The Mellor Affair: When the fun stopped: Mary Braid and Jason Bennetto on the intrigue, double-dealing, and betrayal that lie behind the lurid headlines

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The Independent Online
ON 9 JULY, David Mellor, the National Heritage Secretary, announced an inquiry into the conduct of the press following the frenzy of stories about the Royal Family. The inquiry, he said, would consider whether 'any further measures may be needed to deal with intrusions into personal privacy'.

On the day before he made this announcement, Mr Mellor had received a call from the News of the World which made personal privacy a matter of more than routine political interest to him. A married man with two children, the Heritage Secretary was asked whether he could comment about his relationship with an actress, Antonia de Sancha.

Although Mr Mellor was unaware of it, the News of the World was not the only paper on the case. Earlier in the same week, he had been photographed by the People arriving at Ms de Sancha's London flat in the evening, and leaving the next morning just before 8am. His telephone conversations with Ms de Sancha had also been bugged. The wheels of Fleet Street were in motion.

Ten days later the People broke the story and the minister charged with policing the press found that he and his family had become a case study in the conflict between the right to privacy and the right to know. The picture of a happy family man presented to his constituents in Putney in the general election was destroyed; Mr Mellor's father-in-law was quoted as saying he had never approved of his daughter's choice of husband, and, as one leading newspaperman put it, the man who liked to be called the minister of fun had become a figure of ridicule.

Revelation followed revelation and the newspapers gorged themselves. Ms de Sancha's profession and looks increased the story's potency, as did the readiness of her 'friends' and past lovers, and of Mr Mellor's father-in-law, to talk. The story has at times verged on the farcical, as when the Sun said that Ms de Sancha had starred in a soft-porn film. The film was called The Pieman and the details appeared exotic: Ms de Sancha plays a one-legged woman who beds a pizza delivery man. Mr Mellor's humiliation could hardly have been more complete.

Just another foolish public figure stitched up by a good-time girl and a Fleet Street chequebook? No, this case was much more complicated. The events which led to the expose are dominated by intrigue, double-dealing and personal betrayal.

There is no evidence that Ms de Sancha was in any way involved in helping the story to reach the papers. Others, however, have made large sums of money, and the sincerity of some of Ms de Sancha's friends is certainly questionable. The press, for its part, usually likes nothing better than to catch a politician with his trousers round his ankles, but editors approached this particular story with caution.

THE MINISTER and the actress first met at a party, where they were introduced by Paul Halloran, a Private Eye journalist who is a close friend of Mr Mellor. The minister's marriage, we have since learned, has been in difficulties. Ms de Sancha is young, tall and striking. Although she has been out of work and has appeared in a risque film, her artistic sights are set high; she is a Rada graduate who appeared in Greek tragedy. In the weeks following the general election last April a relationship developed, and they met in her flat in Chiswick, west London. Then a friend of Ms de Sancha, Nick Philp, offered her the use of a larger flat he owned in Finborough Road, Earl's Court, which was vacant. She moved in and Mr Mellor began visiting her there. 'We had a genuine relationship based on deep affection,' she was to say later. He was at pains to be discreet; she, it appears, was less so. Friends say she told them she was seeing an important politician and that eventually she had named Mr Mellor.

The involvement of the press began only last month, when the News of the World was approached by Mr Philp, 28, and Les Chudzicki, 33, a freelance photographer, who said they were friends of Ms de Sancha. They were hawking the story of the affair, backed by taped telephone conversations, around the Sunday tabloids with a price tag of pounds 50,000. Mr Philp, an electronics expert, is believed to have been responsible for the recordings, which were made at the Finsborough Road flat. He has gone to ground and is believed to be in Hong Kong.

The News of the World turned the story down. Paul Connew, deputy editor, said there were 'too many unanswered questions'. However, the paper revived its interest when a show business source confirmed the romance. At the same time, rumours began circulating that the People was about to publish.

Mr Philp, rejected by the News of the World, had entered negotiations with the People, which is believed to have paid him pounds 30,000. On 6 July, when the couple last met at Ms de Sancha's flat, Mr Mellor was photographed by the People arriving at 11pm and leaving at 7.55 the next morning.

It was on the following day that the News of the World rang Mr Mellor and offered him 'an opportunity to talk, with his and his wife's co-operation, about Ms de Sancha and his marriage problems'. Mr Mellor declined to do so, insisting that Antonia de Sancha was a friend. The next day he went ahead with his statement ordering an investigation of the behaviour of the press.

The minister was none the less extremely worried: revelation of the affair would be bad enough, but there was also a potential conflict of interest if a minister who had been exposed in the tabloids was responsible for deciding on privacy legislation. He turned for advice to the very man who had introduced him to Ms de Sancha, Paul Halloran.

Mr Halloran says this was the first he knew of the affair. 'He didn't tell me until the shit hit the fan. He said he was having some problem with the News of the World. My advice to him was if they have her, they have you. If they don't have her, don't call her, don't contact her and there might be a chance of survival.'

Mr Halloran admits that it seems odd that a Private Eye journalist should try to shield a Government minister. 'I am not Private Eye. I am a guy who has a friend who tells him something confidential. If I did not respect friends' confidences I would not have any.'

