When the Queen gave me a story, I didn't blab

If you go around printing people's informal remarks, pretty soon you'll find your social circle confined to the newsroom

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The Independent Online

I find one aspect of Frank Gardner’s account of his conversation with the Queen regarding the alleged terrorist Abu Hamza surprising. On the Today programme, Mr Gardner said that she (the Queen) told him that “she spoke to the Home Secretary at the time and said, ‘Surely this man must have broken some laws. Why is he still at large?’”

But the Queen would have had no need to speak to the Home Secretary. For, as is well known, the Queen has a weekly meeting with the Prime Minister. It is at these encounters that Her Majesty can exercise her three rights: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. Enquiring why Abu Hamza was still free could have been raised under the first of these. But speaking to the Home Secretary would have been slightly improper because it would have indicated that the Queen didn’t entirely trust the Prime Minister so far as this issue was concerned.

Indeed, for Her Majesty to have acted in this way would have been out of character with everything we know about her. She performs her public duties strictly according to the book. Essentially, she does things as they have always been done, which in many ways is a great blessing when so much else is in perpetual flux.

That the Queen has a mind of her own, and speaks to people she meets with a degree of freedom, even about current political debates, is well known. As editor of this newspaper, I was once asked to lunch at Buckingham Palace and found myself sitting next to my host for part of the meal (the courtiers move you round quite a bit). I immediately forgot the rule that states that you should not open a conversation with the Queen but wait for her to begin. I impetuously mentioned a political issue that was being much discussed at the time. However, instead of finding myself removed because of this faux pas, she took up my theme and commented interestingly on it. 

I immediately forgot the rule that states that you should not open a conversation with the Queen but wait for her to begin

Why didn’t I publish this conversation as a royal scoop in the next day’s paper? It would have created a sensation quite the equal of what Mr Gardner’s revelations have generated. My reason was a journalistic convention that one doesn’t publish informal remarks made at a social gathering. Otherwise, people would flee your coming, you would end up with no friends or invitations at all and would be compelled to confine your social activities to the newsroom.

That is why accounts of conversations with the monarch tend to be published, if at all, long after the event. So we know that in 1908 the then Prince of Wales, who would become George V, told Winston Churchill one evening after dinner that the Prime Minister, HH Asquith, was “not quite a gentleman”. Actually, at the time that was worse than calling somebody a “pleb”. And on another occasion, the Prince told the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury: “I can’t think, Sir George, how you can go on serving that damned fellow Lloyd George.”

In fact, Mr Gardner’s story also referred to an encounter with the Queen that took place some time ago. Unfortunately, it was made fresh, and as if contemporaneous, by the news this week that the extradition of Abu Hamza to the United States could go ahead.

Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, states the relevant rule in his book The Monarchy and the Constitution: “The crucial requirement of constitutional monarchy, that the sovereign must be politically impartial, is achieved through the principle that almost all the public acts of the sovereign are taken on the advice of ministers.” In this light, what is very damaging to the monarchy about Mr Gardner’s revelations is that they appear to show that the Queen wasn’t so much acting on the advice of ministers but had turned the convention in the opposite sense so that she was now engaged in giving advice to ministers, to wit, the Home Secretary. 

So the BBC found itself in one of those dreadful either/or situations. Either the story was correct, in which case it truly was a “corker”, as the presenter James Naughtie, remarked, and should have been played hard. That is what the Corporation proceeded to do. Or it was incorrect, and a correction and apology was due. But note that what the BBC eventually did was only to apologise and not to correct. “The conversation should have remained private and the BBC and Frank deeply regret this breach of confidence.” You see there a compromise that protects the reporter’s reputation but yet contrives to withdraw the story.   

Mr Gardner has a deservedly high reputation as a meticulous, accurate and brave reporter. None the less, as I have indicated above, I don’t believe that the Queen’s exchange with the Home Secretary took place exactly as described. A fuller knowledge of the context would, I think, show that the Queen did not behave out of character. Perhaps she had spoken to the Prime Minister beforehand, perhaps she had been more tactful than she later recalled. Who knows? But I can’t believe the Queen strayed off the narrow path that she has always followed.