Telephone exchange that taps out divorce

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NATURALLY, I was one of the 72,000 people who made a donation to the NSPCC on Wednesday by ringing the Sun's hotline to hear the Squidgy tape. I chose the full 23-minute version as opposed to the three-minute edited highlights and found it excellent value at just over pounds 11. I particularly enjoyed Diana's account of her conversation with 'that bloody Bishop' (of Norwich) about how she'd been reincarnated and why hadn't he? For one whose husband will supposedly one day be Defender of the Faith, she seems bracingly unaffected by Church of England doctrine.

But now, seriously, what are we to make of it all? There seems no doubt that the tape is a genuine recording of a conversation between Princess Diana and her friend James Gilbey on New Year's Eve 1989. How the tape was made is debatable - I don't myself believe the Sun's story about the retired bank manager just picking it up by chance (you have to listen for several minutes before you find any evidence that it is Princess Diana speaking) but the question of provenance can wait. The real question is why the tape has come out now or, alternatively, why it hasn't come out earlier. The Sun by its own admission has been sitting on it for two and a half years (though the second half of the tape was sent some time after the first); the Mail has had a copy since Autumn 1991 (sent anonymously through the post to their Royal correspondent, Richard Kay); the Star has had a copy for several months. The Star was indeed planning to break it, by means of a book by its senior executive, Nigel Blundell, but then the National Enquirer published it first in the States. It made its debut here in the Sunday Express and then appeared in full in the Sun on Monday and Tuesday.

So are we supposed to believe that all these competing tabloid papers have been sitting on a sizzling potential scoop for months and declining to publish it because they wished to preserve the Waleses' marriage? Excuse my hollow laughter. You only have to look at the stories the papers were publishing at the time to see the absurdity. Yet it supports the extraordinary claim made by Andrew Knight, the chairman of News International, in the Spectator of 4 July, that the Murdoch papers had 'documented stories of regal infidelities which we hold, deliberately unused, in our safes - and in some cases have actually paid for so that our tabloid competitors may not use them.'

The Squidgy tape must have been part of this Wapping hoard - but not the whole of it because there is nothing on the tape to provide proof of 'regal infidelities'. On the contrary, it strongly suggests that no physical intimacy has taken place: when the callers ask each other what they are wearing they talk about sweaters and trousers rather than La Perla bras and Calvin Klein boxer shorts. On the other hand they make an assignation to meet again in two days' time with vaguely steamy promises. No doubt this will be the subject of one of the new 'more explicit' Diana tapes promised by the tabloids.

Because now it really is like Watergate, with tapes spooling out of the woodwork in all directions. I thought when I read Andrew Morton's book that a lot of tape-recording must have been going on because, while Morton denied that Princess Di had ever spoken to him, he also reproduced quite long chunks of her speech in direct quotes with no explanation of how they were obtained. It now seems extremely likely that James Gilbey was the 'friend of Diana' who first met Morton in a working men's cafe in North Ruislip and told him that Princess Di wished to publish her story. Did he bring tape recordings he had made of their conversations? And are these the tapes that are now playing through the tabloids? Or, more sinisterly, are they tapes made by the security services? Morton's book begins, you may recall, with a dramatic phone call: 'The voice on the other end of the telephone line was abrupt and filled with contained excitement. 'Go to scrambler' it said.' Mr Morton had equipped himself with a scrambler because another royal-ratpacker had warned him to 'watch your phones' and had told him that senior police officers from the Royalty and Diplomatic Protection squad would be trying to trace his palace sources. Sure enough, 10 days after Morton broke the news of the Yorks' impending separation, his office was broken into. Morton claims that nowadays Princess Diana has a scrambler at Kensington Palace (and a shredder to destroy her mail) and last summer had her rooms 'swept' for bugging devices. In other words, she certainly believes that her conversations are bugged and bugged routinely, day in, day out, not just picked up by chance by retired bank managers who have nothing better to do.

My own guess is that what held up publication of the tapes for over two years was doubt as to their provenance and in particular a suspicion that they might have been stolen from the security services. It was striking that when the Sun on Thursday received a reader's recording of a two-year-old conversation between Fergie and Prince Andrew (picked up by chance again, supposedly, though scanner experts say the chances of two members of the public picking up two royal conversations within days of each other are a million to one), their immediate response was to take it round to the Queen's solicitor Sir Matthew Farrer without publishing it. Why? To save Fergie embarrassment? Hollow laughter again. The Sun's explanation was wonderfully bland: 'We decided that the tape was that of an intercepted telephone call. It was a recording of a private conversation . . .' Exactly - just like the Squidgy tape. So why was it permissible to publish one and not the other? Presumably because someone speaking through the Queen's solicitor's office told them so.

I believe that what we are seeing are the terminal stages of the war between the Waleses and a rather belated PR exercise on the Prince's behalf. The Princess has already had her say through the Andrew Morton book. Now it is Charles's turn. I predict an absolute avalanche of Di-damaging material over the next few weeks, followed by an announcement of divorce.