Drinks all round in Saloon

Bottomley attacked for allowing press to continue its Inside Parliament self-regulation of excesses
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David Mellor's memorable warning about the press drinking in "the Last Chance Saloon" was given an extensive reworking in the Commons yesterday as Virginia Bottomley set new standards in unpopular announcements - even for her.

In her first appearance at the Despatch Box as Secretary of State for National Heritage, the luckless Mrs Bottomley was given no support from either side of the House as she rejected legislation to curb press intrusions into privacy and a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal.

To a mixture of guffaws and angry protests, she said the press was going to be allowed to demonstrate that self-regulation could be made to work. Sir Edward Heath asked if she did not recognise that it had been tried time and time again and shown to be unsuccessful? Far from being responsible, large parts of the British press were now "the worst in the world", he said.

"Thoroughly gutless and supine," was the verdict of David Ashby, a Conservative who became the focus of newspaper curiosity last January over sharing a bed with a male friend at French hotel. Mr Ashby said he had been strongly advised not to respond to Mrs Bottomley's statement for fear he would again be "terrorised" by the press.

Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, concluded: "It does seem that the Last Chance Saloon has had a substantial extension given to its drinking hours." He was "severely disappointed" that the recommendation of Sir David Calcutt for a specific offence of physical intrusion through bugging devices or invasion of private property had not been adopted.

"When the hospital bed of Gordon Kaye or Russell Harty is invaded to get a cheap story, that is something all of us in this House would wish to deal with," he said.

Mrs Bottomley maintained there were "intractable difficulties" over framing legislation on the Calcutt recommendation, but even the normally loyal barrister Edward Garnier urged her to think again.

MPs were sceptical about the Secretary of State's recommendation that the Press Complaints Commission pay out compensation to those it judged had had their privacy violated. The money would come from a fund set up by the industry, she said, but appeared to relent on the detail as MPs pointed out that good newspapers would be subsidising the bad.

Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, suggested the fund should be made up of bonds put up by proprietors which they would lose if their newspapers transgressed.

Sir Giles Shaw, Conservative MP for Pudsey, said the Government had decided that "inaction is the order of the day". "Why must we believe that editors and newspaper proprietors will behave more rationally now than they have done in the past?"

Another Tory, Roger Gale, MP for Thanet North, said he had evidence from a Daily Mirror journalist that reporters used laser directional microphones to eavesdrop on conversations. There was evidence that these devices had been used to overhear police conversations after the death of Stephen Milligan, Tory MP for Eastleigh.

"A free society requires a free press but when the press itself dabbles in these kind of excesses - solely to meet the demands of a circulation war - then the time has come to act," he said.

Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw and a Sun columnist, said Mrs Bottomley had failed to mention "the invading army of picket-line doorsteppers" who besieged rape victims and widows of people killed in Northern Ireland.

"What she has said is that they can continue putting hidden cameras into gymnasiums ... even Princess Di didn't have the money to stop that sort of thing."

Mr Ashton said that Mrs Bottomley's son and John Major's son had both had their privacy invaded because they were related to politicians, and said the press was acting like "the KGB and the Stasi". He wanted an independent tribunal not run by the press.

Founding heritage secretary David Mellor, a casualty of revelations about his affair with actress Antonia de Sancha, sympathised with Mrs Bottomley's inability to show the "smack of firm government" on her first outing.

"The Government has willed that the press have a further round of drinks in the Last Chance Saloon. Let us hope it is not business as usual in all parts of the bar," Mr Mellor said, amending his legend.

Peter Brooke, another former heritage secretary, said that if the "madness" in some parts of the press continued, "then the British people will cut the press off at the ankles in the same way that they cut off the King, the barons, the church and the trade unions".

Neatly encapsulating her dilemma, Mrs Bottomley replied: "The importance of the freedom of the press in a democracy cannot be overstated. At the same time the impatience of this House to see further action ... also needs very firmly underlining. I hope it doesn't first make me or Mr Brooke mad." To find so little fun in the heritage department after being shuffled over from health, Mrs Bottomley may wonder whether she too isn't in the Last Chance Saloon.