Oh, Holly. Oh, Phil. And just when the country seemed to be coming together, too.
Their names continue to trend on Twitter. Instagram snark isn’t letting up. The Daily Mail comments section is a thing of vitriol. The furore surrounding This Morning hosts Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield ostensibly skipping the queue at the Queen’s lying-in-state has reached the point of a petition (there’s always a petition) to have the duo sacked.
On the face of it, this is a row about two famous people accused of jumping a queue that people had been in, in some cases, for literally days. A feat both impressive and bizarre (see also: free-climbers up skyscrapers). Queue-jumping is, of course, a contravention of basic social etiquette and rudimentary manners. I call it out when I see it. Brits, in particular, are keen on queueing. The Wimbledon queue is a thing of wonder. We narrowed our eyes in suspicion, and suspected David Cameron’s influence, when Barack Obama said that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for trade deals after Brexit, because Americans would more commonly use the word “line”. The Queen’s queue was perhaps the finest ever queue. It inspired approving memes and an uplifting sense of community – both for those participating, and those following online.
The criticism lobbed at Willoughby and Schofield is therefore about parity. “Us Brits are all about fairness. This wasn’t that,” said one social media user quoted in the Daily Mail. But it’s quite the contradiction to be wedded to the idea of equity when talking about paying respects to … an unelected head of state. In fealty to an institution that has ruled this country for more than 1,000 years, and which owns a significant chunk of it.
I liked the Queen. I thought she was dedicated, and warm. I often nodded in approval at her astute fashion choices. I watch The Crown. I’m kind of obsessed with Denmark’s chain-smoking, dachshund-loving Margrethe II. But there is nothing fair or equitable about monarchy. The cognitive dissonance required to call Willoughby and Schofield out for apparently thinking they were above everyone else, while also being OK with curtseying, and only walking backwards out of rooms is quite something.
Then there is the fundamental question of whether Willoughby and Schofield actually did skip the queue. As broadcasters, they were able to enter as accredited media – images show them being rushed through Westminster Hall and straight to the media platform. ITV has since confirmed that the pair had been asked to feature in a package about the Queen’s death. For those questioning the pair’s journalistic credentials, it’s a reasonable point, note that they have interviewed our last three prime ministers. Shortly after Boris Johnson took office, they grilled him on his derogatory comments about single parents; the state of the NHS; Brexit; and issues of trust in politics. He did not get an easy ride with them.
Willoughby added that unlike those paying their respects who walked along a carpeted area and were given time to pause, the pair were escorted to a platform at the back. “None of the broadcasters and journalists there took anyone’s place in the queue and no one filed past the Queen. We of course respected those rules,” she said.
In truth, it probably would have made for a much more interesting feature for Willoughby and Schofield to have queued with the public, given the multitude of interesting, heartwarming and amusing stories that came out of it. Even David Beckham, the former Black Rod, Sharon Osbourne, Kelly Holmes, and Susanna Reid were all in it. Love potentially blossomed between two queuers. The Queue was a piece of history in itself. A rolling source of great broadcast material that they missed out on. For them, that’s a bad day at work.
Reid, as a presenter of Good Morning Britain, would also have been eligible for a press pass too. I imagine if she had used it she would have been subjected to the same flak as Willoughby and Schofield. She appeared to defend her ITV colleagues when it was brought up on her show (“Some people were there to work; I was with my mum,” she said). Eammon Holmes, a former colleague and now of GB News, has taken the opposite approach, making repeated digs online and onscreen. Even Mel B from the Spice Girls has had a pop at them.
Online reaction that began as genuinely funny memes and the sort of wit combined with light piss-taking that can make social media a delight, has spiralled into relentless abuse.
Much of the criticism is now absurd: Willoughby was shown wearing a face mask because, according to GB News, she is “allergic to the public”. On the one hand, Willoughby and Schofield were accused of lying when they said they did not enter the queue and file past the Queen’s coffin; but they are simultaneously criticised for not looking or pausing on the way to the media platform. They are not journalists because all they do is sit in a studio all day – but it was wrong of them to visit the location of the story.
The voiceover “explanation” given at the start of an episode of their show was awkward and poorly executed, and the statement ITV issued ham-fisted. And, if reports are accurate, getting lawyers involved to defend her against queue jumping allegations is very much not a good look. It probably would have been the best thing, in terms of drawing a line under the affair, for Willoughby and Schofield to have apologised for any upset caused – but those types of apologies come with an air of insincerity. I suspect that it wasn’t entirely necessary for either to be there; it’s not as though they were allowed to film a piece-to-camera inside Westminster Hall, and, as such, perhaps it was a misjudgment. But the fact remains that they had a legitimate option to not queue for an interminable number of hours – just as MPs and other parliamentary staff did – and they took it. They did not break the rules.
I’ve no doubt Queuegate will blow over. But questions surrounding leadership and hierarchy in this country, around attitudes towards the media, and on the toxic environment of social media will certainly endure.
Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist
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