The BBC's apology to the Queen over Frank Gardner shows us where privacy and monarchy collide

Just like Kate Middleton's breasts, Her Majesty's opinions are private business. But if she's mouthing off about policy, don't the public have a right to know about it?
  • @archiebland

Well, that didn’t take long. At breakfast, the BBC was setting the news agenda with a fairly eye-popping story about the Queen’s vigorous views on the deportation of Abu Hamza; by lunchtime, it was apologising for abusing her confidence in so craven a fashion that it’s a wonder director general George Entwistle didn’t offer to decapitate himself for high treason.

The apology was warranted, we are told, because Frank Gardner, the journalist who broke the story, was passing on the content of a private conversation with her majesty. And it’s true that journalists owe their sources protection: if they agree to speak to someone off the record, that conversation has to stay off the record no matter what. Also, so far as we know, the Queen is not an avowed meddler in public policy like her son, the future king. Still, before calling Lord Leveson about Mr Gardner, a journalist of impeccable credentials, I’d like to know a bit more about the circumstances here. 

Green as I am, I learned something new here, something which I suspect would be news to a lot of people, journalists or otherwise: if a reporter has a friendly chat with the Queen, it’s a matter of established convention that her remarks remain private. Her majesty, we assume, was operating on that basis when she spoke to Gardner. But Gardner is a security correspondent, not one of those unfortunate souls who have to spend all their time at Buckingham Palace, absorbing such rules. If he was told of this convention and had it in mind when the monarch was spilling the beans about Captain Hook – if, better still, the Queen herself said, “Now, Frankie, this is strictly between you and me,” or similar – then the grovelling is just about warranted.

But I think that’s unlikely; at any rate, we haven’t been told. If it’s just a matter of ‘convention’, and Mr Gardner was expected to know that the rules are just different for the royals, the climbdown is an absurdity. And, we have to ask: if the BBC had revealed another source, under any circumstances at all, would the apology have been so rapid? Or is it, again, different for the royals?

Vulgar though it is to say, there’s a useful parallel in the matter of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts. They, like the queen’s opinions, are her own business, and the Duchess has retained the moral high ground in her battle with the more unsavoury parts of the media by the simple expedient of taking reasonable steps to keep them to herself. If the Queen had done the same with her views on our deportation policy, I would absolutely accord her the same degree of deference. But, dear though she is, if she’s mouthing off to cabinet ministers, and journalists, about matters of policy, I should like to know about it. An unelected figurehead is one thing. An unelected closet demagogue is another.

If the BBC is handing out apologies, I hope someone has given a private one to Mr Gardner, who’s been made to look silly for doing nothing more than his job. If it does, I don’t suppose we shall ever hear about it. It will, of course, be off the record.