Can the Queen De-Knight Someone?

She can, and she has.

Sir Paul Stephenson. Click image to expand.
Sir Paul Stephenson

Members of the British Parliament grilled outgoing Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson on Tuesday about his failure to uncover the breadth of the phone hacking scandal, as well as on his personal connections to Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Stephenson was knighted in 2008 for his service to the country. Is there any chance the Queen will revoke his knighthood?

It’s possible, but unlikely. Sir Paul hasn’t been charged with any illegal conduct (yet), and there’s no indication that the Queen is rethinking his knighthood. In most cases involving British citizens, honors are subject to revocation when an honoree commits a crime carrying a prison sentence of three months or more, or if a professional organization in the field for which the honors were originally bestowed censures or expels the honoree. Revocation isn’t automatic in either case. First, an individual or group has to notify the Honours Forfeiture Committee of the transgression. The committee then holds a closed hearing, and decides the honoree’s fate. (There’s no opportunity for the honoree to defend himself.) The Queen technically makes the final call on whether to strip the knight or dame of the title, but she generally follows the committee’s recommendation. At that point, the dissed honoree receives a letter announcing the decision and is expected to return the medal. Public shaming is also part of the process—the London Gazette publishes all revocations.

British monarchs aren’t too hesitant to admit their mistakes. Five knights bachelor—the title held by Stephenson—have seen their knighthood revoked in the last century. Jack Lyons was the last British citizen to lose the title of knight bachelor in 1991, when he participated in a scheme to inflate the share price of Guinness.

Stephenson wouldn’t even be the first police officer to fall from knighthood. Terry Lewis, an Australian officer who, like Stephenson, was both a knight bachelor and a recipient of the Queen’s Police Medal, was stripped of his title in 1993. Lewis had taken kickbacks from men running a prostitution ring. (Although Lewis received his knighthood in Australia, he was part of the same knighthood system as Stephenson, because Queen Elizabeth II is the “fountain of honour” in Commonwealth nations. But Lewis’ revocation didn’t go through the U.K. Honours Forfeiture Committee.)

Sir Paul Stephenson wasn’t the only knight testifying before Parliament today. Rupert Murdoch was named a knight commander of St. Gregory by the Roman Catholic Church in 1998, even though he’s not a Roman Catholic. The Cardinal of Los Angeles reportedly recommended him for knighthood after he gave a sizable donation. Unlike British honors, papal knighthood is often awarded for monetary generosity. Many have suggested that the Pope withdraw Murdoch’s knighthood, but there’s no indication the man with the big hat is considering it. A revocation of papal knighthood appears to be without precedent in modern times.

The Holy See wouldn’t be in this predicament if it had adopted a prescient British policy. In the 1990s, the U.K. Honours and Appointments Secretariat decided that it would not make a knight out of any newspaper editor or owner until he left the job.

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Explainer thanks Samuel Heath of the U.K. Cabinet Office.