It never occurred to us to worry about a hospital employee from Norfolk listening to people's phone calls because he hadn't got anything better to do in his spare time. Yet this seems to have been the motive of Neville Hawkins, who tried to sell a recording of a telephone conversation involving the Duke of Edinburgh to the Sun.
Hawkins offered the newspaper a 17-minute recording of Prince Philip talking to a friend on 21 December, a piece of private enterprise from which he hoped to make pounds 50,000. The Sun refused to pay but details of the conversation inevitably got into print, prompting innuendoes about the nature of the Duke's relationship with Lady Romsey, the woman to whom he made the call. It wasn't until this week, apparently, that it dawned on Hawkins that there was anything dubious about what he had done.
At this point he underwent a positively Pauline conversion in the Sun, whose role in offering absolution in return for public admissions of wrongdoing becomes more Catholic by the day. "I'm sorry," he told the newspaper. "I am going to destroy the tape. I never dreamed it would end up like this. I never intended to upset the Duke or anyone else. I accept what I did was wrong and will stand up and confess everything if necessary. I will face the music."
Given that intentionally intercepting a call is an offence under the 1985 Interception of Communications Act, the "music" could involve rather more than a few Hail Marys (up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of pounds 5,000). But what's remarkable about Hawkins's contrition is that it took a public row to impress upon him that listening to other people's private conversations and selling them is - how can I phrase this? - wrong.
HAWKINS'S apology is refreshing in an age when no one ever says sorry. There can be few periods in living memory whose public figures have been so debased, when there has been such a painful gap between publicly proclaimed morality and what people actually do: Conservative MPs whose marital infidelities make a mockery of their party's identification with the family, government ministers who are regularly found to have acted illegally but never resign.
In such an atmosphere, it's not surprising that individual members of the public are no longer able to cope with perplexing moral dilemmas like: should I be eavesdropping on this conversation? Should I sell the tape to the Sun? There's no evidence that Hawkins underwent any soul-searching at all until Wednesday, six weeks after he recorded the conversation - apart, presumably, from the agonising decision about which tabloid to approach and how much to ask for his recording.
IT'S WORTH recalling here that, far from being a symptom of paranoia, the suspicion among CND activists that they were being spied on by the government turned out to be fully justified. In March 1983 the then Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, set up a secret unit called Defence Secretariat 19 to combat growing public support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Cathy Massiter, an MI5 employee at that time, later revealed that DS19 approached MI5 for information about CND's leading members.
In August that year, Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, authorised a telephone tap on John Cox, vice-president of CND. Cox, who lived in Wales, was targeted because he regularly spoke by phone to other CND leaders; listening in on his conversations got round the potential embarrassment of tapping the phones of high-profile figures such as Joan Ruddock, now a Labour MP, and Bruce Kent.
Massiter later admitted that the tap produced little that wasn't already known, just like the Duke's anodyne conversation with Lady Romsey. This is not the point. Nor is it relevant that recent attempts to sell telephone conversations have involved unsympathetic members of the Royal Family.
The idea has gained ground that people who enter public life irrevocably renounce any right to privacy. This is just another way of abdicating moral responsibility, a symptom of a culture that cannot distinguish between the public interest (the right to know about hypocrisy, abuse of public funds and so on) and what interests the public (gossip, other people's sex lives, a full colour video of the Princess of Wales in the nude).
THERE is no conceivable public interest defence for staking out Susie Orbach, the therapist whose clients include Princess Diana. Nor was there any justification for pub-lishing snatched pictures of the Duchess of York on holiday with a boyfriend in 1992, months after she had separated from her husband. And when reporters and photographers pursued Harriet Harman's son last week, it merely shifted attention from her hypocrisy in choosing a selective school to the bad behaviour of the press.
I'm not sure this malaise can be addressed by more legislation - intercepting phone conversations is already illegal - and I'm opposed to any move to protect privacy that isn't accompanied by a Freedom of Information Act. In any case, who would trust legislation from a government whose second most senior minister once set up a department to spy on people on the sole grounds that they opposed nuclear weapons?
Michael Heseltine's track record is no less dubious in this respect than anything done more recently by tabloid hacks or bored individuals with radio scanners.