British royal family snooping probe widens

By Peter Graff

LONDON - What began as a case of a reporter suspected of eavesdropping on the British royal household has broadened into a probe of possible snooping on a wide array of politicians and celebrities, police said today.

British police were questioning two men, one of them a reporter who covers the royal family for the country's biggest selling newspaper, after some of Prince Charles' staff said they thought someone was listening to their phones.

Police said phone companies were helping them check whether someone had been snooping on other rich and powerful people.

"We don't know the full scale of it yet," a police source said, asking not to be named. "We're looking at numbers: what other public figures might have been subject to the interception."

The News of the World newspaper, a Sunday tabloid, confirmed its royal correspondent Clive Goodman was one of two men held today for an additional 12 hours of quizzing after being arrested yesterday. A third man arrested was freed on bail.

Police have not said what form the suspected eavesdropping took. Palace sources say the staff believed someone was secretly playing back their mobile phone voicemail messages.

Security experts say that sort of snooping would be easier than intercepting live calls.

Britain's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 makes it a crime to intercept communication on public telecoms systems -- including email and voicemail -- without proper authority.

The case has intrigued a public used to the tactics of hungry tabloids desperate for scoops. It recalls the "Squidgygate" and "Camillagate" scandals of the early 1990s, when newspapers obtained phone conversations of heir to the throne Charles and of his late wife Diana.

Back then, Diana was taped talking to her lover James Gilbey, who called her "Squidgy". Charles was recorded memorably telling his then mistress -- now wife -- Camilla Parker Bowles that he wanted to be reincarnated as her tampon.

Tabloids have since sent undercover reporters to get jobs as palace servants. A Daily Mirror reporter hired as a palace footman in 2003 revealed, among other things, that Queen Elizabeth ate breakfast cereal served in a plastic bowl.

Other newspaper reporters have since been arrested trying to repeat the stunt.

Veterans of Fleet Street -- the collective name given to British newspapers which used to be located on that "street of shame" in central London -- say there is nothing unexpected about journalists being accused of eavesdropping.

"It's been around I would say for the best part of the last 80 years," said James Whitaker, veteran royal correspondent of the Daily Mirror, who said he has received tip-offs from sources that had access to intercepted radio communications.

"Phone tapping. Bugging. Whatever you call it. It's not just the royals. Ministers, famous people," he said. "But if you get caught, you get into trouble."

- REUTERS

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