"I Collapsed": Inside the Newsrooms on the Day Prince Philip Died

Chris Stokel-Walker
·14-min read
Photo credit: Emma Shore
Photo credit: Emma Shore

There is a rule you learn on your first day working in the bullpen at New Broadcasting House, the sunken newsroom that is arguably the most famous piece of televisual real estate in Britain: always walk. As the backdrop to the BBC's news bulletins and 24-hour rolling news channel, calmness is essential. Scampering, it is thought, conveys a sense of panic.

At 12pm on Friday, as the camera panned across the bullpen ahead of the BBC's midday news broadcast, viewers saw journalists running anyway. If it looked panicked, that’s because people were panicking. Prince Philip's death had just been announced and now an entire machinery of obituaries, tributes and on-the-scene reporting was lumbering into operation. Hours of airtime yawned ahead, desperate to be filled.

In response to Philip's death, the BBC pulled its scheduled programming and simulcast BBC News on both terrestrial channels. Visitors to the CBBC channel were offered a blank screen and told to switch to the news. ITV went to blanket news, and Radio 1 switched to a sombre, vocal-free playlist. Even 6 Music, not normally a royalist bastion, played the National Anthem.

Across the country, media organisations scrambled to cover the story, which posed a problem unique to deaths: once you've broken the news, nothing new happens. Unlike a terrorist attack, where novel information trickles out over hours, days and weeks, deaths are static, which creates pressure for producers, broadcasters and journalists to find ways to say something new and, ideally, unique about a situation that isn't changing.

So the journalists ran. "We're told specifically not to do that," says one producer, who was working that morning. But running felt apt. The news was expected – Philip had been seriously ill in recent months, including a prolonged stay in hospital earlier in the year – and the immediate reaction in the newsroom, at least, had been prepared for.

"We are drilled to within an inch of our lives for this," says another producer at the BBC. Across different shows, journalists and broadcasters at the BBC rehearse their response to major royal deaths, and the entire organisation has battle plans that it tests frequently. Those rehearsals had increased in recent weeks, as Philip had become more ill.

Which meant that, despite the running, to viewers at home what unfolded on-screen and on newspaper homepages and covers looked smooth. Behind the scenes, however, there was chaos.

The news breaks

For one senior producer, who works for an international broadcaster with a global website that operates out of the UK, Friday began like any other. (Like all of those who spoke to me for this story, he asked for anonymity and some blurring of his employer in order to speak freely.) He was working on a handful of stories: a coronavirus breathalyser that was being trialled in Lyon; a hydrogen-fuelled freighter that offered something lighter than the endless coronavirus coverage. Late that morning he'd spoken to an online retail start-up about a potential profile story, from the broadcaster's de facto Covid-19 news desk – his one bedroom, ex-council flat in Wandsworth.

Around midday, he was called into a general procedural meeting on Zoom – “not interesting, but important” – when he saw the Royal Family’s tweet. He had to unmute himself, interrupt the person chairing the meeting and tell them the news. He quickly logged off, logged onto the broadcaster’s website, and found a pre-existing story that was saved as a draft. He added Buckingham Palace's comment and hit publish – the obituary was live within 10 minutes. Since the Duke of Edinburgh had gone into the hospital the month before, and as his health deteriorated, the story had been reviewed and updated at least once a week. “Preparation really is so key on days like this,” the producer says.

Some royal editors weren’t so lucky: one was reportedly asked by their editor to file enough copy to fill 70 pages for Saturday’s newspaper, in a matter of hours. Others were tasked with eliciting immediate comment from Tobias Menzies and Matt Smith, whose only connection to Philip was playing him on The Crown.

For those outside the newsrooms, there was a sense of relief that they hadn’t drawn the short straw of being on shift at the time. One producer for an international television broadcaster, who was working at home, found out as she was scrolling through Twitter while making her two-year-old daughter lunch. “My initial response was, ‘I hope everyone in the newsroom is OK’,” she says. Two broadcast journalists I spoke to received single word messages from colleagues who were on shift: “fuck”.

