Reporters Defend Tabloids At UK Media Inquiry

Published January 9, 2012 5:18PM (EST)

LONDON (AP) — Reporters and editors from Britain's Sun tabloid painted their newspaper as a moral paragon Monday, saying accuracy was paramount and privacy always a consideration, while the paper's legal counsel insisted he had seen no evidence of phone hacking.

Lawyer Justin Walford, counsel to Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers, told Britain's media ethics inquiry that he would be surprised and shocked to learn that The Sun was guilty of illegal eavesdropping like its now-defunct sister paper, the News of the World.

"I've never seen anything at The Sun which has made me think that it has been happening," Walford said.

The phone-hacking scandal has engulfed the News of the World — shut down by Murdoch in July — but some alleged victims have accused other newspapers of wrongdoing, too. The Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, faces a lawsuit from actor Jude Law for allegedly listening to his voice mails.

The Sun's current editor, Dominic Mohan, said in a written statement to the inquiry that he had "always been determined to foster a culture of honesty, integrity and high ethical standards at the Sun." Showbiz editor Gordon Smart said Sun staff "act ethically and we act responsibly at all times."

But an outspoken former Sun editor said standards had been looser in his day.

Kelvin MacKenzie, who ran the newspaper between 1981 and 1994, said he never considered privacy, and stood by his earlier description of his fact-checking policy as "if it sounded right, it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in."

MacKenzie, the first in a string of past and present newspaper editors due to appear this week, gave a robust defense of media muckraking, saying tabloids are the victim of snobbery and double standards in the media.

"There is a tremendous amount of snobbery involved in journalism," MacKenzie told the inquiry, arguing that a tabloid would be punished for using underhanded investigative techniques, while a more highbrow paper would not.

He gave the hypothetical example of "if you had Tony Blair's mobile number and you hacked into it and discovered that he was circumventing the Cabinet in order to go to war."

"If you publish it in The Sun, you get six months in jail," MacKenzie said. "If you publish it in The Guardian, you get a Pulitzer."

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led inquiry last year after evidence emerged that the News of the World tabloid eavesdropped on the cell phone voice mail messages of celebrities, politicians and crime victims to get stories.

The case has triggered soul-searching about the balance between media freedom and individual privacy. MacKenzie said that he had not given much thought to privacy when he was The Sun's editor.

He said he took "the First Amendment approach, the American approach" to journalism.

"I basically took the view that most things as far as I could see should be published," MacKenzie said.

Britain does not have the same constitutional free-speech protection as the United States, and the U.K.'s libel laws are more weighted in favor of plaintiffs than those of many countries. Britain's tabloids regularly pay out substantial sums to settle libel suits from celebrities.

MacKenzie presided over one of The Sun's most colorful periods, a time of celebrity scandal and credibility-stretching headlines including "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster," which made an unlikely allegation against a British comedian.

He acknowledged the newspaper sometimes got things wrong, as when it had to pay 1 million pounds and make a front-page apology to Elton John in 1988 for stories about his personal life.

"Journalists try to get things right," he said. "People tell you lies."

The hacking scandal exploded after The Guardian reported in July that the News of the World had eavesdropped on the voice mails of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002, and may have hampered the police search for her by deleting messages. She was later found murdered.

It has spawned a huge police investigation and seen top police officers, media executives and the prime minister's communications chief — an ex-News of The World editor — all resign their posts.

But rumors of voice mail eavesdropping circulated in the media for years before the Dowler case made them front-page news.

Testifying to the inquiry Monday, Mohan confirmed that at a 2002 awards ceremony he thanked "Vodafone's lack of security" for exclusive stories he got while at his previous paper, the Daily Mirror — referring to the ease of hacking into voice mails using factory-set passcodes.

"I think it was well known," he said, adding that he had made the remark "as a joke to undermine the Mirror's journalism."

Leveson said Monday that he was expecting the results of a police review into one of the most shocking details in the hacking saga — the deletion of messages from Dowler's phone.

Last month a police lawyer said one element of The Guardian's story had been wrong — it was unlikely anyone from the tabloid had deleted Dowler's messages.

Since then the Murdoch-owned press has been sharply critical of The Guardian, saying the error showed that the News of the World was shut down for a crime it did not commit. The Guardian says its allegations about phone hacking were largely correct.

The judge said his inquiry into media malpractice would continue whatever the police review showed.

"Whatever the outcome of this new evidence I have no intention of suggesting either to the home secretary or to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport that as a result this inquiry is no longer justified," he said.



Jill Lawless can be reached at:

By Salon Staff

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