Leading article: Courts martial on trial

WHO could resist the story of bonking under cover of the noise of jump-jets landing and taking off? We may not think we ought to be interested, and we must all be sure that it does not matter, but the vast majority of newspaper readers have followed the case of the "officer and the Wren" with rather more attention to detail than, say, the Government's deliberations on the question of trade union recognition.

Yesterday, Lieutenant-Colonel Keith Pople was acquitted by a court martial of prejudicing military discipline and scandalous conduct. What he and Lieutenant-Commander Karen Pearce got up to hardly qualifies as a scandal these days, but it was gripping stuff on the border between soft porn and gossip. But military discipline had not been compromised, and in that sense the court martial produced the right verdict.

If two grown-ups want to do - as he described them - foolish things in private, then that should not be a matter for any kind of court, even if they are married. The forces' ban on adultery is out of date and counter- productive.

The only issue which could concern discipline is one which is not limited to the forces. Sexual relations between superiors and subordinates can be unwise, and they can be exploitative. But Lt-Cdr Pearce is no cowering rating; she is one of the most senior women in the Navy. The court martial panel concluded that she and Lt-Col Pople had effectively worked as equals, and that he did not have the chance to influence her career.

More generally, however, and to the extent that the law does govern sexual relations, in the fields of sex equality, harassment and rape, then surely all cases should be heard in the civil courts, and not in historical relics retained in the services and the church.

Then this case would not have been brought, as it should not have been. We would lose a "good read", but avoid a lot of collateral damage in the process.