Another producer at a commercial radio station wasn’t so lucky. “I was very hungover as my flatmate and I had a rare day off together and got a bit drunk,” she says. “I was feeling very fragile all morning and was grateful for the 2pm start meaning I could nurse myself in bed for a bit longer.” Then she got a WhatsApp message from a colleague asking if she had seen the news. She opened her work email and saw the press release from Buckingham Palace. “I am not exaggerating when I tell you I collapsed."

All these organisations had tributes ready to air. This has been common practice for decades – broadcasters and papers have always had an obituaries department, responsible for creating and updating features and video pieces in the event of a public figure's death (the older or more frail someone becomes, the more frequently their obituary gets updated, just in case). Originally, that meant having something that would be ready to run at the next scheduled news bulletin (only a handful of people get the "We're sorry to interrupt this programme" treatment) or which could be slotted into the next day's paper. Now, though, 24-hour news channels and internet news sites need content immediately – and whoever gets it up first gets the audience.

Confirmation

On a story of this scale, the only thing worse than being slow is being wrong. Tales of premature publishing are repeated in newsrooms like horror stories: Radio France Internationale erroneously announcing the deaths of the Queen, Clint Eastwood and Pelé last year; the Daily Telegraph killing Philip off back in 2017. Pre-prepared 'obits' (news slang for obituaries) make that kind of mistake more common – automation turns an errant mouse click into a viral tweet in seconds.

Verifying stories has always been the first job of any news organisation – slow and right, the old adage goes, beats fast and wrong – but the pressure from less rigorous, often digital upstarts has altered that equation in many newsrooms.

“[Prince Philip] wasn’t in hospital anymore, so I didn’t think it was coming,” says a broadcast assistant at a national news radio station. She'd started work at breakfast time and first heard about the news of Philip’s death from her news editor, about 10 minutes before it broke. “He basically just said: ‘Prince Philip. We’re getting something from PA [the Press Association, a national news wire] soon'.” The newsreader, who was preparing their bulletin to read at midday, then asked whether the news editor meant “something” was an obituary. “He said: ‘Yes’, and then everyone was shocked. That was about 10 to 12ish.”

The newsroom kept refreshing the Press Association news feed to see whether news would break before the bulletin began. Instead, they found out from the Royal Family’s Twitter feed. At first, they were confused: much of their training told them to not run stories of such significance without official confirmation from a news wire – and especially not a Twitter feed, which can be easily hacked. “We expected the PA to release a statement and say it was embargoed or something,” she says.

They decided the Twitter confirmation was enough. They rapidly went on air with the news, bringing back presenters who had finished their shifts and were on their way home, to act as “presenter’s friend” – someone who can fill in time with context while the on-air presenter, steering the programme, figures out where to go next with the story. Other staff were dispatched to Buckingham Palace to conduct vox pops – or people-on-the-street interviews. “Down here is pretty calm,” one journalist on the ground told me at the time. “Have to say there are a lot of people who seem to be here for clout – posing and pouting in front of the gates and asking to be interviewed.”

Shortly after midday, the BBC announced the news. Off-camera, on-shift presenter Martine Croxall removed an ostentatious necklace and drew a black jacket over her dress in order to appear suitably sombre, as she spoke over images of the late prince. That outfit change is an official policy, part of 'Operation Forth Bridge', as the plan for Prince Philip's death was known. It was partly a response to the BBC's coverage of the death of the Queen Mother – Peter Sissons was lambasted for wearing a burgundy tie, rather than black, when he read out the news of her passing in 2002 (he later revealed that he had a black tie ready to go but was told that BBC policy meant it could only be worn to announce the death of the monarch).

By then, The Times had published 18 stories to its website. “For any of these ageing international celebrities who are of interest to the Times audience – the Queen being the most obvious one, but the Duke of Edinburgh and Trump – it’s likely if they are of that level of importance not only will there be an obituary pre-written for them, but also entire supplements or groups of stories created,” says one national newspaper worker. “This will have been an especially easy death, because he was in hospital last month.”

At the international broadcaster’s website, knowing how sensitive any missteps could be, they hastily appointed a royal correspondent for the day to handle coverage, and gathered a trove of Google Docs through which all information was seen, checked, corroborated and sub-edited before publication.

