Bugging: Can you hear me? Yes, darling, and so can an awful lot of other people

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'THEY'RE beautiful breasts . . . skinless. Do you want them with peas or beans?' It was the sort of conversation that stops high-speed cellphone sniffers in their tracks. A hint of sex; then the ubiquitous banality that crowds the airwaves, the radio fuzz pervading the world of the scanning-Tom. Using a pounds 250 scanner from Tandy, the Independent on Sunday picked it up on Friday.

It was such a conversation - on a mobile phone - that started all the fuss. A man, reportedly James Gilbey of the gin family, was sitting in his car in a lay-by in Newbury, Berkshire, on New Year's Eve 1989, whispering sweet nothings to a woman, supposedly the Princess of Wales in her apartments at Sandringham. She, too, was on a mobile phone. But the conversation was more interesting than the one we picked up. Mr Gilbey told the Princess he loved her; and, to the delight of headline writers, he called her Squidgy. Dianagate was born, followed rapidly by Fergiegate, a conversation between the Duke and Duchess of York revealing their marital difficulties, and Camillagate, the latest and most embarrassing tape, this time allegedly between the Prince of Wales and his long-time friend, Camilla Parker Bowles. Each time, a mobile phone was used.

Who makes these recordings and how? Cyril Reenan, a retired bank manager from Abingdon, recorded the Gilbey/Diana call on 4 January 1990; but references in the conversation show that the call was made on 31 December.

'Experts' insisted last week it was not possible to pick up two sides of a conversation using a scanner, because the words sent by a mobile phone and those received travel on different channels. And why, if the Gilbey call was made on 31 December, did Mr Reenan pick it up four days later? Further, said 'the experts', all three royal conversations were recorded in the space of just three weeks. The odds against that were 'zillions to one'.

Hence, MI5 and GCHQ, the intelligence listening station, quickly became the prime suspects. Security service operatives, it was argued, had made the tapes, then rebroadcast them to ensure that people such as Mr Reenan picked them up. Perhaps the security services were worried about destabilisation of the throne (it had been reported in November 1989 that the Waleses had slept in separate wings at the State Guest House in Jakarta) and wanted to find out what was going on. Perhaps the tapes were made 'innocently' during routine security operations and then accidentally or deliberately leaked. Perhaps bored technicians at GCHQ tuned in to the royal chat and rebroadcast it out of mischief.

None of this seems terribly likely and, though ministers normally refuse to comment in any way on security service operations, Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, has firmly denied MI5 or GCHQ involvement. Our inquiries suggest that the least implausible theory is that the tapes were indeed recorded by scanning-Toms.

Our tests with a Tandy Pro-34 scanner, a device the size and shape of a walkie-talkie, showed that it is simple to tune in to both sides of a mobile-telephone conversation. We used equipment near the bottom of the range and listened to more than 50 conversations in less than an hour.

They included two solicitors giving advice to clients, a man making an assignation with his mistress, many business deals, a couple flirting and dozens of run- of-the mill conversations between friends, husbands and wives.

In one case, a solicitor was heard advising a client not to break into a warehouse to reclaim (or steal) pounds 20,000 worth of goods. Another lawyer discussed a liquidation. One businessman boasted of ripping off a customer.

'From 1987 onwards, we told our clients that using a cellphone was like broadcasting their secrets to the world,' said Sophie Hardy Wilson, the former owner of Security Research, a counter surveillance company. 'It is true that these phones transmit and receive on different channels, but scanners pick up the signals from base repeater stations, where the two channels meet.

'As a warning to my clients, I once taped a 20-minute conversation between a woman in Weybridge and her lover in London in which they repeated their love for each other. He was using the phone in his car outside his home because he did not want his wife to hear.'

John Sheppard, the managing director of Modulations Communication, which sold Mr Reenan his equipment, rejects the view that the tapes are too long and too clear to have been picked up by an amateur's scanner.

'Mr Reenan has a top-of-the- range scanner - I believe an ICOM 2000 (about pounds 900) - which has a built-in recorder,' he said. 'He also has a remotely controlled 20ft multi-directional aerial. That equipment is definitely capable of picking up such a conversation.'

Sales of Tandy scanners have increased by 30 per cent to about 30,000 a year since Dianagate broke, according to John Sayers, the company's vice-president. He backs the 'experts' ' view, that you cannot hear both sides of a conversation and says there is 'no way' his scanners could be responsible. But, with prices starting at pounds 79.95, he admits that at least 100,000 people are listening in.

Why then, is it so unbelievable that some of them have found sensational chat - even over such a short period of time? Enthusiasts pass round tapes of conversations and many have their own transmitters. Perhaps one re-transmitted the Squidgy tape.

'There are thousands of them out there,' said Ms Hardy Wilson. 'There were fewer cellphones in operation towards the end of 1989 than during the mid-80s boom, so the lines were clearer - particularly on New Year's Eve, when there would have been no business traffic. Listening is addictive. These people put in hours a day. They were bound to pick up something sensational eventually.'

Listening is indeed compulsive. Though even the most boring conversations can be exciting because of the sheer badness of vicarious participation, you soon learn the clues to the more interesting ones.

We found many husbands making excuses. At 5.30pm on Friday, for example, a man was trying to explain to his wife why he had not rung her earlier.

'I rang you at four, but there was no reply,' he said.

'I've been here all day. You got the wrong number.'

'I didn't. I called.'

'You didn't. Just pick me up.'

'Okay, hahhhnny, dahhhhling (he laughs).'

'You make me sick.'

She slammed the phone down. But it wasn't a member of the Royal Family.

(Photograph omitted)