Tapping

Not any kind of tapping. Phone-tapping. Pour shame on my head, I get quite excited by the idea of phone-tapping. I know, I know - it's clearly a dastardly practice, undertaken by only the most unsavoury of slippery fish, or under their apparently unknowing noses. (Does a fish have a nose? Tune in next week.)

The intrusion, the crime, its fruits - the whole thing stinks. And yet, there's that hint of mystery, the sense of an old-fashioned dark art. I can't help myself! Perhaps it's the physicality of the word - tap, tap, tap - which makes me think of bespectacled ladies in Bletchley Park, or cold war agents in Soviet hotel rooms, fake watches and false names. And Morse code. (We could do with more Morse code these days; it would spice up life no end.)

But that we still call it tapping at all is anachronistic, it seems. The word dates from the early days of the telephone in the late 19th century when the system relied on operators (oh, operators, we should bring them back, too) connecting and disconnecting the lines. Calls could be monitored by putting an electrical tap on the phone line, interrupting the circuit. Then, in the 1960s, the computerised phone switch was invented, killing off the poor operators and old-style phone-tapping.

Enter the satellite and soon the mobile phone. And that's where you meet today's phone-tapper, not really tapping anything at all, but wheedling his way into people's voicemails, decoding their Pin numbers, listening to their messages. It's less tapping, more hacking, which tells you everything you need to know about the delicacy of the modern method. However you do it, I suppose the aim is the same - to hear things you shouldn't. But in my mind, the personality has changed. Farewell wartime, black-and-white derring-do; hello sweaty, rasping News of the World hack, one hairy hand in a bag of cheese-and-onion crisps while the other scribbles down the mucky details of Prince Harry's sex life, as Andy Coulson turns off all the lights in his office and hides under his desk to avoid seeing anything he shouldn't. Slippery fish.