by a Newsnet reporter
Over the past week the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics has heard dramatic and emotionally wrenching testimony from those who have been victims of phone hacking and press intrusion into their private lives, yesterday the inquiry heard from a number of former tabloid journalists. The evidence from the journalists may prove to be the most damning indictment of the standards of behaviour thought acceptable in the British print media.
The Inquiry heard first from Richard Peppiatt, who once worked for the Daily Star. Mr Peppiatt has since become a critic of underhanded tabloid practices. He told the Inquiry “much of tabloid journalism is not truth-seeking, primarily. It’s ideologically driven and it’s impact-driven.”
Mr Peppiatt alleged that Richard Desmond, owner of the Star and the Express, uses his newpapers to shamelessly promote his own products, which includes Big Brother shown on Channel 5, a channel now owned by Mr Desmond. Mr Desmond also has a financial interest in the Health Lottery. During the first fortnight of August this year there were 40 stories about the Big Brother and the Health Lottery on the front pages of these newspapers. Mr Peppiatt noted: “This is purely advertising their own stories; it is not about journalism.”
Mr Peppiatt also detailed how he had invented completely false stories, including a story about a council introducing “Muslim only loos” and an entirely ficticious “Muslim bomb plot”. He said the inspiration was “a line” in the Sunday Telegraph that “Muslims may be wanting to disguise themselves as Sikhs and hide bombs in their headdress”.
The reporter then telephoned the police but that the police dismissed the report saying that they had never heard of it. Mr Peppiatt explained that once the police had ruled out the story “How it should work, is that that kills it – you can go over to your newsdesk and say, ‘Maybe the Sunday Telegraph have got this wrong, I can’t stand this up’ and you move on.”
However on the Star the journalists instead invented quotes from a ficticious and conveniently anonymous “security source” and then contacted a Sikh organisation for a response. Mr Peppiatt said it was to “add a veneer of legitimacy by telling them something you know is not true and get a quote.”
Mr Peppiatt said: “The Daily Star is a rightwing tabloid … you must try and adhere to that ideological perspective. If there is a government report out with statistics, any statistics that don’t fit, you ignore them. If knife crime has gone up and the rest of crime has gone down, you just do knife crime …
“There is an overwhelming negativity and it runs throughout the press. A story is not a story unless it is knocking someone … or knocking an ethnic group, whatever it may be.”
The afternoon’s proceedings were dominated by the incendiary, and at times bizarre, evidence of Paul McMullan, formerly the deputy features editor for the News of the World.
Mr McMullan claimed that senior executives on the newspaper, including former Number 10 press secretary Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, knew that hacking and other illegal activities were widespread. Mr McMullan was the journalist who was covertly taped talking about phone hacking by Hugh Grant, who gave evidence to the Inquiry last week.
Asked by David Barr, legal counsel to the Inquiry, if editors at the News of the World were aware that phone hacking was going on, Mr McMullan replied, “Yes.”
Mr McMullan then detailed an incident when he tried to hack David Beckham’s voicemail, but failed when the footballer answered the telephone instead of it going through to voicemail. Mr McMullan was cautioned that he should be aware that what he said in evidence to the Inquiry might incriminate him.
Mr Barr then asked Mr McMullan whether the editors of the News of the World knew that voicemail messages were being intercepted, Mr McMullan replied: “Yes … I could go a bit further than that. We did all these things for our editors, for Rebekah Brooks and for Andy Coulson. You only have to read Coulson’s column in Bizarre … it was blatant and obvious. I don’t think anyone realised that anyone was committing a crime at the start.”
He added: “My assertion has always been that Andy Coulson brought that practice [phone hacking] wholesale with him when he was made deputy editor.”
Mr McMullan then launched into a scathing attack on his former bosses, saying that the NoTW editors “should have had the strength of conviction to say, ‘Yes, sometimes you have to stray into black or grey illegal areas’ … instead they said we didn’t know they were doing it. But instead they turned around on us and said, ‘oh, we didn’t know they were doing it, oh heavens, it was all just Clive Goodman and later it was just a few others.’
“They should have been the heroes of journalism … They’re the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it.”
He alleged that Mr Coulson had been involved in phone hacking when he was a showbusiness columnist at the News of the World’s sister paper, the Sun.
Mr McMullan said: “It would be pop star A is leaving messages on pop star B’s phone at two in the morning, saying ‘I love you shall we meet up for a drink?’ It was that blatant but no one realised anyone was committing a crime at the time.
“My assertion has always been that Andy Coulson brought that practice wholesale with him when he was appointed deputy editor, an appointment I could not believe.”
Describing the friendship between Mrs Brooks and Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr McMullan said: “What we have is a future prime minister cosying up and being moulded by the arch-criminal, Rebekah Brooks.”
Both Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson continue to deny that they knew anything about phone hacking at News International.
Despite the public outrage caused by the phone hacking scandal, Mr McMullan defended phone hacking, insisting that the ends justified the means. Mr McMullan told the inquiry that he had staked out private homes, hacked phones, had at various times posed as a drug dealer, a millionaire and a male prostitute, and had pursued celebrities through the streets. It was only the death of Princess Diana in a car accident when being pursued by a press pack that put a partial stop to the worst of the tabloid journalists’ excesses.
“I absolutely loved giving chase to celebrities. Before Diana died, it was such good fun,” Mr McMullan said. “How many jobs can you actually have car chases in?”
He said the tabloids’ tactics were vindicated by their large circulations. The News of the World was selling almost three million copies a week before it was shut down.
Mr McMullan also told the inquiry that he was “proud” of a story he wrote which led to the police being called to control disturbances in Portsmouth after a paediatrician was targeted by an angry mob who had failed to grasp the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. Mr McMullan said: “You like to have an impact and that was one story that certainly had an impact.”
Mr McMullan’s concluding remarks summed up the attitudes of the tabloid press to personal privacy. Strongly rejecting any need to introduce tougher laws to protect privacy he told the Inquiry: “Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things. Privacy is evil; it brings out the worst qualities in people. Privacy is for paedos, fundamentally no one else needs privacy.”