Latest scandal gives Britain's tabloid press a chance to turn on a Cabinet critic

July 29, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The crisis has passed; the minister is safe and out of the country on vacation. The newspapers, without fresh meat, are left to chew on the bones of a dying scandal, until something more succulent comes along.

Oh, but what a juicy scandal it was! Everybody had a laugh. And it was so British!

It had all the usual ingredients, and more. There was the youngish minister, the Secretary of State for Heritage, David Mellor, a plumpish married man (two children, wife in gingham named Judith) with a gap-toothed grin absent all merriment, and a tendency to squint.

There was the actress Antonia de Sancha, dark, seriously attractive, facing the world (or this small portion of it) with sultry regard from the front pages these past two weeks. That she was half Spanish just added the right Tabasco touch.

"Too damned exciting: full of exotic attraction," was the way one observer described her. Mistresses of English politicians usually have the warm and comforting attraction of oatmeal.

Then there was the tabloid newspaper, The People, that broke the story. It had transcripts of their tenderest telephone conversations. It published pictures of the house that held the love nest.

The aftermath was a river of titillation as every other newspaper in town dove in, found its own details on the affair, or invented them.

The headlines were pointed. "What a Rat!" reflected the Daily Mirror, in reference to Mr. Mellor. "I'm Not A Tart," responded Ms. de Sancha. "How Could She?" asked another.

Most of the papers vilified the actress, though Mr. Mellor came in for his share of criticism, especially after he threatened his aggrieved father-in-law by telling him he might never see his grandchildren again. The minister is not liked, never has been.

(Mrs. Mellor's father had complained publicly of the treatment of his daughter at the hands of his son-in-law, for which he called Mr. Mellor a "dopey idiot," a belittling epithet for the man who likes to think of himself as the Rottweiler of the House of Commons.)

For a while nothing else existed in this world: No one died in Yugoslavia; no one starved in Africa; George Bush and Bill Clinton might have been on the moon.

Mr. Mellor returned to his wife, had his picture taken a lot with his children, and even his reconciled father-in-law. He offered his resignation. Prime Minister John Major declined it. Mr. Major was not going to see one of his ministers hounded out of office by the press, even if some in his own party thought it not a bad idea.

There may have been more intended by the stories and !c headlines than entertainment and titillation.

A warning perhaps.

"This was much more than just another scandal," said John A. Barnes, an expert on British politics at the London School of Economics. "There was some concealed warfare going on."

The warfare to which he refers was between the government and its principal political ally, the press, and it had to do with the nature of Mr. Mellor's job.

As Secretary of State for Heritage, it would fall to Mr. Mellor to draft any new law to govern press behavior in Britain. His department deals with broadcasting and the media, arts and culture. Because his purview is such a pleasant one, he is jocularly known as the "Minister of Fun."

Shortly after he came into his new ministry, and in the wake of some fairly squalid reporting on the royal family, Mr. Mellor issued a general warning to the press that they were "drinking in the Last Chance Saloon."

The Rottweiler had growled; it was taken as a serious threat, if expressed in colorful language.

Everyone knows that nearly all the 19 national daily and Sunday newspapers in Britain support the Conservatives, and to the extent that during a general election many of them will fabricate news and distort their reporting of events in the party's favor.

This alliance between the press and the currently dominant political party in Britain is of long standing. It resembles, but does not equal, the press in a non-totalitarian, one-party state, like Mexico.

For their efforts the owners and editors of Tory-leaning newspapers often get rewards, both sumptuous and useful, like access to important government ministers, honors, even knighthoods. Thus, you have Sir David English of the Daily Mail and Sir Nicholas Lloyd of the Daily Express, and various other so-called "Tory knights."

But the role of the Tory Press, as it is known, always has been construed as a supporting one: The party won the elections; the press just helped. That has been the consensus. At least it was until April 9, the last general election that returned the Tories to office for the fourth consecutive time since 1979.

The seamy activities of the press in that election may not have been more crucial than they have been in past elections, but some people who know about such things think they were. Lord McAlpin, a former Tory party treasurer, said after the April election that the "heroes of this campaign" were the publishers of four Tory newspapers.

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