Reporter lifts lid on tabloid’s murky world

Editors knew of hacking, inquiry told

FOR anyone who watched the phone hacking scandal unfold and wondered, “What were those journalists thinking?”, eye-watering answers have come from a former reporter at the News of the World, who says editors including “criminal-in-chief” Rebekah Brooks had encouraged the “perfectly acceptable” practice.
On Tuesday, Paul McMullan gave brutally frank evidence about the mindset at the now defunct tabloid paper to Britain’s Leveson inquiry into media practices. He said:
■Former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson knew about phone hacking, and their denials made them “the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it”.
■Only evil people needed privacy: “Privacy is for paedos.”
■Hacking was “perfectly acceptable” given the need to find the truth and the sacrifices reporters made for their careers.
McMullan, who worked at the paper as a reporter and deputy features editor for seven years until 2001, also said hacking into the voicemails of murdered girl Milly Dowler was “not a bad thing” as journalists had been trying to help find her: “Our intentions were good; our intentions were honourable.”
It was a dramatic day at the inquiry, with former tabloid journalists presenting like sinners at the pearly gates, either full of repentance or full of bluster over their misdeeds.
McMullan is the first journalist to defend to the inquiry the techniques used by News of the World, which was shut down because of the hacking scandal. He painted a portrait of thrill-seeking reporters pushed by editors to breach boundaries for the sake of stories.
But another former tabloid reporter, Richard Peppiatt of the Daily Star, apologised for intrusive and inaccurate stories and said: “I am ashamed.” He said reporters on that paper had been “cannon fodder” for editors and proprietors.
However, McMullan, asked whether he believed no one should have privacy, answered: “Yes.”
He went on: “In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good. Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is evil; it brings out the worst qualities in people. Privacy is for paedos [paedophiles]. Fundamentally, nobody else needs it.”
McMullan blasted great holes in the earlier evidence given to Parliament by Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson, who had strongly denied knowledge of hacking. He told the inquiry hacking was widespread at the paper because “Coulson brought the practice wholesale with him when he was appointed deputy editor, an appointment I could not believe”.
Mr Coulson was editor from 2003 to 2007, when he resigned after the paper’s royal reporter and a private investigator were jailed for hacking voicemail accounts of the royal family.
Mr Coulson had claimed the practice was confined to “a single rogue reporter”. He was later hired as media adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron but resigned in January, saying pressure over hacking was preventing him from doing his job.
McMullan said editors threw reporters “to the wolves” by denying they knew about hacking. Apparently offended by this alleged breach of honour, he said: “They should have had the strength of their conviction to say, ‘I know, yes, sometimes you have to enter a grey area or enter a black illegal area for the good of our readers, for the public good, and yes, we asked our reporters to do these things.’
“But, instead, they turned around on us and said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know they were doing it. Oh, heavens. It was all just [royal reporter] Clive Goodman.’ And later, ‘It was just a few others.’
“They should have been the heroes of journalism, but they aren’t. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson . . . are the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it.”
Making the most of his moment in the spotlight, McMullan also launched a broadside at Mr Cameron for “cosying up” to News International executives: “David Cameron wants to become prime minister and he ends up with Murdoch lite, James [Murdoch], and Rebekah Brooks.” He said Mr Cameron had been “moulded” by Mrs Brooks, who became chief executive of the paper’s owner, News International.
He said hacking should not be limited to intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6: “For a brief period of about 20 years we have actually lived in a free society where we have hacked back. And if you start jailing journalists for that, then this is going to be a country that is laughed at by Iran and China and by Turkey.”
He spoke of his “absolute” love of celebrity pursuits: “How many jobs can you actually have car chases in?” But, he added, “The glory days when it was so much fun before [Princess] Diana died have gone.”
He said he had received death threats: “I sacrificed a lot to write truthful articles for the biggest-circulation English-language paper in the world, and I was quite happy and proud to do it, which is why I think phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool . . .”
In contrast, Peppiatt apologised to celebrities including singer Susan Boyle. He said a number of stories during his time at the Star were “completely fictitious”. He claimed that after he left the paper and told his story to The Guardian, he was threatened and his work emails intercepted.
McMullan said he saw no difference between the public interest and what the public was interested in, and that sales figures were the only reliable indicator of what was acceptable. “The public are clever enough to be judge and jury for what goes on in newspapers.”
His defiance bodes ill for the attempts of media proprietors to keep their industry self-regulated, a cause they equate with the democratic freedom of the press. Perhaps the sharpest nail in that coffin yesterday came from one of the strongest examples of the benefits of open media, Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies.
His work was central in exposing phone hacking, but he told the inquiry he could no longer support self-regulation: “I don’t think this is an industry that is interested in, or capable of, self-regulation.”
Police investigating phone hacking said yesterday they had arrested a woman, 31, on suspicion of conspiring to intercept voicemail messages.
University lecturer Bethany Usher, who worked at the News of the World and The People, was being questioned at a police station in Northumbria, sources said.First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.