays in royal coverage.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Members of the BBC staff watch Queen Elizabeth II.
Members of the BBC staff watch Queen Elizabeth II.
Members of the BBC staff watch from a window before Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II leaves after officially opening BBC Broadcasting House in central London on June 7, 2013. Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

For many Britons, the moment that leading BBC news anchor Huw Edwards donned a black suit and tie on Sept. 8 was the first inkling of the gravity of the news that was about to come: the death of Queen Elizabeth II. However, Edwards didn’t have to reach far for his attire; all BBC anchors are expected to have a black suit on standby in the event that a senior royal figure passes away. 

The death of the country’s longest-serving monarch is a moment that the British public broadcaster has painstakingly prepared for. In an increasingly polarized and fragmented media landscape, the surge in BBC viewership around the queen’s death highlighted the leading role that the broadcaster continues to play in moments of major national importance in British public life. But that comes at a time when the BBC faces increasing threats of funding cuts from Britain’s Conservative government. 

It also underscored the symbiotic relationship between the broadcaster and the monarchy, two institutions central to British identity but having a relationship that has, at times, been accused of being overly cozy. The BBC beamed an image of the queen’s face onto the building of its London headquarters on the eve of her funeral. 

For many Britons, the moment that leading BBC news anchor Huw Edwards donned a black suit and tie on Sept. 8 was the first inkling of the gravity of the news that was about to come: the death of Queen Elizabeth II. However, Edwards didn’t have to reach far for his attire; all BBC anchors are expected to have a black suit on standby in the event that a senior royal figure passes away. 

The death of the country’s longest-serving monarch is a moment that the British public broadcaster has painstakingly prepared for. In an increasingly polarized and fragmented media landscape, the surge in BBC viewership around the queen’s death highlighted the leading role that the broadcaster continues to play in moments of major national importance in British public life. But that comes at a time when the BBC faces increasing threats of funding cuts from Britain’s Conservative government. 

It also underscored the symbiotic relationship between the broadcaster and the monarchy, two institutions central to British identity but having a relationship that has, at times, been accused of being overly cozy. The BBC beamed an image of the queen’s face onto the building of its London headquarters on the eve of her funeral. 

On the evening of the queen’s death, shortly after Buckingham Palace announced that she had died that afternoon, almost 12 million people tuned into the BBC’s television channels, according to data provided by the broadcaster. 

“At moments like this, I think everyone does just suddenly turn to Auntie,” said Gill Penlington, former editor of the BBC’s political debate show Question Time, referring to the BBC by its affectionate British nickname. “That sort of notion of safety, security, authority, speaking with the British people on behalf of the British people, I think is a really important one.”

The two institutions—the queen and the Beeb—were born just years apart. Founded in 1922, the BBC’s earliest radio shows offered a rare but tightly controlled window into the monarch’s life for the British public. “In the interwar period, [the BBC] was very much a creature of the British establishment and a creature of the British state,” said Tom Mills, a sociology professor and author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service

The crown and the broadcaster entered the television age together; Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was the first to be televised nationally as Brits rushed to get their hands on TV sets. The director-general of the BBC at the time would later credit its coverage of the coronation as the event that helped catapult television into British homes, helping to cement the relationship between the broadcaster and the monarchy. Five years later, the BBC began to air a televised version of the queen’s Christmas Day address to the nation. “The BBC gets its legitimacy from its proximity to the monarchy. And the monarchy needs the media. It gets a lot of legitimacy from being featured so often on the channel in the U.K.,” said Laura Clancy, a sociology lecturer at Lancaster University who has studied the relationship between the royal family and the media. 

Both the BBC and the royal family rank highly among the lists of institutions that Brits say they are most proud of, and both play unique roles in public life. “They take the temperature of the nation in a different way than crude voting,” said Jean Seaton, a professor of media history at the University of Westminster and the official historian of the BBC. “Both the BBC and the monarchy have a duty to everybody. Not the people who have voted for one party or another.”

Although all of Britain’s major broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4—strive for impartiality and enjoy similar levels of public trust, the BBC’s size and reach give it an outsized impact on public opinion. A study released by the broadcaster this year found that the average British adult consumes 18 hours of BBC content each week while it continues to be the most popular news source across the British political spectrum. 

“I’ve never worked for any organization in newspapers or television which has so agonized over getting things right and getting things straight and impartial as the BBC,” said Robin Oakley, the BBC’s former political editor, who noted that the broadcaster has likely served as a “moderating influence” in the age of social media.

The BBC is obligated under its charter to represent and serve Britain’s diverse audiences, a continually moving target that the broadcaster has strived but often failed to meet. Although the BBC has a variety of TV and radio stations catering to the country’s different regions, including programming in Gaelic and Welsh, it has still faced criticism from Britain’s media watchdog Ofcom of being too London-centric. In a country still deeply riven by class divides, BBC staff are twice as likely to have attended private schools, according to an analysis from 2019, whereas the broadcaster has admitted that it struggles to retain staff from racially diverse backgrounds.

The BBC’s quirky funding structure also comes with obligations to cater to the breadth of British audiences, with the majority of its income coming from a roughly $180 license fee paid by every British household that either owns a television or streams BBC services online. The long-standing arrangement accounts for three-quarters of the BBC’s budget, but it has come under fire from successive Conservative Party governments. Criminal penalties for nonpayment remain controversial and unpopular, but a two-year price freeze imposed by the Johnson government this year is expected to create a budget shortfall of almost $400 million.

When it comes to covering the royal family, the BBC has often been accused of pulling its punches. “The BBC is trying to be the state broadcaster and the home to extraordinary journalism, and those two things sometimes clash in the middle,” said Emily Maitlis, a longtime BBC news anchor who recently left, in the BBC documentary series Days That Shook the BBC With David Dimbleby.

While support for retaining the monarchy remains high overall, a fifth of Britons believe it is time to do away with the institution, according to recent opinion polls, but it remains rare to hear from a Republican commentator on the BBC. “The BBC tends to regard the monarch as above politics, and a lot of the discussion on the BBC proceeds on that basis,” Mills said. 

The relationship between the broadcaster and the royal family has come under strain in recent decades, dating back to the explosive interview between Princess Diana and former BBC journalist Martin Bashir in 1995. In one of the most explosive moments in British television history, Diana spoke candidly about her troubled marriage to the then-Prince Charles (now King Charles III), infidelity, and her struggles with an eating disorder. 

But even that moment left a poisoned wake. In 2021, it emerged that Bashir had used forged documents to win the confidence of Diana to secure the interview. It caused a lasting fracture in the relationship between Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, who issued unusually searing statements about the underhanded way in which the interview was obtained. “It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia, and isolation that I remember from those final years with her,” William said. Tensions between the BBC and the princes further escalated late last year as they reportedly threatened to boycott the broadcaster over its documentary series The Princes and the Press, which scrutinized the two brothers’ relationship with the media. 

Following the death of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, last year, the BBC received a record of around 110,000 complaints as TV and radio schedules were saturated with tributes. Initial data released four days after the queen’s death indicated that the broadcaster had received only 670 complaints over its similarly saturated coverage, according to the Guardian, though a final tally is yet to be released.

“It’s a dilemma because Britain is a complicated country of 65 million people; not everybody feels the same about it,” said Mark Damazer, former controller of BBC Radio 4. “The BBC is much more likely to want to be criticized for doing too much than be criticized for doing too little. And that invites the question: When you do that, are you causing a national mood, or are you reflecting a national mood?”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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