Sex, Di and the Mirror Man: Nick Cohen investigates the way press violation of privacy became front-page news

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SIX WEEKS ago a purveyor of scandal to the tabloids met a New Zealand voyeur for lunch in the Silks and Spice Thai restaurant at 23 Foley Street, central London. Together they primed a bomb that may yet blow another hole in press freedom in Britain.

Neither understood the consequences of his actions.

Bryce Taylor, 39, director of the LA Fitness Club in Isleworth, west London, had a set of photographs of the Princess of Wales exercising in his gym. They had been taken in May with a camera concealed behind a hole in a wall overlooking an exercise machine. They showed the Princess in a leotard with her legs spread apart. If they were not pornographic, they pandered to the dirty old man's dream of spying on a semi-clothed young woman, a fantasy as old as the story of Susanna and the elders.

Taylor simply wanted to get as much money as possible from the press for his betrayal of trust. He asked Max Clifford, a friend for three years, which newspaper he should approach.

Clifford, 49, must have seemed at the time to be the best possible source of advice. He was (and is) an irrepressible master of schlock PR. His record includes arranging for Freddie Starr's hamster-eating and the details of Antonia de Sancha's affair with David Mellor to appear in print. But if this makes him sound seedy, there is also an eccentric, almost chivalrous, side to his character. He will happily give free advice to ordinary people who believe they have been set up and misrepresented by newspapers. He will, indeed, talk to anyone. Friends and associates find the problem is getting him to keep quiet.

Clifford has his own idea of scruples, and he takes them seriously. He insisted last week that he did not become professionally involved in the affair of the gym photographs until after they were published in the Sunday Mirror. 'I thought she looked gorgeous,' he said. 'It wasn't as if they had been taken in the loo or in the shower. But from the start I said that the way he (Taylor) had got them was wrong. So I was prepared to look after him only after the fuss began. I did not want to deal with the pictures before.'

At the September lunch, his friends said, he confined himself to 'pointing Taylor in the right direction' rather than acting formally as the fitness instructor's agent.

As they huddled in the crowded restaurant, Clifford went through Taylor's options. The climate was not as good as it might be for such a sale. Sunday papers were the best bet, and the News of the World, the biggest-selling newspaper in the country, would normally pay most. But he had heard that Rupert Murdoch's editors were under orders to keep invasions of privacy to a minimum.

The Mail on Sunday? Clifford did not like doing business with it, and did not recommend it. No, the best prospects were the Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express. Clifford recommended to Taylor a Fleet Street news agency and also gave him the names of five people whom he might contact, including Russell Cox, the picture editor of the Sunday Mirror and an old friend of Clifford's.

Taylor went to the Sunday Express three weeks ago and asked for pounds 100,000 for the British rights to the pictures. He got nowhere. The photographs appeared to be in breach of the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) - the regulatory body that the newspaper industry established in the hope of warding off further legal restraints on what it can print. Clauses four and eight of the code of conduct prohibit invasions of privacy and the intrusive use of cameras.

The code has been flouted before, and the fact that it is enforced by a commission financed by the press itself has led many cynics to conclude that it is a sham. But in recent years it has at the very least made every newspaper feel obliged to mount what is called a 'public interest defence' of stories about the private lives of royals and politicians.

This is the argument that, while a story may involve an invasion of privacy, it can be justified on the grounds that it serves the public interest. Thus the Sun and the Mirror, after they printed pictures of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by her financial adviser, offered the justification that she was living at the taxpayers' expense and representing Britain to the world.

The People justified reporting David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha on the grounds that he had said it left him 'knackered', and this might interfere with his ministerial duties. Similarly, Mellor's free holiday, Norman Lamont's use of taxpayers' money for his legal expenses and Steven Norris's adultery could all be justified as exposes of what purported to be an honest, prudent and family-loving government. No such argument, however flimsy, could be deployed to justify the invasion of the Princess's privacy as she worked out in a gym.

There is a dispute about what happened at the Sunday Express. According to the paper, the decision to tell Taylor to go was made in minutes. But Clifford implied in a speech at the Cambridge Union last Thursday that it had taken the intervention of Lord Stevens, the chairman of Express Newspapers, to stop a deal that would otherwise have gone ahead. In the end it does not matter; someone realised the damage the pictures could do and had the sense to turn Taylor away.

