The Chaos Inside British Newsrooms on the Day the Queen Died

Culture
Secret codes and black ties: Here’s how journalists handled the first death of a British monarch in 70 years.

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Sky News journalist Dermot MurnaghanDANIEL LEAL/Getty Images

The journey towards the first monarchical transition in 70 years came with the passing of a note. At 12:21pm on Thursday, as Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer battled at the dispatch box over Truss’s announcement on energy bills, attention focused more on what was happening behind them.

A folded-up piece of paper was passed along both front benches, and the country knew something was up by the looks on the faces of those who read the note. “It was fucking weird because as soon as the note went round everyone kind of knew and was going: ‘She’s dead,’ right,” says one Whitehall correspondent for a national newspaper. (Like all those quoted in this story, they were given anonymity in order to speak freely.) “Then it’s been waiting and knowing without knowing, writing other stuff under the pretense it’s not all going to be scrapped.”

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The correspondent was told by editors to write on the major political stories of the day – an unfunded promise to limit energy bills, the settling in of a new prime minister and the creation of her government – that they knew would never be read.

Thirteen minutes after the note came the tweet. “Following further evaluation this morning, the Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision,” wrote Buckingham Palace. “The Queen remains comfortable and at Balmoral.”

“When the statement dropped about her health it was obvious, and suddenly no MPs would talk,” the Whitehall correspondent says. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs stopped responding to messages.

Across what was once known as Fleet Street, time stopped.

Unlike the April 2021 death of the Duke of Edinburgh, which was announced out of the blue, says one BBC journalist, the announcement that the Queen was “comfortable” but doctors were “concerned” was a coded message: get ready. “She obviously didn’t look well on Tuesday with Truss,” says the BBC journalist. “No idea it was imminent though. They gave us a six-hour run up with the ‘comfortable’ announcement, which is preferable to just dropping on wires like they did with the Duke of Edinburgh.” It gave on-air correspondents time to switch into black ties, a formal rule that broadcasters follow after a controversy when one of their predecessors announced the death of the Queen Mother in 2002 wearing a maroon tie and was castigated for it. (Huw Edwards, the BBC anchor who would end up breaking the news to the nation, switched into a black tie just before 2pm.)

At another national newspaper, staff kept being pulled out of a midday meeting to work on stories around the sudden turn in the Queen’s health. Eventually, the meeting was disbanded, according to one staffer. “I checked in with other editors who took the right decision to cancel on me because they needed to tear up pages and rewrite pieces from years back with new info,” says the second newspaper journalist. A first version of a front page announcing the Queen’s death was drawn up by mid-afternoon – based on a hunch that events would move quickly. Push notifications were disabled for fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment (a consideration The Times forgot about for their banner advertising a flash sale).

At The Times, things were more chaotic. Old stories, pre-written in preparation for the day, were being dusted off in anticipation of the worst. One journalist with knowledge of the newsroom says the tech team was assembled into making sure the website didn’t fall over at a key moment; the paper prepared an obituary that was published with the wrong date of the Queen’s death, marking it as 9 September, not the 8th.

For The Guardian, one story, first published in 2017, became a huge driver of traffic. ‘London Bridge is down‘ details the meticulous preparations for the Queen’s death, and how the country’s institutions would react. At its peak on Thursday, the story was being viewed 8,000 times a minute, according to internal Guardian data. Search terms that drove traffic to the page included “london bridge is down”, “london bridge has fallen”, and “what happens when the queen dies”.  At a major commercial radio station, one producer described events as “chaos”. “We had to do our show as usual just waiting for the official announcement,” they told me in the late afternoon, “which still hasn’t come.” The producers were caught in limbo, covering issues with the Queen’s health while also paying lip service to the massive energy announcement unveiled just hours earlier. They were “just waiting for the official palace announcement which then means we can drop everything and go all guns blazing.”

At 1.15pm, radio stations were half-heartedly planning non-royal news for later that night. I was contacted by a broadcast producer asking to talk on the radio around 5.30pm about this week’s new iPhone announcements. I joked that I’d very lightly pencil it in – and wouldn’t be offended when they inevitably cancelled. They laughed before hanging up, recognizing what was coming.

That the announcement would come felt inevitable. “We saw Truss and Starmer get handed notes,” says the commercial radio producer. “When I saw that, my heart sank. I knew straight away. We all did.”

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It’s a sentiment many journalists have. Potentially the biggest news story of their lives, it’s also the one that no one wants to be carrying the can for. “I feel like I’ve had a couple of close calls when I’ve been off-shift amid rumor and fears she’d die in the recent past,” says one producer at an international TV station. “It broke with pinging, angry shouting and the urgent need to get royal voices onto the air to fill the on-screen void the story created.” For hours, royal biographers, historians and experts were in demand. “They’re tough booking,” admits the TV producer. “Their phones were ringing off the hook; the higher profile ones are locked out and retained in deals done years ago. My channel had a plan and so far so good.”

Yet for all the hard work, theirs is not the channel most people turn to for major events. “I feel violently sick,” one broadcast journalist working for the BBC told me, mid-afternoon, after it was known Elizabeth was gravely ill, but before her death was announced. The BBC’s bullpen newsroom, which takes up an entire floor at Broadcasting House and acts as the live-action backdrop for news shows, was becoming crowded.

It wasn’t just journalists booked for shifts that day. Flagship presenters from BBC Radio 4’s Today show were called in to cover the news that was expected. Bosses who are rarely seen in the office suddenly felt the need to be there and steer the coverage.

Some staff were lucky to stay away, having dodged the bullet of being on shift on the day the Queen died. “It’s very weird watching something play out that we’ve all been preparing and rehearsing for pretty much our entire careers,” says a third BBC journalist. “I know the protocol and sequence of events almost instinctively from obit rehearsals and briefings that have happened with increased regularity over the years.” (There’s usually one every three to six months; the journalist says the most recent run-through was relatively recently. Scripts are pre-written and carefully defined, and set up on autocues to read in the event of a royal death.) “But actually watching it, it’s sort of an out of body experience. God knows how Huw [Edwards] must feel in the middle of all this.”

It was through another tweet from Buckingham Palace, and a special broadcast that blocked out many BBC TV channels, that most people learned of the Queen’s death at 6.30pm. BBC2 interrupted athletics coverage; Channel 4 butted into a standoff on Hollyoaks. Like all of us, Buckingham Palace’s tweet is how many journalists found out about the epoch-changing news. The commercial radio producer saw the Palace’s tweet and shared it with around half a dozen colleagues sitting in the studio, who had been broadcasting conjecture about the news for nearly six hours by then.

And still, they waited. It’s not the sort of thing you can afford to get wrong – though plenty did, with a flurry of tweets around 3.07pm from the likes of the BBC’s Yalda Hakim, Sky News’s Inzamam Rashid and Guido Fawkes, all announcing the Queen’s death prematurely.

They checked with the editor of the show that they were OK to announce the news. They flicked a switch, turning the lighting black and went into “obit mode”. A pre-recorded obituary was played after the announcement was made. “Now we’re just rolling,” they say.

This story originally ran on British GQ with the title ‘Secret codes, chaos and black ties: inside British newsrooms on the day the Queen died’

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