With that perceptive but strangely innocent eye which has served him so well as a columnist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne recently expressed shock and astonishment that an editor of the London Evening Standard had turned down the editorship of the Times in favour of succeeding Sir David English at the Daily Mail. As a boy, wrote Sir Perry, he had wanted to be editor of the Times more than anything in the world. So when Mr Paul Dacre picked Rothermere’s Daily Mail in preference to Rupert Murdoch’s Times, Worsthorne’s first reaction was that it was like choosing to be King of Ruritania instead of King of England.

But Sir Perry has built his career on telling us that the country is going to the dogs. So after mature consideration, he began to feel that Mr Dacre’s choice wasn’t just a response to the decline of the Times as an inevitable reflection of our national decline. What was the point of editing the Thunderer when Britain’s voice in the world had diminished to a squeak? And why bother with a supposed ‘opinion-forming newspaper’ when the Daily Mail and the other tabloids had exercised more influence over the result of the general election than the Times? Perhaps, mused Sir Perry, a serious journalist really should do what Mr Dacre had done, and perhaps the Times should be run by a dilettante such as himself.

It was lovely stuff, such as fans of Sir Peregrine have enjoyed reading in the Sunday Telegraph for years. And it contained, as it almost always does, a strong grain of sense beneath the deliberate self-parody. He is right that something must be seriously wrong when a senior British journalist can prefer to edit the Mail rather than the Times. (Indeed, he might have added that matters are even worse when his own editor-in-chief, Max Hastings, rejects the same offer by declaring that nothing would induce him to go to ‘that brothel’.) But we can’t dismiss these events simply as the consequence of national decline. Something must be gravely wrong with the Times itself when its proprietor has to hawk the editorship of his flagship publication up and down Fleet Street, and still finds no takers. If I were that proprietor, I would be asking myself whether that something might possibly be me.

Certainly the dashing Mr Hastings would have made a splendid editor of the Times. But even he would be a rather different editor from the robustly moralistic William Haley, the rather prissy William Rees-Mogg, or the crusading Charles Douglas-Home. Paul Dacre, on the other hand, isn’t just ‘rather different’ from these three. He is entirely different, belonging to a category of journalism quite distinct from theirs. Not only is it tabloid in the sense of being aimed at a mass readership: it is overtly propagandist in the sense that its purpose (apart from making money) is to do down the Labour Party.

I have no idea whether Simon Jenkins, the Time’s highly civilised editor, whose resignation precipitated the offer to Mr Dacre, really did intend to quit after two or three years, as he says he did. Nor do I know whether his departure was as amicable as he and his employers claim. But it is a fact that he followed a Dacre-style tough-guy editor, Charles Wilson, who learned his trade on the news desk of the Daily Mail and left Murdoch’s News International to join Cap’n Bob as editor of Sporting Life. Mr Wilson has now re-surfaced as a senior panjandrum of the former Maxwell group, where he presumably had at least a small part in deciding whether the Sunday People should publish the latest ministerial sex-scandal – a far cry from the editorial chair of the Times.

But the point is that Mr Jenkins was universally thought to have been brought in by Murdoch as editor in order to meet the widespread criticism that Charlie Wilson was turning the Times into a broadsheet version of the Daily Mail. It was assumed that Jenkins’s instructions were to take it up-market again, and he certainly had a stab at doing just that. Yet it appears that Mr Murdoch’s first thought, when Simon Jenkins decided to go, was to replace him with another Daily Mail type of editor, also with a macho image. I find that possibility either peculiar or sinister, or perhaps both.

But let’s face it, it wasn’t the Murdoch bordello which produced the exposure of David Mellor’s comically Edwardian fling with an exotic actress. It was the purified, de-Max-wellised Mirror Group, leaving the News of the World to puff humiliatingly along in its wake. The NoW was even reduced to quoting directly from the People’s account of the intimate conversations between the Minister for Fun and his fun-loving partner. The fact that one or other of these great investigative newspapers ‘had something’ on a minister or a shadow minister had been well known in the trade during the general election campaign, prompting Tory and Labour spokesmen to issue thinly disguised threats about what might befall any editor who went in for more dirty tricks like the one that had been perpetrated on Paddy Ashdown. There was a collective sigh of relief among the politicians when the election came and went and nothing had happened. It was assumed that no editor was likely to launch such a story after the election if they hadn’t done the deed during the election.