Other media outlets took a different tack: search engine optimisation teams, attached to the editorial arms of outlets and designed to try and bring as many eyeballs to websites as possible, began workshopping ways to draw clicks. Within 15 minutes of the announcement of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, The Daily Express website had published a story designed to capture the curious Googler: “Prince Philip dead: Queen's husband has died - what was his net worth?"

Air time

For broadcast journalists needing to fill endless hours of rolling news coverage, things were chaotic. By 2pm, the producer at the commercial radio station had arrived in their London office for her shift. The mood was sombre, but well-staffed. “People have been called in who are usually supposed to have their day off,” she told me at the time. “Our breakfast newsreader has stayed much later than he usually would, and all the managers are in." That was tricky, given the ongoing pandemic means social distancing rules have rendered half of the desks in the office unusable. “It’s a bit of a scrabble,” she said.

Working on an evening programme, the producer was preparing her show but struggling to know exactly what to do. “It’s hard to plan that far ahead because everything is so fluid at the minute,” she said. Her job was to find as many people to come on and talk about the prince and his life as possible.

Some BBC radio journalists were left in a quandary. “It’s odd at times like this. I’m working for a national station in a devolved nation so we handed coverage over to London,” said one. “To be brutally honest, I felt totally confused as to when and if we were going to go on air. I started preparing for a programme at our normal time. Having worked in London for national and international programmes, I knew exactly what to do had I been there. Though I have asked several times since moving here, I had no idea what the process was and it quickly became clear that there was no plan in place for what to do after transmission was handed back to us.”

The devolved national radio journalist also felt the pressure. “Not wishing to use this as a platform to bash my employer, but I felt totally abandoned to be honest,” he said. “We’ve also all been working through our unpaid breaks and will have to work late. It would have been nice if the editors had thought to provide some food or something.” A local BBC radio producer summed up the challenge of covering the nation’s biggest story for a regional audience. “Currently it's just: ring anyone with connections to him and get an interview,” she told me.

At the national news radio station, things weren’t much quieter. “Everyone was trying to stay calm, but you could tell everyone was on edge,” she said, admitting she was shaking throughout the whole afternoon – not helpful when you’re required to take clips from interviews being broadcast to use later in the day. The same was true at the BBC. “We sound calm and collected on air,” said the staff member. What was it like off-air? “Shouting. Panicking.” That’s despite the training and practice runs. “A lot of these organisations are chaotic,” said one national newspaper employee. “That’s the nature of them. But no-one really wants that known to be the case.”

Not everyone had such a chaotic day. Staff at one national newspaper were surprised at how quiet things had been. Working at a title with little interest in the royals, an employee was told that the next day's newspaper wouldn’t be much different to a normal edition.

Despite working through the madness, many journalists I spoke to knew what they’d be doing when they got home after work: tuning in to watch the coverage, just like the rest of us. “I’m going to rewatch and listen to everything I missed from earlier, and see how everyone else reacted,” said the broadcast assistant at the national news radio station. Before we spoke, she already was, listening to the handover between BBC Radio 4 and the national broadcast they put out across the BBC’s various radio stations. “I wanted to see how they handled it.”

The audience, however, turned out to be less keen. In response to the BBC’s decision to cancel scheduled programming and air a 24-hour tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, the organisation received so many complaints it had to set up a dedicated contact line, and then shut it down when the responses became overwhelming. On the Guardian’s website, which had devoted a leading section and multiple stories to the news, Prince Philip’s passing wasn’t even the most most-read about celebrity death: on Friday evening, the obituary of the rapper DMX, who died of a heart attack that afternoon, led the most-popular stories section.

“It was weird,” reflects the hungover radio producer. “On Saturday we were obliged to roll on it, but by the afternoon it felt very tired.” She ended up working through the whole weekend. “Saturday was the hardest day - it felt like we were forcing it.” By Sunday, her show didn’t cover the news at all. Yet the broadcast assistant disagrees. “The public need to understand that the obit [obituary] procedures have been in place for years and it's a sign of respect,” she says. “In my opinion it wasn't overkill, it was exactly what was planned for. People love to complain about everything when the BBC is involved, and nobody was forcing anyone to watch the coverage if they didn't want to... there are hundreds of other TV channels that won't have disrupted their usual programming.”

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