A David among the legal Goliaths: William Leith went to hear the libel case brought by the daughter of a PLO man and found someone else's name echoing throughout the court

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RICHARD STOTT, editor of the Daily Mirror, former editor of the People, and the defendant, took the stand. Rocking stiffly on his feet, he said: 'We are talking about the top Tory David Mellor. We are talking about David Mellor, David Mellor, David Mellor.'

It was true. Mr Mellor's name was everywhere. The Cabinet minister was not on trial, nor was he the plaintiff, but in the case of Bauwens vs Mirror Group Newspapers, he was without question the most prominent figure.

The case drew in figures as diverse as Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Robert Maxwell, David Platt, and Olly the Otter, but Mellor was like a running gag. 'If (he) behaves like an ostrich,' said George Carman QC for the defence, 'and puts his head in the sand, and thereby exposes his thinking parts, it may be a newspaper is entitled to say so.'

Mona Bauwens, the daughter of Jaweed Al-Ghussein, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, is suing the People for libel over two articles and an editorial which appeared in August 1990 under the headline 'Top Tory and his pal from the PLO.' The articles criticised Mr Mellor for accepting a holiday in Marbella, paid for by Mrs Bauwens, as the Gulf crisis was brewing.

But this criticism of Mr Mellor, claims Mrs Bauwens, is, by inference, a defamation of her character. She, after all, is not a member of the PLO. Richard Hartley QC, for Mrs Bauwens, said: 'The only inference is that no decent person should be seen in her company . . . she is thereby labelled as a person to be shunned and avoided.'

The case, in essence, is about whether the People was right to criticise Mr Mellor's 1990 summer holiday. Which means that the lawyers are trying to determine the exact level of any indiscretion by Mr Mellor.

How much of a blunder was it for Mr Mellor to go on a paid-for holiday to Marbella with the daughter of a PLO chief in August 1990? Answer: (a) So indiscreet that it almost defies belief, or (b) It's none of your business. Mr Carman, famous for his exquisite use of language, his measured pauses, his uncannily skilful nitpicking, takes view (a). Mr Hartley tends towards view (b).

Mr Mellor, of course, must be rooting for the plaintiff; on Tuesday, his wife posed outside the court, linking arms with her. That was the day after Mr Carman asked Mrs Bauwens whether she had visited a flat provided for Mr Mellor. Mr Hartley objected, but it still made the tabloids: the Evening Standard had Mrs Bauwens lying on a bed above the headline: 'Did you visit a flat provided for Mr Mellor?' Was this Bauwens vs the People? Or Carman vs Mellor? Hartley vs the tabloids? Sometimes it seemed like Saddam Hussein vs Robert Maxwell.

To start with, the case seemed pretty clear. Woman sues paper for defamation. But then the lawyers got stuck in, and you could not see where you were.

Mr Hartley, who wanted you to believe that Mrs Bauwens had been defamed, had the job of telling you how vile and sleazy the People had been. And one of the best ways he could do this was to invoke the vilest and sleaziest tabloid man of all, the late Robert Maxwell. Mr Hartley spoke with an air of impatience, like a man at a British Rail complaints bureau. He would get up and niggle for ages, then, almost before you knew it, he would be reeling in the figure of Mr Maxwell.

Grilling Mr Stott, Mr Hartley barked out: 'Did you write the editorial?'

Mr Stott: 'I . . . rewrote it.'

Mr Hartley: 'Who wrote it?'

'I can't remember.'

'You can't remember? Might it have been Mr Maxwell?'

'No . . . '

Then Mr Hartley, with the confidence of a man who has, at last, got the ticket inspector on the back foot, slipped up, mixing tenses. He asked: 'Does Mr Maxwell write your editorials?'

Mr Stott: 'Not any more he doesn't]'

Mr Carman had his work cut out for him. He had to prove that it was a reasonable, and perfectly legal, thing to do to write 'Top Tory and his pal from the PLO'. Mr Carman's best shot was to sum up with a tactic the opposite to Mr Hartley's - he used the most direct route possible to Saddam, and then crept slowly towards the plaintiff. It was a joy to watch.

Mr Carman addressed the court with an air of clerical rectitude, like a religious bigwig: it would have seemed vaguely blasphemous to believe he had any doubts. First, he invited the court to consider some facts which were, he said, 'beyond dispute'. Saddam, was 'an evil, brutal, and wicked man'. Fine. His taking of hostages to use as a human shield was 'conduct of a most repulsive kind'. Absolutely. In August 1990 'the clouds of war were gathering'. Uh-huh. 'The PLO, as late as 4 August, has allied itself to Saddam.' Good point. And then: 'Twenty-four days later, Mr Mellor was returning from a holiday with the daughter of an executive officer of the PLO.'

An executive officer of the PLO? What did that mean, exactly? Mr Carman had called an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, Philip Windsor, to clear things up.

Both lawyers picked away at Mr Windsor's brain, Mr Carman trying to establish how nasty the PLO were, Mr Hartley trying to find some good in them. At one point, Mr Hartley said: 'I was hoping you were going to enlighten me.' Mr Windsor replied: 'I would like to be enlightened.'

Earlier, Mr Carman had been trying to establish a tiny detail: had negotiations with the PLO been suspended at a particular point? No, not quite. What had been suspended was dialogue.

In his summing-up, Mr Hartley asked for copies of the People to be given to the jury; for a while, the courtroom was full of flapping tabloid sheets. In fact, it was strewn with tabloids: the garish pictures, the cheeky headlines.

The judge was reading the People. The headline on the front, which referred to the Duchess of York, was 'DREAMY]'. The headline on the back was 'BIG NEV'. Mr Hartley made the point that the Mellor story was not the main one on that Sunday in August 1990. He kept flipping the paper open. On page 3 was a picture of film star Demi Moore, half-naked, under the headline 'Demi-nude'. Then he read out a statement from page 2 about the People being 'A paper for the 1990s'. 'By Mr Maxwell,' he added.

But the spotlight kept coming around to the Minister of Fun. After the tabloids' Tuesday reports, Mr Justice Drake broke into the proceedings and said, of the jury: 'They may have thought there was a suggestion of a bit of hanky-panky going on.' Mr Carman replied: 'My Lord, I didn't suggest any hanky-panky.'

And in his summing-up, Mr Carman, talking about the uneasy political situation in August 1990, said: 'It didn't mean she couldn't go on holiday with David Platt and his wife. It didn't mean she couldn't go on holiday with David Bowie and his wife. It didn't mean she couldn't go on holiday with David Attenborough and his wife, and it didn't mean she couldn't go on holiday with David Gower and his wife, or with any of the other distinguished Davids. But David Mellor was a different David . . . '

The case continues.

(Photograph omitted)