By the week before Labour’s special conference for the election of its new leader, however, the rumours were circulating again. Even the most ill-informed news editors were aware that something was up, and several of them knew it involved a sexy young actress with a fancy Spanish name. Photographs of her were being ordered blind by picture desks, in the confident belief that they would be needed for some purpose or other fairly soon. By the time Labour Party delegates began assembling in the pubs around Westminster’s Horticultural Hall two Saturdays ago, MPs and journalists knew for certain that a scandal was going to break in either the People or the News of the World, and that the victim would be David Mellor. It is clear that someone told Mellor too, because his offer to resign was made to the Prime Minister that evening.

The story which landed on our doormats next morning was a pretty routine account of a run-of-the-mill spot of straight, heterosexual adultery of a sort which has been happening ever since the first lustful MP was introduced to the first bimbo actress. The only thing that made it different from similar episodes in Victorian or Edwardian times was the extensive reporting of intimate conversations between the lovers, presumably obtained by the use of a microphone and a tape-recorder. This real life version of all those ‘as-the-bishop-said-to-the-actress’ jokes was regarded as going too far – though hardly as far as the camera and two-way mirror which spiked the ministerial career of Lord Lambton twenty years ago.

However routine the nature of the story – the tabloids carry similar yarns about defenceless little people every day of the week, without much complaint from the Great and the Good – its publication sparked an immediate revival of the long-running debate about the right to privacy and the need to curb the excesses of newspapers which breach it. For the incident came hard on the heels of a spectacular row about the Sunday Times’s decision to serialise what was blatantly billed as Princess Diana’s case against Prince Charles’s alleged neglect of her. It was the consensus view that telling the world that the wife of the heir to the throne was so unhappy that she had tried more than once to kill herself wasn’t news but a gross breach of privacy.

I have already expressed my view elsewhere that, by any standards of news judgment, the Princess Di story was news, and deserved to be published as long as it was either objectively true or at least a true record of what the Princess was alleging. My only qualification was that the Sunday Times’s pre-publication advertising of their ‘scoop’ was repellent in its crude vulgarity. The same can hardly be said of the Mellor affair. The excuse offered by the People’s editor – that Mr Mellor had told his lady friend that their nocturnal encounters were making him too tired to write his speeches, and that this made the story a legitimate matter of public interest – is frankly ludicrous. If that were the case, it would not just be the right but the duty of every newspaper in the land to report every occasion when an MP took a few drinks before voting in the Commons, let alone before attending a ministerial meeting. And if that happened, I hate to think where some of us journalists would be.

And yet ... I can’t help feeling there is more to this business than just a simple matter of the privacy of two illicit lovers. For a start, Mr Mellor and his lady friend are both, in their different ways, enthusiastic publicity-hunters. Indeed, Mr Mellor’s talent for catching a headline is legendary at Westminster. And people who thrust themselves into the public eye can hardly claim the right to insist that all the resulting publicity must be favourable – let alone demand that a newspaper which prints the bad as well as the good news should be punished, whether its revelations are true or not. On the other hand, I do not entirely swallow the sanctimonious argument that people who enter public life have a duty to be as pure as the driven snow ever after. Thirty years at Westminster has taught me that many of those who preach this kind of Holy Willie line are insufferable creeps, and that quite a lot of the rogues and layabouts are not only nicer but turn out to be more effective politicians as well. This does not mean that every MP needs a lover as well as his or her legal spouse. It simply means that the fact that some of them – no doubt too many of them – really do have lovers does not necessarily entail that they are worse politicians than those who haven’t. The essential question is the degree of hypocrisy involved, and the extent to which an adulterous MP’s activities actually threaten to warp his judgment on wider matters of state.

