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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 August 2006, 18:08 GMT 19:08 UK
Media implications of phone-tap probe
Transcripts of Princess Diana's calls appeared in a newspaper
Relations between Fleet Street and the Royal Family have a stormy history, with the press often prepared to go to extreme lengths to snag an "exclusive".

Now two men, including the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, have been charged with intercepting voicemail messages after complaints were made by members of staff at the royal household.

What impact will the arrests have on relations between the Royals and the media and what are the implications for the tabloids?

The alleged phone interceptions, understood to have been the basis of several News of the World stories are the latest in a long line of controversies over newspaper treatment of the Royal Family.

These include the so-called "Camillagate" and "Squidgygate" stories in the 1990s and the News of the World's "fake sheikh" sting on the Countess of Wessex.

Royal sensitivities

According to former Royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter, these have resulted in considerable sensitivity within the Royal Family.

He told BBC News the latest incident would re-open the gulf between Prince Charles and the press, between whom relations had been "frosty" but had improved since his marriage to Camilla.

He said the Royals and their staff would now be "somewhat reticent" in giving information to the media, saying questions had been raised not only about the security of Royal communications, but about the methods used by the press.

A list of dialled numbers would arrive on your desk, you knew better than to question where the information had come from, you just acted on it
Mike Jarvis

Despite the fact it is illegal for journalists to intercept phone calls and voicemail without the person's knowledge or consent, former News of the World and Sunday People reporter Mike Jarvis said such methods were common.

He told the BBC: "Information from telephone networks that papers like the News of the World weren't entitled to have was commonplace in the years I was there.

"A list of dialled numbers would arrive on your desk, you knew better than to question where the information had come from, you just acted on it."

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), Sir Christopher Meyer, told BBC News he had often heard rumours about reporters intercepting communications, which is forbidden under the body's code of practice, though he had received "no hard evidence".

"You have to have a very high bar of public interest to justify this and so that's enshrined in our constitution," he said.

Editors 'worried'

Former Daily Mirror royal correspondent James Whittaker said newspaper editors would be worried by the implications of the arrests. He told the BBC: "People like private scandal, tittle-tattle about famous people and there are few people more famous than the Royal Family.

"And of course, as a former journalist once said, to be a good gossip journalist you need rat-like cunning.

"Now this is all part of that syndrome. What you don't need to do is to get information illegally and if you do get it illegally then the last thing you need is to get caught."

For the News of the World, the arrests follow a series of incidents which have cast doubt on the integrity of its reporting.

Last week, the paper lost a 200,000 libel case brought by MSP Tommy Sheridan, who it had accused of being a drug-taking serial adulterer and swinger.

During the trial, the paper's former Scottish news editor admitted telling the woman at the centre of the case he was not taping his conversation with her when he was.

'Unsavoury methods'

And in July, the trial of three terror suspects collapsed after defence lawyers claimed the involvement of the paper's controversial investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood - the "fake sheikh" - had undermined the prosecution's case.

Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, said some of Mr Mahmood's methods had been revealed to be "pretty unsavoury".

"You wouldn't really say at the moment this was a golden age for the News of the World," he told the BBC.

They [the tabloids] are engaged in a very serious attempt to shore up their readership and what they know is that people have an appetite for these sorts of stories
Nick Higham

However, with the battle for sales intensifying every year and circulation figures plummeting in the face of competition from the internet and gossip magazines, the quest for exclusives remains a serious game for the tabloids and one which is likely to continue to see them pushing boundaries.

The News of the World's circulation has fallen from four million to three and a half million over the last five years, and that of its rival, the Sunday People, from well over a million to less than 900,000.

BBC News correspondent Nick Higham said: "The tabloid newspapers have been prepared to go to often very great lengths to get exclusive revelations.

"The reason they do it is because there is a tremendous appetite among newspaper readers, television viewers and, increasingly, people who use the internet, for this kind of celebrity gossip, royal gossip and so on."

He added: "They're engaged in a very serious attempt to shore up their readership and what they know is that people have an appetite for these sorts of stories."

Q&A: Phone-tapping
09 Aug 06 |  UK
Sheridan victory in court battle
04 Aug 06 |  Scotland

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