Parliament and Politics: The Mellor Resignation: Privacy laws 'would not have halted de Sancha story': Kathy Marks tests reactions in the media to Mr Mellor's resignation statement

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Indy Politics
NEWSPAPER editors were unperturbed yesterday by David Mellor's resignation speech, in which he criticised the conduct of the press and put the issue of a privacy Bill back on the agenda.

Bill Hagerty, editor of the Sunday People, which first carried the story of Mr Mellor's liaison with the actress Antonia de Sancha, dismissed suggestions that the saga that led to his resignation would increase pressure for statutory controls on invasion of privacy.

'People in the Establishment may use that argument, but it's a fatuous one,' he said. 'There are many politicians and senior figures who would love to see legislation against the press, but this affair does not make it more likely.'

Mr Hagerty said privacy legislation would not have prevented the revelations about Mr Mellor appearing, since it had always been made clear that any such Bill would have to include a let-out clause providing for the publication of public interest stories.

Martin Dunn, editor of Today, told the BBC Radio World at One programme that, while the methods used to uncover the former minister's relationship with Miss de Sancha might cause concern, it had been 'fair and proper' for the press to question his judgement in accepting free holidays.

Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, said on the same programme that it was important to distinguish between the privacy of ordinary citizens and of public figures. While a free press had its unpleasant sides, it was 'a bit of democracy which should not be whittled away'.

This view was echoed by the Press Complaints Commission, the industry's self-regulatory body. Its director, Mark Bolland, said that the PCC would reiterate its firm opposition to statutory controls in its submission to the Calcutt review of press regulation.

'We believe that while individuals have the right to privacy in domestic matters, public figures must be subject to public scrutiny by the press.

'It would be a disaster for democracy if the Government were to intervene directly in the press by establishing a statutory body to regulate content.'

Santha Rasaiah, a spokeswoman for the Newspaper Society, which represents the regional press, said that any review of privacy laws should take account of the responsible behaviour of the majority of newspapers. 'We are concerned that the focus should not be on particular incidents and particular papers, but on the wider context.'

Clive Soley, the Labour MP whose backbench Bill would establish a statutory right to have factual inaccuracies corrected, said he was certain that the Mellor affair had strengthened the hand of campaigners for a privacy Bill.

'There is a growing recognition in the House of Commons that freedom has to be tempered by responsibility,' he said.

'Suddenly the Tory Party is aware of two things: the danger of the circulation battle which means that anything goes, and the inaccurate reporting which we have been used to for years but which some of them have now been victim of and which they have found so painful.'

But Mr Soley said that he was not necessarily in favour of privacy legislation. 'I would have to look very carefully at the small print to see what let-out clauses there were for pubic interest exposure,' he said. 'Any such Bill would need to be accompanied by a freedom of information act and possibly an act protecting the rights of the press.

'It should be drawn up in its own right, not directed at a particular set of circumstances, and aim to protect ordinary people.'