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Royal censorship? BBC says 'sorry' for daring to report UK queen's comments

Geoff Pugh / AFP - Getty Images, file

Queen Elizabeth II meets BBC journalist Frank Gardner at an event in October 2011. The BBC apologized on Tuesday after Gardner reported a conversation with the queen.

Analysis

LONDON - Imagine this: President Barack Obama makes an indiscreet remark to a reporter.  The White House complains after the journalist reports the newsworthy encounter. The reporter and his network apologize.

Hard to visualize, isn’t it?

But something very similar did happen with the U.K.'s head of state this week.  

Highly respected BBC journalist Frank Gardner reported a controversial conversation with Queen Elizabeth II about radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Mazri, who on Monday lost his appeal against extradition to the United States to face terrorism charges. 

Cleric al-Masri loses bid to avoid extradition to US on terror charges

Buckingham Palace was reportedly outraged. Gardner and the BBC -- seen by many as a standard-bearer for quality journalism around the world -- issued a groveling apology

Peter Morrison / AP

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 26.

So does the British media have different rules for covering the royals?

Three-quarters-of-a-century ago newspapers in this country remained silent as U.S. journalists excitedly reported on a relationship between the future King Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  The relationship eventually led to Edward abdicating the throne.

And in the last month, most British news outlets refused to publish those naked Prince Harry pictures, while the U.K. media said "non" in unison to the French paparazzi snaps of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge - the former Kate Middleton - topless.

Criminal case continues over topless Kate photos

The intimate pictures were viewed by many British editors as an invasion of privacy.  

But while stories about royal love affairs, and pictures of cavorting young royals are arguably an invasion of privacy, this latest spat between Buckingham Palace and the media is of another order entirely.  That is because while the queen signs off on Britain's laws, guides the prime minister and entertains visiting leaders from around the world, by tradition and according to convention she cannot and must not be seen to take sides.

Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating 60 years on the throne. Watch archival footage from her childhood and ascension to the throne to the present day.

In fact, a constitutional crisis could ensue if she is seen to be meddling. 

That said, the queen is involved in affairs of state. 

'Vivid combination'
The prime minister meets with the monarch every week.  She has held these sessions since Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s days.  Yet what is said is never shared.  If the queen does give advice no one is ever told what it is.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair went further than most when in his diary he described the visits to the palace as, “A vivid combination of the intriguing, the surreal, and the utterly freaky.” 

More coverage of Britain's royal family on TODAY.com

But even he did not recount a word of what was actually said.

Many speculate on what the queen's political views might be, but very few people know for sure what they are.

So given the long-standing conventions governing interactions with the monarch, any opinion the queen did share with Gardner would have been off-the-record and not for reporting.  Otherwise she would not have expressed a view. 

And journalists, of course, have a duty not to reveal their sources where confidentiality has been promised.

In that sense Gardner broke a simple rule of journalism. If you're told something off the record, you can't source it without permission.

If the queen did share vigorous views on al-Masri's deportation to the United States -- she was apparently so upset about the U.K.'s inability to arrest him that she spoke to top government officials about it -- then it was meant for Gardner's ears only.

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But not everybody sees it that way.

“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?” columnist Archie Bland pondered in the left-leaning Independent newspaper.

So is it different for the royals, or at least the queen, in one important sense. Being unelected she is not supposed to have an opinion. That's the deal. She gets to be queen because she rises above politics.

She might be a highly experienced “sponge,” as described by royal biographer Hugo Vickers, who brings the wisdom built from decades on the throne, but according to British tradition she is definitively not a politician or an opinion-leader.

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Many argue that the reason she makes such a good head of state is precisely because she’s never heard mouthing off about one issue or another.  If she were, if she ventured into the world of the political, it would shake the balance of power in Britain.

Which explains why Buckingham Palace was so upset, and why the story is causing such a stir. It is also why Britain's future king, Prince Charles, ruffles feathers when he expresses views about the environment or architecture.

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Probably many British people will be pleased to hear that the queen is prepared to express strong opinions when necessary, albeit in private.

But the queen will not want it to happen again. She knows how much damage it can do to her, her family and her country.

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