Funny that. Minister's harassed neighbours suddenly go quiet

Did 'Punch' bully residents of Peter Mandelson's street, or is the Minister merely miffed at what it printed? asks Rosa Prince reports
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The Independent Online
IT IS A tale of a 150-year-old magazine, the Minister Without Portfolio and a series of mysterious accusations of press harassment.

The issue arises from an in-depth profile of the minister Peter Mandelson by the magazine Punch entitled The Mandelson Files, which runs to 10 pages in the current issue. When he got wind of the piece, Mr Mandelson complained to the magazine that a journalist from Punch had been annoying his neighbours in west London in the course of his research. However, when the editor of Punch, James Steen, invited neighbours to complain of harassment, not a single resident came forward.

Mr Steen was first informed of "concern in the neighbourhood" in a telephone call from Guy Black, director of the Press Complaints Commission.

He said he was told by Mr Black that residents had telephoned the Commission saying they were being harassed by a Punch journalist. Two days later Punch received a phone call from Mr Mandelson himself. Mr Steen said: "He told me Punch had been harassing his neighbours and that this was 'serious stuff'. The premise was there had been complaints and there were going to be complaints to the PCC. I felt he was threatening me with the Commission."

Mr Steen wrote to all the residents of the west London terraced street where Mr Mandel- son lives, inviting them to telephone him if they had been harassed. None has done so. In fact, to date the only response Punch has had to its letter was a call from a neighbour saying she had not been harassed. The Independent on Sunday equally failed to find a single neighbour who had been harassed or who had made a complaint.

The complaints are alleged to have come in the form of telephone calls to the Press Complaints Commission, yet two weeks on, the PCC has yet to receive any formal, written, complaints. This has led the Punch editor to question why Mr Black telephoned him at all.

"I was told I was going to get a number of complaints of harassment," he said. "Something very strange has gone on here."

Despite interventions from the Minister Without Portfolio, who contacted editor James Steen and the magazine's proprietor Mohammed al Fayed, the bulk of the profile was published last week and the remaining section is due to appear this Wednesday.

It is not difficult to see why Mr Mandelson should have been hostile to the Punch profile. It includes an article entitled "Peter's friends: to know him is to love him - or hate him", and gives a half-page to a feature by leading gay activist Peter Tatchell en- titled "Why Mandy won't let sexuality queer his pitch".

Both Mr Steen and a source close to Punch proprietor Mr Fayed suggest Mr Mandelson asked Michael Cole, Mr Fayed's spokesman, to request the millionaire to suppress the piece.

Peter Mandelson's aide confirmed that the minister spoke to Mr Cole but would not reveal what they discussed.

Mr Cole himself said: "While Mr Fayed takes a great interest in Punch he never seeks to influence the editorial content, and that would be the answer to anyone who asked."

Mr Black denied the PCC was attempting to influence publication of The Mandelson Files. He said: "We had no interest in trying to stop what was published, we were just concerned about the way that news was being gathered and wanted to make sure it was being done according to the code."

He refused to comment when asked whether "concern in the neighbourhood" had in fact come from Mr Mandelson.

Mr Black said he had contacted Punch because he wanted to ensure that the editor of "a relatively new magazine" understood the PCC's guidelines on harassment and said he often phoned editors in this way.

But the editor of Punch, which far from being relatively new is 151 this year (although it was relaunched in September 1996 after a period of non- publication), thought he did understand the harassment laws, and believed his journalist Richard Creasy did as well.

Mr Creasy said: "We were doing an in-depth profile so we wanted to speak to anyone and everyone who knows Mandelson, including his neighbours. But I was very gentle, very polite. I just asked the usual questions about what sort of neighbour he was."