When David Mellor took over Britain’s newly created national heritage department in April, the news media quickly nicknamed him the “Minister of Fun.” The portfolio put him in charge of sports, the arts, plans for a new national lottery—and gave him responsibility for deciding if the country’s press intrudes too much into the private lives of public figures.
Last week, it became painfully apparent that Mellor had been having altogether too much fun for his own good.
A tabloid newspaper, The People, revealed that the 43-year-old married minister was involved in a steamy affair with an actress. The blaze of publicity that followed may cripple Mellor’s political career, and it has turned the Minister of Fun into a figure of fun. It also reopened Britain’s long-running debate over whether the country’s sometimes outrageous tabloids should be subject to stiffer legal restrictions.
The People's story was firmly rooted in the tradition of British political sex scandals. Ever since a defence minister, John Profumo, had to resign because of his notorious affair with call girl Christine Keeler in 1963, Britons have been regularly entertained by the spectacle of public figures being humbled by exposure of their personal peccadillos. Last week’s accounts of Mellor’s entanglement with 31-yearold Spanish-born actress Antonia de Sancha were among the juiciest of recent revelations. The People published verbatim transcripts of their phone conversations. “You have absolutely exhausted me,” Mellor told de Sancha at one point. “I had a wonderful time with you last night and I felt really positive all day.” Apparently aware that newspapers were investigating their affair, he advised her to deny everything, saying: “Keep your pecker up, my love. We can handle this.”
In large part, the revelations merely fed public prurience and the tabloids’ appetite for circulation-building stories. Other papers followed up the People story with more details about de Sancha’s checkered acting career. She attended Britain’s leading drama school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and last September toured universities in North America playing the role of a scheming wife in a classical Greek play, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. But she had less-refined roles as well,
including that of a one-legged prostitute who has sex with a pizza delivery man in a soft-pom movie called The Pieman. Pictures from the movie, published by another tabloid, The Sun, last week, deepened Mellor’s public embarrassment—as did lurid reports of de Sancha’s
penchant for sucking her lovers’ toes. Mellor pleaded for time to repair the damage to his 18year marriage to his wife, Judith, also 43.
Tabloid editors defended the revelations on grounds of public interest. William Hagerty, editor of The People, maintained that his story showed that Mellor was too exhausted to do his job as a minister. More importantly, he said, it demonstrated that Mellor should not be entrusted with the task of deciding if the government should adopt new legal restrictions designed to stop newspapers from infringing on privacy rights. Two years ago, when a government committee investigating the issue pub-
lished its findings, Mellor, then a junior minister with responsibility for the press, warned that the tabloids could face restrictions if they did not voluntarily curb abuses of privacy. And following publication of reports in early June about the breakdown in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, he ordered a new report on privacy and the media. Last week, The Sun pointedly asked in an editorial: “How can he be left in charge of a privacy bill? There is no one less suited.” Editors strongly oppose any further restrictions, arguing that they might prevent legitimate investigations and stop the public from finding out about abuses by politicians and other public figures. The Daily Star, another tabloid, warned that “the Establishment is in full cry to protect their own from the embarrassment of public scrutiny.” Others argued that a law to protect individual privacy from press intrusion would be unworkable because there is no way to define exactly when the public interest would justify trespassing on a politician’s private life. And a privacy law, some experts said, would be especially dangerous in Britain. Hugh Stephenson, professor of journalism at London’s City University, _ noted that Britain has no constitutiono al guarantee of press freedom and has harsh libel laws, which already curb many abuses by newspapers. “A privacy law would not be counterbalanced by any presumption of press freedom,” he said.
The controversy pitted the tabloids against the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major, who last week publicly supported Mellor, one of his closest friends in the cabinet, and dismissed the affair as a private matter. During Britain’s recent election campaign, the mainly Tory tabloids supported Major and heaped abuse on the opposition Labour Party. In fact, some Conservatives hailed the editors as the real heroes of the successful Tory campaign.
But the prospect of new legal restrictions aroused the tabloids’ immediate hostility. Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie even claimed that a Tory minister had offered him information about the private life of an opposition politician, Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown, just before the April 9 election. The government, MacKenzie argued, was simply hypocritical—decrying media intrusion into private lives while trying to feed scandalous tidbits about its opponents to favored newspapers. Tory officials flatly denied MacKenzie’s account. But the exchange underlined how bitter the fight could get if the government tries to impose a law to bring the tabloids to heel and ensure that more politicians do not suffer the fate of Britain’s unfortunate Minister of Fun.
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