'Gutter press' backed by watchdog

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The Independent Online
THE PUBLIC has a right to know about the private behaviour of politicians if it could affect their official duties, the Press Complaints Commission said yesterday. The declaration came as David Mellor's wife pleaded for privacy.

In a statement to the Press Association, Judith Mellor said: 'David and I would like the noise to stop so that we can deal with our problems in private.'

However, tabloid editors, who are growing increasingly angry at what they see as politicians' hypocritical demands for a privacy Bill, said the Press Complaints Commission's statement vindicated the People's decision to reveal the National Heritage Secretary's alleged adultery with an actress.

Patsy Chapman, editor of the News of the World and a commission member, said that the emergency meeting had in effect decided that the report was in the public interest. Earlier, she had threatened to resign from the commission if the Mellor coverage was criticised, saying: 'I think the public is on the side of the gutter press in this matter.'

Lord McGregor of Durris, the commission chairman, denied there had been a judgement on the rights and wrongs of the Mellor case. There had been no investigation, Lord McGregor said, because when Mr Mellor was asked if he wanted to lodge a complaint, he had declined.

But on the general issue of the privacy to be accorded to politicians, the commission gave succour to press arguments that there were often public interest grounds for investigating MPs' lives .

The commission said in a statement: 'In the case of politicians, the public has a right to be informed about private behaviour which affects, or may affect, the conduct of public business. The holders of public office must always be subject to public scrutiny, thus judgements about invasions of privacy must balance two sets of rights which may often conflict.'

Mr Mellor's office said that the minister was unlikely to comment - although the media fall directly within his Cabinet responsibility.

Lord McGregor, who in June attacked articles about the Princess of Wales's marriage as 'odious and prurient', said there would be a review of the newspaper industry's code of practice in the light of alleged invasions of the privacy of Clare Short, Paddy Ashdown, Virginia Bottomley, the Royal Family and Mr Mellor.

The commission will also study the arguments for a privacy law and submit them to the newly re-formed Calcutt inquiry into privacy. Lord McGregor said that he still strongly believed that a privacy law would 'destroy the essential basis of freedom of expression'.

Despite its unanimous statement, there were divisions within the regulatory body. Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, a former chairman of the Inner London Juvenile Court and a lay member of the commission, left saying that it had not achieved a great deal and that her view was that the People had been wrong to publish.

Politicians were also critical. Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader, said the ruling would add to Commons support for a private member's Bill by Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith, which would turn the commission from a voluntary to a statutory body answerable to Parliament.

Mr Soley said the commission's stance was ludicrous. 'They are suggesting that no one in public life has any privacy at all.'

Sir Bernard Ingham calls today for Mr Mellor to resign. In his column in the Daily Express Sir Bernard, Baroness Thatcher's press secretary when she was Prime Minister, praises John Major for trying to 'stand by his wayward pal', and adds: 'The public has an interest in knowing that a Cabinet minister, who presents himself as a family man and is responsible for reviewing privacy law, had a reason for guarding his privacy.'

Wife's plea; 'Dirty tricks' row, page 2