Anatomy of a sting: how an MP was trapped

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Conservative MP Piers Merchant was the latest victim of tabloid newspaper investigations into sleaze.

Kim Sengupta looks at the newspaper operation behind his fall, and examines the questions it raises about privacy and the press.

The flat was in York, the room had "traditional" oak beams and a "huge" double bed. Lying "provocatively" on this bed was a crotchless, fake-leopard-skin body suit. Anna Cox held it up to Piers Merchant and his friend and former researcher Anthony Gilberthorpe, and murmured "Only Piers is going to see me in this, and he will have to wait". All this and much, much more was being video-taped, and lies locked away in the offices of the Sunday Mirror.

On Tuesday, Mr Merchant, the MP for Beckenham, resigned, just 24 hours after after threatening legal action against the Sunday Mirror, and posing for a photo opportunity with his wife Helen and his mistress, Anna Cox, an 18-year-old former nightclub hostess. He had discovered the sheer extent of the evidence of adultery the newspaper had gathered against him.

Since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the questioning of media tactics that followed, this was the first major tabloid excursion in exposing the alleged sexual transgressions of a public figure.

The Press Complaints Commission had promised a clampdown on intrusions into privacy. But Mr Merchant has not, as yet complained. If he did, the newspaper's defence will be public interest. The MP, they could say, has consistently lied about his relationship with Ms Cox and hypocritically used the issue to castigate the press.

The most potent evidence in the newspaper's armoury is the one which could in fact lead to the most concern about the methods used in a newspaper investigation - the video and audio tapes which allegedly prove Mr Merchant was much more than just a good friend of Ms Cox, as he had claimed to the public and his constituency.

Apart from the sexual aspect, the tapes also apparently recorded Mr Merchant making Heil Hitler salutes about Mr Gilberthorpe becoming the owner and boss of an antique centre below his flat, and making remarks about senior Tories.

How did the Sunday Mirror get this? It was arranged through Anthony Gilberthorpe, and filmed at his York home, the apparatus being set up by a surveillance expert.

It is understood that Mr Gilberthorpe, who had worked for Mr Merchant in the mid 80s when he was MP for Newcastle Central and subsequently kept in touch, took the story to the Sunday Mirror at the end of last week. A figure of around pounds 25,000 was negotiated. Mr Gilberthorpe has not been available for comment since.

It was also Mr Gilberthorpe who supplied other details of the trip, such as how Ms Cox, on her way to York, visited the National Council for Cosmetic Surgery in Birmingham for a post-operative check-up on implants which had enlarged her breasts.

The Sunday Mirror's informant had told them that Mr Merchant, 46, who has two children, was taking Ms Cox to the Tory conference in Blackpool. While there, he would be attending a fringe meeting about press and privacy, and take the opportunity to make a strong attack on tabloid newspapers from the point of view of an "innocent victim".

His "victimisation" had come just before the election. Then, the self- same Ms Cox had gone to the the Sun through the offices of agent Max Clifford claiming she was having a relationship with Mr Merchant. Ms Cox claimed she had been "used" as Mr Merchant's "plaything" - however, she was paid about pounds 20,000 by the Sun. After the election, the couple got back together again.

The Sunday Mirror, part of the Mirror Group which owns shares in The Independent, had no qualms about covering the story. Mr Merchant was a hypocrite who needed to be exposed. At Blackpool he said: "The tabloids ... distort reality ... often of course the story is completely fictional".

A team of four reporters and two photographers were dispatched to track Mr Merchant and Ms Cox. They compiled a portfolio of photos, 12 of which were to be used, in a six-page spread. To back it all up, there were the tapes whirling away.

Mr Merchant and Ms Cox were finally confronted on a train journey to London. He apparently wanted to know just how much the paper "had" on him. He then called his wife on his mobile phone, and left.

After the Sunday Mirror story appeared, a statement issued in the name of Mr Merchant, his wife Helen, and Ms Cox spoke of " scurrilous allegations", and insisted "Anna and Piers are not having an affair", and that Anna was a "family friend". Within 48 hours, the MP had resigned.