RARELY in recent history can the climate of popular and political opinion have been so hostile to the press, and so sympathetic to the idea of legal curbs on its behaviour. Years of tasteless and intrusive reporting of the lives of show business and political figures have caused a build-up of distaste and resentment (although it has not caused a collapse of tabloid sales). The treatment of the Prince and Princess of Wales, above all, has provoked outrage. In Parliament, most Labour and Conservative MPs want to see press legislation.

All of the broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, however, are agreed that to create a privacy law and a statutory tribunal would be to throw the baby of legitimate investigative reporting out with the dirty bathwater of peeping-tommery. They have argued desperately that the press can put its own house in order through the PCC and the code of conduct.

The Government has dallied with the idea of legal curbs, and an official report on press conduct by Sir David Calcutt QC called for the code of conduct to be enforced by a state tribunal with powers to fine newspapers.

In recent months, however, Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, has become increasingly sympathetic to the arguments of the newspaper editors, and it seemed that he had won a battle against Kenneth Clarke and anti-press hawks in the Cabinet.

Whoever it was at Express Newspapers who took the decision not to buy the Diana pictures could see that these gains could be thrown away if they were printed.

Bryce Taylor, however, did not give up. He contacted Russell Cox, who introduced him to Mirror Group Newspapers. There, the reaction was quite different. He was swiftly signed up, photographed, interviewed at length and paid pounds 100,000.

CRITICS of the Mirror Group blame the decision to embrace Taylor on a management that, they say, has deliberately set about destroying the traditions of what were once the proudest papers in the country - traditions that, they say, had previously withstood all comers, even Robert Maxwell.

The new management at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People is led by David Montgomery, the chief executive. Arthur Andersen, the administrators of the collapsed Maxwell empire, moved in the Ulsterman in the autumn of last year. He had previously edited the pro-Conservative papers Today and News of the World for Rupert Murdoch.

One of his first acts was to lock out 100 freelance journalists. Then Richard Stott, the editor of the Daily Mirror, was forced to go, followed swiftly by Bill Hagerty, editor of the People. The National Union of Journalists, a potential source of opposition, was beheaded with the departure of Trevor Davies, the father of the chapel (or shop steward), his successor and most of the union committee. Alistair Campbell, the Mirror's political editor, Terry Pattinson, the industrial editor, Paul Foot, the paper's investigative columnist, Marcia Brackett, the fashion editor - the list is long - were either sacked, forced to leave or resigned. In all, 600 people, including support staff, left.

At one point the staff passed a motion of no confidence. David Banks, the editor Montgomery put in charge of the Daily Mirror, responded by asking each one to sign a letter of support within five days. Anyone who refused was invited to meet him 'for a chat'.

The places of the redundant, it is alleged, were taken by men and women conspicuously loyal to Montgomery. From Today, a small tabloid with a fifth of the Daily Mirror's sales, have come Amanda Platell, managing editor, Jane Moore, Daily Mirror features editor, Ron Morgans, Daily Mirror picture editor, and David Seymour, political editor for the whole Mirror group. Paul Connew, who had worked with Montgomery on the News of the World, became deputy editor of the Daily Mirror. Colin Myler, the editor of the Sunday Mirror, which first published the Diana pictures, had worked for Montgomery on Today but moved to the Mirror Group before his former editor. David Banks was not from Today or the News of the World, but his previous experience as an editor had been gained on an Australian daily newspaper owned by Murdoch.

As Montgomery introduced his sweeping changes, the Labour Party began to worry that the sole newspaper group to support it was being taken over by graduates from a hard, Conservative school. But the City, whose banks and institutions had been left with apparently near-worthless shares after Maxwell's death, loved the new regime, and it is not hard to see why.

Since Montgomery took over at Mirror Group its share price has risen from a post-Maxwell low of 60p to 153p. Guy Lamming, an analyst at James Capel, said last week: 'He's done OK. He's been up against fierce competition from News International. His company had a lot of debts and had to pay off the Mirror pensioners. He went in to sack a lot of people and make it more efficient and that's what he's done.'

The journalists who have been on the receiving end of this efficient management naturally see it differently. They have argued that Montgomery has inflicted long-term damage on the paper for short-term profit. They say that circulation, the tabloid paper's daily bread, has fallen, and an aggressive management has introduced a climate of fear among staff.

