The Mellor Affair: Rebel at the heart of the 'Sun': Michael Leapman on Wapping's unlikely champion of the people

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LARRY LAMB, the first editor of Rupert Murdoch's Sun, was awarded a knighthood by a grateful government. Last Monday Kelvin MacKenzie, his successor, put paid to his admittedly slender chance of following suit. He alleged in a radio interview that a Cabinet minister offered him untrue smears about Paddy Ashdown during the election campaign.

Contacts between editors and ministers are invariably on off-the-record, we-never-even-spoke terms. By flouting this code, MacKenzie broke the first rule of a club of which he has never seen himself as a member.

It was deliberate. He seldom gives interviews, but decided to speak out on Monday in an attempt to reverse the direction of the debate on press intrusion prompted by the People's revelations about David Mellor. As a bonus, he managed to place the Sun at the centre of the story, elbowing aside the paper that had the original scoop.

'I think he was genuinely worried that on this occasion the messages coming out from Number 10 were that a privacy Bill was a possibility,' said Roy Greenslade, who was MacKenzie's assistant editor for six years. 'He didn't want to miss the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy of politicians.'

Or, as he put it himself: 'Privacy is a sideshow . . . If you don't want to appear in the papers, then don't drop your trousers.'

Like Murdoch, MacKenzie, 45, sees himself as an iconoclast, a populist, a sword-swinging champion of the common herd against the predatory establishment. He is proud of his middle-class background (his parents were also journalists), his lone O-level (English literature - not art as the legend has it) and the fact that he started as a cub reporter on a small east London paper. He is possibly the only editor to have turned down a summons to Buckingham Palace, when the Queen wanted to complain about coverage of the newly-wed Princess of Wales. He claimed a prior engagement with Murdoch, his personal head of state.

'The Sun arouses hatred because it represents a power outside the establishment,' MacKenzie said in 1989. 'In a sense nobody likes it.' Greenslade said: 'He really dislikes the hypocrisy of the establishment and to him the Mellor affair reeked of it. He supports Conservative politicians for their political views but doesn't have much time for them as a group. He doesn't meet them much or go to their clubs. He's the archetypical unclubbable man - pubbable but unclubbable.'

Pubbable, certainly. Although alcohol is barred in the Sun's news room at Wapping, in London's Docklands, the atmosphere he fosters there mimics that of a saloon bar occupied by a notably raucous group of lads and lasses.

Even random callers are sucked into the manic atmosphere of elaborate jokes. There was the reader who phoned to complain about a story and found himself talking direct to MacKenzie, who has a habit of picking up any phone left ringing. MacKenzie told him that, for his impertinence, he and his family would be banned from buying the paper.

When I called this week with a request for an interview, I found myself bantering with MacKenzie via his assistant, Stuart Higgins, relaying my request to him as we spoke. 'He says why should he give the Independent on Sunday any more help than he's given the Prime Minister? He says make it up like you always do; he doesn't speak to any paper that costs more than 25p . . . but make it good because he does enjoy a flattering press - when it's nasty it spoils his whole day.'

This devil-may-care routine of perpetual one-liners rubs off on his paper. There are days when it seems that every office joke has been recycled into a headline. When the paper revealed that Antonia de Sancha, the woman in the Mellor affair, once starred in a porn movie involving a pizza delivery man, a headline leered: 'The question is, did she hold the sausage?' The following day the paper had a chef invent the Antonia Pizza, 'a tasty 14-incher with lots of sausage . . . and as much salami as you can handle'.

His fears about privacy legislation do not stem solely from his high-minded scorn for double standards among our rulers. Both he and Murdoch recognise that any such measure would cramp the style of the Sun, already suffering a long-term decline in circulation: at 3,517,071, it has fallen below the combined sales of the rival Daily Mirror and its sister the Glasgow Daily Record.

It is already substantially less scandalous than it was at the end of the Eighties, when concern about press standards began to intensify. The watershed came in 1988, when the Sun paid damages of pounds 1m to Elton John in compensation for printing untrue allegations about his private life.

MacKenzie realised then that there were people on his staff prepared to chance their arm with highly suspect stories in order to gain his approval. He called a halt, warning his reporters that the next one to earn a libel writ would be dismissed. 'It's got to stop. If I go, I'm going to take you bastards with me.'

It says much about Murdoch's regard for MacKenzie that he survived that fiasco and is now the longest-serving editor in the group. 'MacKenzie is what he is,' Murdoch once said. 'He's out there screaming and he's good. Somehow it works.'

(Photograph omitted)