It was too late. Last Saturday, with the story about to break, Mr Mellor phoned Downing Street to explain the situation to Mr Major and offer his resignation. This was rejected; the Prime Minister, turning the conflict of interest argument neatly on its head, did not want the minister in charge of taming press behaviour hounded out of office by the tabloids.

The People printed the story that night, and the News of the World was ready with a matcher. They had interviewed Victoria Harwood, 30, Ms de Sancha's 'best friend'. She confirmed the affair and reportedly said Ms de Sancha had told her Mr Mellor phoned at all times of the day and night to declare his love, was a great lover and had promised to leave his wife.

The People story read as if its editor, Bill Hegarty, had both eyes on the new newspaper Code of Practice. The public interest card was played early and heavily. The story, the paper insisted, was worthy of publication because Mr Mellor's affair left him too exhausted to do his job properly.

Was Ms de Sancha involved in the sale of the story? Did she betray her lover for money? The evidence suggests otherwise. Last week Les Chudzicki was offering to Fleet Street's highest bidders tours of the 'sordid love nest' in Earl's Court, featuring the lovers' mattress on the floor. 'I broke the story,' he boasted, 'and it's been my story from the start.' Mr Philp is unavailable to comment on his role, although both men are believed to be under contract to the People. Ms Harwood, who spoke to the News of the World, says she believes Ms de Sancha was genuinely in love with Mr Mellor, but claims it is possible that her friend, who was also 'often broke', might have tried to make money from the affair.

Ms de Sancha has said that she had nothing to do with exposing Mr Mellor and knew nothing of the phone taps. On Friday, she put her own case in an interview with the Independent. She was the victim in this affair, she insisted. 'I'm being made to look like a tart strutting her stuff for all to see. It is grotesque.' She felt like the 'Elephant Man'.

Certainly, it is hard to believe that anybody would willingly invite the kind of publicity she has received. Not only was The Pieman brought unflatteringly to light, but the Sun also found topless pictures of her at the age of 16. One tabloid quoted a former boyfriend as saying her flat 'was squalid and stank of cats'. And today the tabloids report that she once worked in an escort agency.

This weekend, Ms de Sancha and Ms Harwood are each insisting they are victims of the scandal and that they played no part in Mr Mellor's exposure. Both say that their only crime was naivity.

Ms Harwood told the Independent on Sunday she had known nothing of the plot and claimed she had never even heard of Mr Philp, an apparently close friend of Ms de Sancha's, before the scandal. She claims she only gave her News of the World interview to help her friend and that she was not paid for her story. Anthony Asquith, her agent, admits the decision to give the interview was 'remarkable'.

Ms Harwood has already received money for pictures she gave to one tabloid. Mr Asquith is negotiating with newspapers for Ms Harwood's 'true' story. Those negotiations led to the cancellation of the second part of a 'free' interview with the Independent on Sunday on Friday night. If two reputable papers want an interview, Mr Asquith says, the interview will go to the one who can also offer Ms Harwood 'four weeks' holiday in the Seychelles to get over this'.

Ms de Sancha, represented by her agent, Peter Meineck, of Aquila Productions, provided the Mail on Sunday with an exclusive interview today. It is claimed she had intended to give her story free to a tabloid. However, she will make money from the Mail on Sunday deal although elaborate steps are being taken to disguise that. A proportion of the MoS fee is to go to Ms de Sancha, who will donate it to charity. The remaining money will be paid to Aquila Productions but most of it will end up in Ms de Sancha's pocket.

She told the Mail on Sunday: 'I desperately want to keep my dignity. I feel I have done nothing wrong . . . I have been grossly deceived by people I believed to be friends, and it hurts.'

THE HERITAGE Secretary has not, of course, been negotiating with newspapers over the sale of his story. Nor has he gone into hiding. With the Prime Minister's active support he has soldiered on, maintaining, as he promised on Monday, 'business as usual'.

He has carried out the standard series of meetings with officials and, on Wednesday, with fellow Cabinet ministers. Only a visit to Millwall football club was cancelled, on the grounds that the press would swamp the club.

On Thursday Mr Mellor gave a lunch for figures from the arts world. Lord St John of Fawsley, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, and one of the guests, told reporters of the minister's calmness under pressure. This support was welcome. Mr Mellor, known as a politician in a hurry, has not taken time to cultivate his backbench colleagues in the Commons tea rooms. And as a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in charge of negotiations on public spending, he had naturally come in conflict with other ministers. He is not, in short, the most popular man in Westminster.

His one good piece of fortune was that Parliament was in recess. With so few MPs still about and willing to comment, only Ann and Nicholas Winterton went on the record to call for his resignation. As one Conservative put it last week: 'Being attacked by the Wintertons always brings the rest of the party behind you.'

Most MPs believe that Mr Mellor, having received the Prime Minister's endorsement, will hold on to office vigorously. This, of course, presupposes there are no more revelations and recognises that there will be inevitable damage to Mr Mellor's political reputation. One MP pointed out yesterday that he was already a source of material for comedians such as Rory Bremner. The Minister for Fun will, the MP added, be the subject of sniggers for the foreseeable future.

Additional reporting by Stephen Castle

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

The pawns and players: Antonia de Sancha, star of The Pieman, and Paul Halloran, the Private Eye journalist who introduced her to Mr Mellor; Les Chudzicki, the freelance photographer; Professor Edward Hall, Mr Mellor's father-in-law; Nick Philp the 'electronics expert'.

(Photographs omitted)

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