How they brought the bad news from Oz to Kent

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TWO YEARS ago in the Gulf, satellite television brought Scud missile attacks live to our living-rooms and transformed the way we saw war. Last week, the fax machine did the same for the Prince of Wales.

On Tuesday, probably only a few dozen people in the country had read the conversation alleged to be the Prince's pillow talk. By Wednesday night, although no British newspaper had printed it and no television or radio station had broadcast it, the number was almost certainly in six figures. A day later, it was millions.

They were reading it at the Guinness headquarters in London and at a mother-and-toddlers' group in Chelmsford; at the Department of the Environment and a knitwear shop in Bloomsbury; at the Palace of Westminster and on City trading floors.

What the establishment did in the Thirties with the romance of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson - stopping the story at Britain's shores - could not be done this time: where the British press declined to tread, the fax rushed in.

Copies of New Idea's scoop hummed in from Australia by the gross, to be copied and faxed again across the country, or read down the line to those equipped merely with telephones.

At Guinness headquarters, the arrival of the fax caused a clamour. 'I couldn't get near. You had to be right at the front of the queue,' said a witness. At Herbert Smith, a City law firm, 'everyone read it. It was passed from hand to hand. It seems to have gone through the secretaries'.

At Westminster, a minister appeared in the Members' Lobby bemoaning the whole affair. ('They've gone too far this time . . . Anybody has made phone calls at some point which would make embarrassing copy.') When a reporter admitted having the text, the minister changed tack. 'You couldn't make me a copy could you?'

Soon it was being giggled over in pubs and acted out by money dealers. At a knitwear shop near the British Museum, an Italian lady behind the counter was thumbing through the text, purring: 'Oooh. He really lovesher.'

By nightfall on Wednesday, it was circulating among British aid workers in refugee camps in Croatia.

Next day the Daily Sport took over, printing the scoop no one else would touch and seeing its sales jump 50 per cent to 320,000. It was, said the editor, 'a sell-out situation', so he printed it again the following day.

Kent Today, meanwhile, brought the offending text to its readers in the Medway towns.

But it was the fax that made the breakthrough. Were the lines from Australia unusually busy on that first morning? No, said a spokesman at British Telecom, the normal traffic is so large that 'even if there were 100,000 extra faxes it would just be a small blip'.

Had he seen the document in question? 'Oh yeah, we've got a copy all right.'

The Observer reports this morning that Prince Charles no longer wishes to become king; the Sunday Telegraph reports that he will lead a celibate life to ensure his succession.

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