In a lesser-known Monty Python sketch, John Cleese is interviewing Eric Idle for a job in the Secret Service. “So you want to join the Secret Service, eh? Can you keep a secret?” he asks, and when Idle answers “Yes”, he snaps back, “Right, you’re in.”
It’s better live, but I was reminded of the gag in listening to the BBC’s John Humphrys’ final interrogation on the Today programme on Thursday of former Prime Minister David Cameron and the revelation in his For the Record memoir about how in a panic just before the 2014 independence referendum he asked the Queen if she could even just “raise an eyebrow” in support of the Union cause.
Soon after, she controversially told a crowd outside Crathie Kirk near Balmoral that she hoped people “will think very carefully about the future”, which in different circumstances was a bland statement of the obvious. But at a time of stratospheric political tension, it was interpreted as being as close to a direct Royal intervention in the vote as it was possible for her to make.
Under pressure from Humphrys, Mr Cameron could only say “I never asked for anything improper. I don’t want to say anything more about this, I’m sure some people would think, possibly even me, that I’ve already said a bit too much.”
Perhaps feeling charitable on his last day, Humphrys let it go, but the obvious follow-up question was that having recognised he’d said too much then why would someone with his understanding of the way the system is supposed to work say anything at all?
Indeed, the absolute avoidance of any hint that the Monarch might have influenced a political process is not just how the system is supposed to work, it’s the only way it works. That Mr Cameron should have thought it acceptable to encourage her to give a nod and a wink is one thing, but then to talk about it is extraordinary.
Three immediate questions spring to mind: first, what did the Queen say when he made the suggestion; second, how did she come up with the idea of making an otherwise innocuous comment to well-wishers waiting to greet the Royal party outside her Sunday church service, and third, who else was involved in that plan?
No wonder Buckingham Palace sources let it be known there was “an amount of displeasure”, which can safely be interpreted as corgi-kicking apoplexy, because the Queen is now being seen as an active but unaccountable player in one side of a political divide because of Mr Cameron’s slack jaw.
It is not as if this is something which can now be dismissed as a historic curiosity, however recent, because the Queen’s role in a knife-edge political decision is now at the heart of this week’s hearing at the Supreme Court into whether his successor Boris Johnson was entitled to prorogue parliament and if he misled the Queen to do so.
What the Queen is told should not be an issue because she is compelled to follow the instructions of her Prime Minister. But if it is accepted she can be persuaded to act in a partial way then it really does matter what she is being told and we are entitled to know how the process was handled. Having also admitted he made a “terrible mistake” when he was overheard saying the Queen had “purred down the phone” when he told her the independence referendum result, it’s impossible to believe Mr Cameron did not appreciate the omerta he was breaking and did so purely to enhance the book and his reputation.
Every Prime Minister must accept his or her many conversations with the Queen can never be on the record, and the answer to the question “Can you keep a Royal secret?” has got to be ”always and forever”. Otherwise the constitutional monarchy is dead.
Press innocent until proven guilty, surely?
Whether The Sun’s controversial story about the murder of England cricketer Ben Stokes’ half-brother and sister three years before his birth was a revelation or a resurrection of an old story matters little after the Ashes star’s furious reaction, which has once again put the popular Press under the spotlight after what has been a relatively uncontroversial few years. Followed closely by gay ex-rugby player Gareth Thomas claiming a ”tabloid” reporter turned up at his parents’ house to tell them about his HIV diagnosis, critics of the UK Press have wasted no time in citing the incidents as clear evidence that the unacceptable instincts of the Red Tops have not changed.
Both are unquestionably stories of the highest sensitivity and in the case of the controversial cricketer, who was cleared of affray last year after a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub but fined by the England & Wales Cricket Board, it shed light on the background of a very high-profile individual and something in which most sports fans would be interested. I know I was.
The Gareth Thomas story is a lot more complex. If a journalist broke the news of an illness to a relative there is very little doubt it would be a major breach of medical confidentiality, something for which the Daily Mirror had to pay model Naomi Campbell £2,500 in damages. That verdict was eventually upheld by the House of Lords in a key 2004 ruling led by the current Supreme Court president Lady Hale, from whom we will be hearing a lot more next week.
The Daily Mirror broke the latest story, in which the former British Lion said he was forced to tell his parents about his condition because of blackmailers, but two days ago he claimed his parents had found out from a journalist. It is not known for whom that journalist was working, if that is indeed how his parents found out, but nevertheless anti-Press campaigners believe the industry is guilty before its innocence can be proved.
I’m shocked to my very core about news at Herald
Meanwhile at the other end of the market, Glasgow’s Herald newspaper is the subject of a two-part BBC Scotland fly-on-the-wall documentary, with the first part aired on Wednesday evening, faithfully depicting just how hard it is to get not one but three daily newspapers out the door with diminishing resources.
Old hands will be taken by just how quiet the newsrooms are as deadline approaches, even in the midst of a technology failure, although the presence of TV cameras perhaps inhibited the behaviour of the main characters who remain remarkably calm throughout. But the most shocking revelation was that editor-in-chief Donald Martin needed help from his wife Janey to put on a pre-tied dickie bow before the Herald’s big black tie Politician of the Year bash. Standards are indeed slipping.