The widespread publication of an intimate telephone conversation reportedly between Britain's Prince Charles and a married woman friend raised doubts in political and editorial circles Wednesday that he will ever be king.
Several newspapers and experts on the monarchy questioned whether the reputation of the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne could survive the published text of a six-minute tape that suggests a longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, the wife of a good friend of 20 years.
At the same time, the revelation that Charles' estranged wife, Princess Diana, had been involved in leaking her side of their marital rift to newspapers added to the serious question of whether she would ever become queen.
The full text of an alleged bugged bedtime phone conversation between Charles, 44, and Parker-Bowles, 45, was printed by an Australian magazine and a German tabloid, and other foreign publications said they plan to publish a detailed transcript.
British tabloids on Wednesday ran only excerpts of the conversation, which has not been repudiated by Buckingham Palace; editors said more explicit portions were voluntarily omitted from their stories.
The tape, dubbed "Camillagate" by the press, suggested the reported sexual intimacy between the prince and Parker-Bowles is long-standing. Parker-Bowles is married to Brig. Andrew Parker-Bowles, a military aide to Queen Elizabeth II. The Parker-Bowleses have two children.
Some editorialists said the tape indicated that Charles had been cheating on Diana throughout their 11-year marriage. There have been extensive reports that the princess suspected the affair and that it was the main factor leading to their separation, which was announced late last year.
In the tape, the couple expressed their passionate love for one another, used ribald language to reflect that passion and spoke of seeking country houses of close friends where they could secretly rendezvous.
The woman on the tape says she desires the man "desperately, desperately, desperately," while he declares his love for her and says he cannot bring himself to say goodby.
Deidre Sanders, a columnist for the Sun tabloid who listened to the tapes, said Wednesday: "They sound to me like a couple who have been making love (for) years rather than months. It's all very intimate, down-to-earth and--if you can forgive the fact they are both cheating on their partners--endearingly human. But if Charles had wanted to rob the monarchy of mystique, he couldn't have calculated a more effective method."
The conversation, supposedly between Parker-Bowles at home and Charles, who was spending the night at the country house of a friend, was said to have been recorded by an amateur radio buff who picked it up on high-tech scanning equipment in December, 1989.
It remains a mystery how the copies of the tape became widely circulated among the media. The recording came to light within a month of two other tapes, one reputedly of a call from a mobile car phone between Diana and a close friend, James Gilbey, in which they exchanged endearments; the other was between the Duke of York, Charles' brother, and his now-estranged wife, the duchess, the former Sarah Ferguson.
The coincidence of that timing, and the apparently high quality of the recording, raised the possibility that British internal intelligence agencies may have been involved in taping the original conversations and, for reasons unknown, leaking them to the press.
Lord Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times and pillar of the British Establishment, told the BBC on Wednesday: "I think the three tapes mean that there had to be a deliberate surveillance of the Royal Family at that point. I think one has to ask whether it was done as part of the security screening, and whether what has happened is that the Royal Family were being taped as part of MI-5's (Security Service) operation, and, in some way, these tapes were leaked."
The charge, if substantiated, would deeply embarrass the government of Prime Minister John Major. The government already is under fire for commissioning a report, to be officially presented today, that calls for strict new curbs on newspaper reporting, especially of the Royal Family and political figures. Under the proposed new rules, stories of the "Camillagate" variety would be prohibited.
The prime minister's office said Wednesday that allegations that MI-5 could be involved in taping and leaking were "amazing."
If Charles were to renounce the throne, his son William, now 10, would succeed his grandmother, the queen, to the throne.