Security correspondent Frank Gardner prompts crisis by telling how Queen lobbied home secretary for arrest of radical cleri
- The Guardian, Tuesday 25 September 2012 15.19 EDT
An unscripted Today programme revelation about the Queen‘s hostility to the radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri forced the BBC into making an embarrassing apology to Buckingham Palace for breaching royal protocol.
Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, prompted the early morning crisis by reporting on Radio 4’s flagship news programme that the Queen had told him she was aghast that Abu Hamza, who faces imminent extradition to the US, could not be arrested during the period when he aired vehemently anti-British views as imam of Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
With the tacit approval of director-general George Entwistle, in only his second week in the job, the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, swiftly authorised the release of a statement of apology that was highly critical of the journalist. Gardner – who corporation insiders said was contrite shortly after the broadcast – penned a personal apology to the palace.
Speaking at about 8.15am, the journalist said: “And actually I can tell you that the Queen was pretty upset … that there was no way to arrest him [Hamza]. She couldn’t understand why – surely there was some law that he had broken.”
Naughtie, interviewing Gardner, paused and said “that’s a fascinating piece of information”. In turn, a clearly pleased Gardner said, “yes, I thought I’d drop that in” – and, revealing his source, he added: “She told me.” Concluding the exchange, Naughtie said “that’s a corker” – and the revelation swiftly topped the programme’s news bulletin.
Behind the scenes, however, BBC executives immediately sounded the alarm, worried that Gardner had revealed the Queen’s private thinking. The monarch never expresses overtly political views in public – and the convention is that whatever is said at palace receptions or other meetings remains off the record.
Although the Queen meets the prime minister weekly where possible, and has regular contact with other ministers, leaks about her views are rare. The veil of secrecy about royal political involvement also extends to other members of the royal family. Earlier this month the Guardian won a long battle to force government departments to disclose “black spider” memos written by the Prince of Wales to ministers and officials, although the ruling is the subject of an appeal.
The reporter’s revelation was “wholly inappropriate,” the BBC said. “The conversation should have remained private and the BBC and Frank deeply regret this breach of confidence … Frank is extremely sorry for the embarrassment caused and has apologised to the Palace.”
Sources at the BBC said that the broadcaster had little choice but to apologise firstly because Gardner had compromised a source – and secondly because “that source was the head of state around which there is a convention that their private conversations are never referred to”.
Gardner had not told anyone on the Today programme, which is edited by Ceri Thomas, that he intended to refer to the Queen on the air. Afterwards the correspondent, who uses a wheelchair after he was shot six times in Saudi Arabia by al-Qaida terrorists, tweeted: “Thanks to all those who’ve posted kind messages. Not exactly the best day but I can think of worse ones I’ve had …”
With Gardner’s story already dominating its own news agenda, the BBC was forced to carry both the original report of the Queen’s concern about Hamza alongside its own apology. The paradox was forced on the broadcaster, because it believed that Gardner’s story was accurate, but that it was in fact wrong to have reported it. One employee said: “We are a big organisation, and we can have more than one thought at any one time.”
A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said she had no comment on Gardner’s interview, and hinted that it was unlikely that the palace would respond any further, sparing the BBC any further embarrassment. It is understood that the Queen’s remarks about Hamza were made at a private dinner in 2008 at which there were several other people present.
During the Today programme, Gardner also said the Queen had lobbied ministers about her concerns. Gardner said: “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? He was conducting these radical activities and he called Britain a toilet. He was incredibly anti-British and yet he was sucking up money from this country for a long time. He was a huge embarrassment to Muslims, who condemned him.”
Gardner did not specify which home secretary was lobbied, although the most likely minister, David Blunkett, who held the post from 2001 to 2004 at the peak of Hamza’s infamy, denied it was him. Following his initial arrest in August 2004, Hamza was convicted in 2006 of 11 charges connected to soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred.
Blunkett said: “I can categorically state that the Queen never raised the issue of Abu Hamza with me. Not surprisingly because my views and attitude in relation to this individual were very well known.”
A spokesman for the republican pressure group Republic said the comments, if true, showed the monarch had needlessly “waded into the debate”.
He said: “It is up to parliament and the courts to deal with these complex issues, not the Queen. Monarchists argue the Queen always remains above politics. Clearly that is not the case.”
The government has battled for eight years to secure Hamza’s extradition to the US, where he is wanted in connection with alleged plans to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon, claims he provided material support to the Taliban, and allegations that he was involved in hostage-taking in Yemen in 1998.
Hamza’s fight against extradition ended on Monday when the European court of human rights rejected his appeal, as well as those of four other terrorism suspects, and agreed an earlier ruling that their human rights would not be violated by the prospect of life sentences and solitary confinement in a US prison.
The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, is considering whether or not to sanction a private prosecution in the UK of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, two of the five terrorism suspects facing extradition. Ahmad has been held in detention without trial since 2004.