Which brings us back to Mr Mellor. One can only sympathise with his appeal, on the morning after his exposure, that he should be left alone to sort out the difficulties he and his wife were going through. But it contained a faint implication that the exposure was the event which had brought on these difficulties, rather than his illicit love affair. And the love affair would almost certainly have continued to flourish if it had not been for the exposure. To that extent, the People did Mrs Mellor a favour, though a painful one. At the same time, hypocrisy isn’t something one instantly associates with the Minister for Fun. Everyone has always known him to be a bit of a lad, and it cannot have come as a great surprise to his colleagues that he was up to some hanky-panky. On the other hand, if we acquit him of hypocrisy, we are entitled to press the alternative charge that he allowed his private affairs to get so enmeshed with his ministerial duties that his judgment might have been affected.

The point of this is that he used to be the minister responsible for the media during his stint at the Home Office some years ago, and that he has resumed responsibility for its affairs in his new role as Heritage Secretary. It was he who issued a colourful and oft-quoted warning to the press about their treatment of individual privacy, saying that they were ‘drinking in the Last Chance Saloon’. A few weeks ago he reactivated Sir David Calcutt, the QC who chaired the committee which recommended setting up the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission, asking him to decide whether its present voluntary status was doing the job. Since privacy was the issue at stake, and Mr Mellor had a profound interest in maintaining the privacy of his personal life, a conflict of interest was clearly a possibility.

To be fair to Mr Mellor, he had always been sceptical about the value of a statutory right to privacy, drawing on his own legal experience to point out the difficulty of drafting a workable definition of privacy, on the one hand, and the public interest, on the other. We have no means of knowing how his brush with the tabloid press may have affected his attitude, either consciously or subconsciously, now that some kind of decision on the need for a privacy law seems imminent. No doubt that was part of the reasoning behind Mr Mellor’s honourable offer to resign his post. But the Prime Minister’s insistence that he should stay on plainly left the matter unresolved. In these circumstances, the very least Mr Major can do is transfer Mr Mellor’s responsibility for the media, and for a decision on privacy, back to where it came from – the Home Office.

Meanwhile, it’s getting near closing-time down at the Last Chance Saloon. The landlord has called for last orders, and we are well into drinking-up time. But I can’t help feeling Mr Major would be unwise to give an already cynical public the opportunity to believe that he only acted on privacy because the privacy of one of his own cabinet ministers was at stake. That is certainly the issue raised by the allegation that during the election campaign an unnamed cabinet minister telephoned the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, to offer the names and phone numbers of several women who, he claimed, had had affairs with Paddy Ashdown. Mr Mackenzie made the allegation off-the-cuff in a BBC radio interview about the rights and wrongs of the Mellor affair, and it instantly lifted the whole controversy onto a new and higher plane of sleaziness. If true, it would concern all the pre-election rumours about political ‘dirty tricks’, and would also constitute telling evidence of the relationship between Top Tories and the gutter press.

One can’t help smiling at the thought of Tory Chairman Norman Fowler ringing round his former Cabinet colleagues, in the middle of a massive public spending crisis, to ask them whether they had talked to Mr MacKenzie of the Sun. Clearly Sir Norman had some notion of the absurdity of the procedure, since it appears that he had the good sense to leave Lord Chancellor Mackay off his list of suspects. The mind boggles at what that austere Presbyterian gentleman might have said to Sir Norman if such a question had been put to him.

For the really daft feature of Sir Norman’s interrogation of his colleagues is that it rests on the assumption that cabinet ministers are by definition honourable men and would therefore feel bound to tell the truth if asked point-blank: ‘Was it you?’ But the nature of the alleged offence is so grossly dishonourable that if one of them did indeed commit it, then he would not be the sort of person who could be expected to own up to it. Sir Norman’s mission was therefore impossible, and his claim that the Cabinet has been collectively ‘cleared’ is utterly worthless.

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