Breach of confidence: Don’t quote the queen


LONDON — Britons got a rare glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II’s personal views Tuesday when a prominent BBC reporter told a live radio audience about a conversation he had with the queen in which she apparently described telling a minister of her concern about the continued liberty of radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.

The BBC and the reporter, Frank Gardner, apologized within hours for breaching the queen’s confidence. Still, the remarks raised questions about the queen’s role in British public life.

WHY DID GARDNER’S COMMENTS CAUSE SUCH A STIR IN BRITAIN?

The queen never gives interviews or holds press conferences and as a constitutional monarch is prohibited from getting involved in politics. She usually keeps her views within a trusted circle, making the revelation that she had spoken to a government minister about the likelihood that al-Masri had broken the law quite unusual. For some, it raised the idea that she had perhaps gone too far, taking an active stance in a key issue involving national security.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF BEING QUEEN IF YOU CAN’T SPEAK OUT?

As a constitutional monarch, the queen does not make policy. According to the British monarchy’s official website, the queen does not ‘rule’ the country but plays important ceremonial and formal roles. She is described as acting “solely on the advice of her Ministers.” She does not have the power to start a prosecution or to make judgments in a criminal case.

HOW ABOUT HER FAMILY?

The queen’s eldest son, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, has sometimes angered critics with his habit of writing to ministers about policy matters. He has also made his outspoken opinions on modern architecture well known, occasionally angering developers and architects. In 2009, architects Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry accused Charles of using his royal position to attack plans to turn a former army barracks in London into luxury homes.

Charles has also tried to shape the public debate on genetically modified foods (he opposes the technology) and has championed organic farming and a number of environmental causes.

DID THE QUEEN GO TOO FAR BY DISCUSSING THE AL-MASRI CASE?

That depends who you ask. There is no indication in the BBC report that the queen tried to influence the government on al-Masri, a radical cleric who has fought British efforts to deport him for years. But critics of the monarchy still maintain she stepped beyond her traditional, accepted role.

“We’re told the queen is above politics and never gets involved, yet she has apparently admitted that she had interfered in a controversial issue,” said Graham Smith, chief of the anti-monarchy group Republic. He suggested the comments indicated that the queen often meddles behind the scenes.

But prominent historian Andrew Roberts said the queen was perfectly justified. He said her comments were consistent with her constitutional role, which allows her to “advise, encourage and warn” government ministers without directly intervening.

“This is exactly what the monarch should be doing,” he said. “As usual, she’s got it bang-on right.”

He said most public figures respect the queen’s expectation of confidentiality — particularly the prime ministers she has met with weekly since 1952.

WHO IS FRANK GARDNER AND WHY WAS HE CHATTING WITH THE QUEEN?

Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent, a senior position that involves reporting on terrorism-related issues including al-Qaida, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the war in Afghanistan. In 2004 he was shot by al-Qaida extremists during a reporting trip in Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed his cameraman and left Gardner partially paralyzed. He now uses a wheelchair or a walker for television appearances. In 2005 he was awarded the honorary title OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his service to journalism.

WHY DID HE BREAK THE QUEEN’S CONFIDENCE?

It’s not clear. It sounded to some listeners as if Gardner was engaged in high-level name dropping with the BBC hosts interviewing him and momentarily forgot that he was on a live radio show.

DID HE VIOLATE ROYAL PROTOCOL? DOES THE QUEEN EXPECT PEOPLE TO RESPECT HER PRIVACY?

The queen’s representatives were, as ever, discreet. Her press office declined to criticize Gardner or even comment on the flap. There is, however, an unwritten but widely respected convention that comments made by the queen during a formal audience or at an informal get-together are regarded as private and not to be repeated.

She frequently has brief, light discussions with admirers at royal events, however, and those casual comments are often repeated to the press.

Yet in Britain’s complex system, which relies on precedents rather than a written constitution, it is very rare to hear the queen’s thoughts on the great issues of the day. It was this break with convention that drew so much attention to the BBC radio show — and such a quick apology.