News24

Phone hacking a regular tool, inquiry told

2011-11-29 21:56

London - A former News of the World journalist made a rare, robust defense of phone hacking, telling Britain's media ethics inquiry that eavesdropping on voicemails was a "perfectly acceptable tool" to help journalists uncover stories.

Paul McMullan said on Tuesday that hacking was common at the now-defunct tabloid, describing how journalists traded the phone details of celebrities.

"I think I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham," he said, going on to recount how he failed to hack into Beckham's voicemails on one occasion because the soccer star unexpectedly answered the phone.

McMullan, who now runs a pub in the English port of Dover, made headlines earlier this year when he was secretly taped by actor Hugh Grant claiming phone hacking was widespread at the News of the World and other UK newspapers.

He repeated that assertion on Tuesday, adding that the bosses at the News of the World, including former top editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, knew of the practice - a claim both former editors have denied.

Both editors resigned in the scandal - Brooks from the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch's media empire, and Coulson from his job as top communications aide to Prime Minister David Cameron. They are also among a dozen journalists arrested in the investigation.

"I don't think anyone realised that anyone was committing a crime at the start," McMullan said. "Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool given the sacrifices we make, if all we are trying to do is get to the truth."

Cameron set up the media inquiry in response to the scandal that began with illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World.

Murdoch shut down the tabloid in July after evidence emerged that it had illegally accessed the mobile phone voice mails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its search for exclusives.

McMullan was one of three journalists giving evidence to the inquiry Tuesday after a week in which celebrities and victims of crime described how their lives had been upended by media intrusion.

The other two journalists offered a diametrically opposed assessment, describing stories driven by ideology and propaganda and an industry scarred by bullying and the use of unethical "dark arts".

Marked man

Ex-tabloid reporter Richard Peppiatt told the inquiry that "much of tabloid journalism is not truth-seeking primarily. It's ideologically driven and it's impact-driven".

Peppiatt worked for the Daily Star tabloid but has become a critic of underhanded tabloid practices.

He read out a selection of the Daily Star headlines with little basis in fact, including "Angelina Jolie to play Susan Boyle in film" and "Chile Mine To Open As Theme Park".

Peppiatt said he had received threatening phone calls, text messages and emails since resigning earlier this year over what he called "Muslim-bashing stories". He said one message warned "You're a marked man until the day you die."

Nick Davies of The Guardian, who broke many of the stories about tabloid phone hacking in Britain, said there was "a culture of bullying in some Fleet Street newspapers".

He described some of the "dark arts" he had been told of by tabloid reporters, including burglary, phone and email hacking and "blagging" - obtaining information by deceit.

The trigger for the scandal was the revelation that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler after she disappeared in 2002.

Her mother told the inquiry last week that she believed Milly was still alive when she found there was space in the girl's previously full voice mailbox.

In fact, messages had been deleted by someone working for the News of the World.

Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the tabloid who was jailed in 2007 for eavesdropping on the voicemails of royal aides, has denied deleting the messages.

Davies said the messages were probably deleted by reporters from the paper working under the tutelage of Mulcaire.

"Mulcaire facilitated the hacking by one or more News of the World journalists," Davies said. "[Mulcaire] does not actually, on the whole, do the listening to the messages himself. Most of that is done by the journalists themselves."

The phone hacking scandal continues to widen. More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested, and two top London police officers, along with Cameron's media adviser and several senior Murdoch executives, have resigned.

The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to Britain's system of media self-regulation.