This past couple of weeks have brought stark reminders of the huge disparity between the lives – and deaths – of the privileged and the poor in different parts of the world.
It’s said that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wanted a simple royal ceremonial funeral rather than a state funeral, with a minimum of fuss. But, as we know, when he died at the age of 99 on 9th April, the event triggered a period of wall-to-wall broadcast, print and online coverage and the implementation of Operation Forth Bridge. This was a pre-planned programme of activities leading up to and following his funeral, which took place on 17th April at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Despite Philip’s wishes that his funeral be a quiet, family affair, the combined forces of traditional royal pomp and circumstance together with massive media coverage prompted many of the viewing and reading public to query whether a single individual’s death could really merit such an all-consuming tsunami of global attention.
Philip certainly led a privileged though distinguished life, amongst innumerable other roles serving as a Royal Navy officer in the Indian Ocean during World War II, while India was still under British rule. Lord Ivar Mountbatten, the last governor of India, was Philip’s maternal uncle. In this photo, a boy from India watches the funeral of Prince Philip.
And it was India that became the next main focus of attention for the world’s media shortly after the Duke’s funeral, as the Covid-19 pandemic raced like wildfire through the country. Major political rallies had been allowed; mass religious festival were celebrated with little or no concern for social distancing or other protective measures. Religion and politics took priority over people’s lives. All too soon, hospitals were overwhelmed. The situation became so bad in Delhi that workers were forced to use public amenities such as public parks and car parks outside hospitals to build makeshift funeral pyres as a way of disposing of thousands of bodies.
For over a year, the British public had been presented with nightly pandemic updates with charts showing the latest data, always qualified with the aside that “no death is just a statistic; every one represents a beloved family member”.
And maybe it was this tragic background of suffering both in the UK and around the world that threw the Prince Philip media blitz into sharp relief? If all deaths are tragic in a world soaked in grief and anguish, does it feel right that one man’s death should be projected so powerfully into our homes?
Well, it turned out that many thought not. Thousands voiced their annoyance as nearly all British broadcasters switched to wall-to-wall coverage of the man, his life and times and his funeral, with the BBC receiving a record 110,000+ complaints about its scheduling. All BBC TV and radio channels were completely turned over to various slants on the subject, whether news-based or historical, for two or three days.
TV audiences plummeted. People compared the BBC’s approach with the kind of brainwashing output that might be expected in North Korea and Russia. Although some rushed to the defence of the Corporation, most people seemed to feel that most media had got it wrong. On BBC Radio Four‘s Feedback programme, a gentleman called John Bains called to make a related point: “I’m sure the Duke would have been embarrassed by the [ … ] sycophantic gushing that he would have abhorred”.
What are we left with? Maybe the Duke’s life will be to an extent remembered in terms of the over-the-top media focus it was subjected to? Or maybe not. For in reality how will he be remembered as the decades and centuries roll by? Times have changed so much in this age of mass media and digital archiving. History may not be a good guide to how prominent people will be assessed in the future, whether by historians or by curious members of the public.
By coincidence I was reading a piece by the eighteenth century essayist, poet, playwright and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) recently. Unlike me, Addison was quite religious. But I can identify with his attitude to nature, when he says ” … though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy, and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones”. He goes on …
“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs – of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago – I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together”.
A boy from India watching the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on 17 April, 2021: author UkShah2004 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Ukshah2004&action=edit&redlink=1
Joseph Addison: public domain