Queen's umbrella to blame for 'rude Chinese' comment row
Queen Elizabeth's trusty plastic umbrella was blamed last night for causing the comments she made about "very rude" Chinese officials to be picked up by a TV camera, which in turn prompted a diplomatic row with Beijing.
The British queen had thought she was out of range of microphones when she had a frank discussion with a senior policewoman about the behaviour of the Chinese during last year's state visit.
But a cameraman covering the event on behalf of the BBC, ITV and Sky filmed the exchange, which happened at a Buckingham Palace garden party, and the BBC took the decision to broadcast the "private" conversation.
The BBC insisted it was within its rights to broadcast the exchange, but Whitehall sources accused the corporation of damaging the convention that members of the public should be able to have candid private conversations with the queen without fear of them being reported verbatim.
Sources said the reason the queen's comments were audible on the TV footage was because her clear plastic umbrella, which she uses to allow people to see her while sheltering from the rain, had acted like the cone in a loudspeaker, amplifying her voice towards the microphone.
"If she had been holding an umbrella made of fabric, it wouldn't have happened," an insider said. "But because it's plastic, it reflects the sound like a satellite dish."
The queen's comments, in which she also sympathised with the policewoman for her "bad luck" in having to coordinate security during the Chinese visit, caused a headache for the Foreign Office and led to Beijing blocking BBC World News reports about it. Had the sun been shining, however, it appears the highly sensitive remarks would never have reached a wider audience.
Queen Elizabeth was attending the first of the annual round of Buckingham Palace garden parties, where Scotland Yard's Commander Lucy D'Orsi was among the 8,000 guests invited to honour them for their public service.
Cmdr D'Orsi, a Gold Commander during the Chinese state visit last year, told the queen about a preparatory meeting at Lancaster House in London with Chinese officials and the British ambassador to China, Barbara Woodward, in which the Chinese "walked out and told me that the trip was off".
The queen, already aware of the incident, described it as "extraordinary" and said the Chinese were "very rude to the ambassador".
Cmdr D'Orsi was interviewed by reporters after she chatted to the queen, and told them the conversation was about the difficulties of being a working mother. Like countless royal guests before her, Cmdr D'Orsi had decided to keep mum about the more controversial part of her chat with the sovereign.
The queen trusts those she meets to respect confidences, in the same way that she trusts her prime ministers never to repeat the frank conversations she has during weekly meetings with them.
With more than 70 years' experience of public engagements, Queen Elizabeth also knows how loudly she can speak without being overheard by the media, who are never far away.
On this occasion, however, she reckoned without a freakish quirk of acoustics.
Filming her from a respectable distance, as ever, was Peter Wilkinson, who for the past 18 years has been the Buckingham Palace "pool" cameraman for the BBC, ITV and Sky. Based at the palace, Mr Wilkinson is jointly employed by the broadcasters and his job is to film the queen at official engagements and send the unedited footage to the TV newsrooms - which is exactly what he did.
Sources said that Mr Wilkinson was unaware of what the queen had said, or that it was audible on his footage.
Earlier the same day, Mr Wilkinson's camera had picked up David Cameron's comments to Queen Elizabeth about Nigeria and Afghanistan being "two of the most corrupt countries in the world".
When his footage was transferred to newsrooms at 4.30pm, the BBC, already aware that his camera had picked up the PM's earlier indiscretion, combed through the footage and heard Queen Elizabeth's comments, which were broadcast on the 10pm news.
Buckingham Palace declined to comment, but a Whitehall source said: "We can't have a situation where the queen doesn't think people can be frank with her. It's important members of the public feel they can have an open conversation with the queen without being overheard."
The BBC defended its decision to broadcast the conversation, saying it took place at a "public event".
The row comes at a sensitive time for the corporation, which is keen to assert its independence as its royal charter expires in December, with a government white paper on its future being published today. (© Daily Telegraph, London)