THERE was a time in the early 1980s when people in top positions at CND routinely assumed that their telephones were tapped. One woman I knew claimed to have heard, through some malfunction of the eavesdropping system, a recording of a conversation she'd had earlier the same day. What we suspected was a Dr Strangelove scenario involving anonymous operatives in a Whitehall basement where huge old-fashioned tape recorders turned through the small hours of the night.
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. …