Though recent events may suggest otherwise, the British royal family aren’t fans of baring all. A constitutional monarch, the Queen refrains from publicly voicing her opinion on decisions taken by the governments formed in her name or on political issues of national and international significance.
Royal protocol dictates that conversations conducted in a private setting between the Queen and journalists are treated as being strictly off the record. Decades, centuries even, of adhering to this convention meant that BBC correspondent Frank Gardner’s decision to report details of a private conversation he’d had with the Queen took the nation by surprise.
Discussing the extradition of Abu Hamza on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, the respected security journalist revealed: “the Queen was pretty upset […] that there was no way to arrest him [Hamza]. She couldn’t understand why, there must surely have been some law that he had broken. Well in the end sure enough there was.” Pressed by a clearly stunned James Naughtie, Gardner went on to disclose that the Queen has raised the matter with the Home Secretary at the time.
Within hours an apology from the Corporation had been dispatched to the palace and a BBC spokesperson issued the following statement: “This morning on the Today programme our correspondent Frank Gardner revealed details of a private conversation which took place some years ago with The Queen. The conversation should have remained private and the BBC and Frank deeply regret this breach of confidence. It was wholly inappropriate. Frank is extremely sorry for the embarrassment caused and has apologised to the Palace.”
However, it could never be expected that a line would then be neatly drawn under the matter. The swiftly delivered public apology quickly became a subject of public debate and has divided the British media along fairly predictable lines. While The Telegraph published an opinion piece in which Hugh Vickers argued that “the Queen’s wisdom is best kept private,” The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade questioned the BBC’s decision to issue an apology. “Sure, he broke convention by repeating in public what the monarch said in private,” he writes. “So what?”
So what indeed? Members of the royal family are expected to refrain from actively interfering in politics, though the Queen has always held (private) weekly meetings with the Prime Minister. For some, her raising the matter with the Home Secretary constitutes ‘lobbying’ and anti-monarchist group Republic, has stated " The decision to disclose this one conversation while keeping all else secret smacks of a deliberate PR stunt to put the Queen on the right side of public opinion."
If the monarch was proven to be using her position to influence political decisions, then a case could be made that Gardner’s revelations were in the public interest. Accusations of lobbying seem a little far-fetched, especially because they are not supported by Gardner’s original comments, but that is not to say that they necessitate a full apology from the BBC.
Examining Gardner’s comments in their original context goes a long way to explaining why he felt the need to make them. In the moments leading up to the revelations, the journalist was making the point that MI5 had been slow to recognise the danger posed by Hamza. Others, including the Queen, had been frustrated by the cleric’s continued and disruptive presence in the UK. The quotation from the Queen then, was intended to highlight the tensions surrounding the issue – not necessarily to provide a gossipy insight into the monarch’s inner-thoughts.
The BBC however has a chequered history with the Palace, and was no doubt hoping to limit the damage caused by this latest upset.
Retaining a sense of perspective is always advisable, particularly when one is faced with the potent mix of private conversations, a ruling monarch, a hook-handed terrorism suspect, a decorated journalist and Britain’s biggest media corporation. All concerned parties might benefit from a reminder that the breach of privacy could have been far worse. Just ask Kate and Harry.