After Montgomery's decision to run the Diana pictures, such critics felt their fears had been vindicated. 'There's a staff of toadies there now who either can't or dare not speak their minds,' said Paul Foot. 'A host of excellent backroom technicians, sub-editors and people who had the courage to say boo to a goose, and could have warned against printing these pictures, have gone.'

Roy Greenslade, editor of the Mirror from 1990 to 1991, said: 'No editor worth his or her salt would have printed those pictures in a climate of such hostility towards the press when a privacy law is a real possibility.

'I opposed Montgomery's appointment precisely because he sailed so close to the wind when he was editor of Today. He was called the jackdaw because of his habit of taking stories and feature ideas from rivals. Far from being embarrassed, he mounted a stuffed jackdaw on his office wall. If you look at his track record, a disaster like this was inevitable.'

This may sound like sour grapes - Fleet Street's favourite fruit - but it is hard to believe that the Mirror Group management, when they bought and printed the pictures, had any idea of the opprobrium they would bring on themselves, not just from the familiar critics of press intrusion, but from the whole newspaper industry.

THE DEAL for the British rights to the pictures was struck 10 days ago, in the immediate aftermath of another Mirror Group setback. Elton John won pounds 350,000 damages - the eighth-largest libel award in legal history - from the Sunday Mirror for a false claim that the singer, who had suffered from bulimia, had adopted a strange diet that involved eating food without swallowing it.

The new Diana project was shrouded in secrecy. Just six people in the Sunday Mirror offices knew on Friday 5 November that the pictures were going to be printed on the Sunday.

They were announced with the headline 'Di Spy Sensation', a full-page picture and a caption that read: 'World Exclusive: This is the Princess of Wales as you have never seen her before - working out at a private gymnasium. The stunning picture is part of a remarkable set, secretly taken, of the world's most coveted cover girl - and will spark a new Royal security storm.' This last was the paper's attempt at a public interest defence. More was promised on pages 2, 3, 12, 13 and the centre spread, with 'more revelations in next week's Sunday Mirror'.

No previous royal expose, not even Andrew Morton's book on the royal marriage, has caused such untempered outrage. Even the Sun lapsed into moral indignation, and this was no routine display of competitive bickering. National newspaper editors, who often privately admire or envy their rivals' coups, were furious about Montgomery's decision and they showed it.

But on the Monday the Mirror reprinted the pictures and attacked Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the PCC, MPs and rival newspapers, for an 'appalling display of hypocritical opportunism'. Now the real trouble began. As the Princess resorted to writs, Lord McGregor called on advertisers to boycott the papers. Banks and Montgomery responded defiantly by pulling the Mirror papers out of the PCC.

Panic seized the newspaper industry. Rupert Murdoch phoned Montgomery, his old employee, to ask him to reconsider. Sir David English, chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, said the lack of common sense left him wondering whether the 'ghost of Maxwell is raging in the corridors' of the Mirror Group.

Their fears, expressed in blistering editorials, were genuine. The Diana affair prompted a discussion of a privacy Bill at last Thursday's cabinet meeting and Kenneth Clarke and his supporters had the better of the argument. The flagrant breach of privacy appeared to confirm the belief, widely held, that the PCC was a wimpish body that proprietors would always ignore when it suited them.

The Mirror bent under the pressure, and cracked. On Wednesday, after frantic negotiations, the group rejoined the commission. Banks said he regretted the upset he had caused the Princess and Montgomery said that sometimes newspapers made misjudgements.

But this patching-up may be too late. Peter Brooke said he was once again considering criminal and civil penalties for breaches of privacy. Downing Street sources said on Friday that the affair had 'dented' the belief that the press could regulate itself. A White Paper on privacy will be published in the new year. The Princess of Wales herself may introduce a narrow version of a civil privacy law if the courts uphold her claim that the taking and publishing of the photographs was a breach of confidence and a breach of contract.

Many questions remain. Did Taylor have help when he took the pictures? Why did it take him so long to approach the press? Was the Mirror Group merely foolish, or was it courting notoriety? Can the damage to the PCC be repaired?

Among Montgomery's critics on the staff of the Mirror, the affair has only served to deepen the mood of dismay. 'I think most of us would have liked to publicly dissociate ourselves from the photographs,' said one staffer. 'But we can't because there is a rule of fear here. Everyone is afraid of Montgomery. No one feels their jobs are safe.'

(Photographs omitted)