Mellor rides out storm as press bickers

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The Independent Online
David Mellor yesterday appeared to have ridden out the storm over his affair with the actress Antonia de Sancha as the Sunday newspapers turned on each other instead.

Yesterday's crop of reports contained nothing likely to worsen the Secretary of State for National Heritage's position, but they sparked off bitter controversy over the methods used by the People newspaper to obtain records of his private telephone conversations with the actress.

Bill Hagerty, the editor of the People, wrote to three broadsheet Sunday newspapers over their reports of the way the People broke the story. In the letters, Mr Hagerty denied allegations that one of his reporters posed as a private investigator and monitored and recorded conversations during hours of surveillance from outside Ms de Sancha's flat.

'No People representatives monitored or listened into any live telephone conversations made from the flat . . . No listening device . . . was ever installed in the flat in which Ms de Sancha was staying,' he wrote to Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times.

Mr Hagerty also wrote to Donald Trelford, the editor of the Observer, denying that a People representative used a ladder to climb into Ms de Sancha's flat, and to the Sunday Telegraph complaining about its coverage.

While the editors bickered among themselves, several MPs called for anti-bugging legislation and Mr Mellor chose his eight favourite records on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

Doubts among some Tory MPs that Mr Mellor could continue were stilled by two opinion polls showing a majority support for him. One, of the public, in the Sunday Telegraph showed 64 per cent of women and 59 per cent of men believe the minister should not resign. Of 55 Tory MPs questioned by the Sunday Express, more than three-quarters said he should stay.

The calls by a number of Conservative backbenchers for new laws on bugging will receive no swift response. The Government seems determined to postpone any decision until it sees the results of Calcutt II, the revived inquiry into privacy and the press announced by Mr Mellor before news of his affair broke.

Yesterday, as Ms de Sancha appeared in the Mail on Sunday declaring: 'We had a genuine relationship based on deep affection', Mr Mellor could be heard on Desert Island Discs discussing his passions for music and sport. The BBC said the programme had not been re-edited since it was recorded on 14 July, but Mr Mellor had not made any references to his family life.

As a result, there were only a few ironic moments. Among them was his choice of a telephone as his luxury and, while insisting that he would one day leave politics to pursue other interests, his observation that 'The sad thing about politicians is that they give the impression that they want to stay for ever. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming off the stage.'

Mr Mellor said that he recalled something once said by Max Miller, the comedian: 'Always quit when they are asking for more. . . . How few politicians ever know how to do that.'