Leading Article: Falling idols

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TAPING and publication of private telephone calls made by members of the Royal Family is clearly an invasion of their privacy. Whether it is also illegal is not clear because the provenance of the recordings is not known. The 1985 Interception of Communications Act forbids the interception of calls made on public telephones without the permission of at least one of the parties or a warrant from the Home Secretary. The 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act also makes it illegal to disclose information obtained by unauthorised interceptions. But these and related laws are full of ambiguities.

Legal uncertainty is one good reason for not publishing the tapes or excerpts from them. Another is distaste for intruding on the most intimate conversations of anyone, whether royal or not. The fact that the marriage of the heir to the throne is to all intents and purposes over is a matter of legitimate public interest. The fact that he loved, or loves, another woman might, with some difficulty, be squeezed into the same category. The details of his conversations with that woman are, however, nobody else's business. The interest is purely voyeuristic.

Fortunately, John Major is resisting pressure to introduce statutory controls on the press as a result of these intrusions. What is needed is better general protection against electronic eavesdropping, peeping-Tom photography and physical trespass. This should apply to everyone. Singling out the press would set a dangerous precedent and open the door to further attempts by people in authority to protect themselves from scrutiny.

The cumulative damage now being inflicted on the mystique of the Royal Family may in itself be no bad thing. The notion that the symbolic influence of the monarchy must be reinforced by a model family goes back no further than George V, whom we anyway know to have been a poor father. If the focus now shifts to the monarch as an individual entrusted with certain constitutional and ceremonial duties for the benefit of the nation, the effects could be healthy.

The test of a monarch's suitability for the job must be whether he or she carries out these duties properly, not whether his or her family is intact, how the relatives behave, or even whether his or her private conduct is impeccable. For many centuries it was accepted that monarchs enjoyed a certain licence in their private lives. They were not expected to be models. Without going back to some of the more appalling examples of the past, it would be no bad thing if future monarchs were to be relieved of the pressure to meet standards of private behaviour that are not applied to their subjects, or even accepted by many of them.

Recent events have rightly provoked a serious debate about the future of the British monarch. The debate should not be influenced by knowledge of what Prince Charles said to his lover three years ago. His suitability for the throne must be judged by other criteria. Of course, a record of mishaps and misjudgements would undermine confidence in him, but the fact that he is vulnerable to human passions and misplaced sexual desire is not in itself a disqualification. If Britain decides eventually to become a republic, the worst possible reason would be because its nave faith in a synthetic image of the Royal Family had been destroyed.