Prince Philip media coverage: how much is too much?

BBC received a record number of complaints after clearing its entire schedule to cover royal death

Prince Philip
(Image credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The coverage of the death of Prince Philip has become the “most complained-about moment in British television history”, with the BBC inundated with more than 100,000 complaints after clearing its schedule to cover the news.

What was the reaction to the coverage?

At least 110,994 people contacted the BBC to complain about its decision to remove some of the nation’s best-loved TV shows, including EastEnders and the MasterChef final, from its schedule to broadcast tributes to the Queen’s husband, who died on Friday aged 99, reports The Guardian.

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BBC One and Two dedicated their evening programming to Prince Philip, while BBC Four was taken off the air entirely.

The BBC was not the only broadcaster to adjust its viewing schedule. ITV and Channel 4 both carryied extensive coverage of the death, although Channel 4 did broadcast the “majority” of its peak schedule, which included hit shows such as Gogglebox and The Circle.

Several broadcasters found their viewing figures dropped significantly, with the BBC reporting that BBC Two lost “two-thirds of its audience”, while BBC One’s “dropped six per cent week-on-week”. It also reported that ITV lost 60% of its Friday night audience, in comparison to the previous week.

Such was the level of anger over the BBC’s decision that the broadcaster set up a dedicated form on its website to allow viewers to complain about the coverage – “in recognition of the volume of complaints”, said the organisation – but this was later removed.

Why did people complain?

The BBC’s coverage “appears to have elicited one of the most negative reactions to BBC programmes ever seen”, wrote The Guardian.

In an internal complaints log seen by the newspaper, a member of the public complained: “Coverage of this event took up the entire evening broadcast to the exclusion of all other topics, including the ongoing topic of the pandemic. Some coverage was justified, but not to this extent.”

Another said that while the news of Prince Philip’s death was “sad”, it did not need to be broadcast on “every single one of its channels”.

“Why [not] just put it on one channel for those that want to listen to that drivel and the rest of us can have a bit of music,” the complainant continued.

Did the BBC get it wrong?

The BBC may have received a vast number of complaints, but “past experience suggests the anger of those who missed the MasterChef final” would “pale in comparison to the outrage that would have greeted a BBC response deemed insufficiently reverential”, wrote Jasper Jackson in the i newspaper.

One “insider” speaking to The Sun seems to have felt much the same way: “I feel sorry for the Beeb. They would be criticised and accused of not being respectful enough if they didn’t lay the programmes on. But they seem to have left many people very cross.”

But former BBC newsreader Simon McCoy, who recently left to join GB News, appeared to join those criticising the coverage, writing on Twitter: “BBC1 and BBC2 showing the same thing. And presumably the News Channel too. Why? I know this is a huge event. But surely the public deserves a choice of programming.”

The previous record for complaints was the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera in 2005, which led to 63,000 complaints.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.