London – He admitted that he and his colleagues hacked into people’s phones and paid police officers for tips. He confessed to lurking in unmarked vans outside people’s houses, stealing confidential documents, rifling through celebrity garbage cans and pretending that he was not a journalist pursuing a story but “Brad the teenage rent boy,” propositioning a priest.
After Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid, had finished his jaw-droppingly brazen remarks at a judicial inquiry on Tuesday, it was hard to think of any dubious news-gathering technique he had not confessed to, short of pistol-whipping sources for information.
Nor were the practices he described limited to a select few, Mr. McMullan said in an afternoon of testimony at the Leveson Inquiry, which is investigating media ethics in Britain the wake of the summer’s phone hacking scandal. (Indeed, on Wednesday, the British police said they had arrested a 17th suspect in investigations into the scandal — a 31-year-old woman from northern England, who was not identified by name.)
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In fact, Mr. McMullan said, The News of the World’s underlings were encouraged by their circulation-obsessed bosses to use any means necessary to get material.
“We did all these things for our editors, for Rebekah Brooks and for Andy Coulson,” Mr. McMullan said, referring to two former News of the World editors who, he said, “should have had the strength of conviction to say, ‘Yes, sometimes you have to stray into black or gray illegal areas.’ ”
He added: “They should have been the heroes of journalism, but they aren’t. They are the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it.”
Mr. Coulson, who resigned from his job as chief spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron in January, and Mrs. Brooks, who resigned in July from her job as chief executive of News International, the British newspaper arm of the Murdoch empire, have both been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking, or illegally intercepting voice mail messages. Mrs. Brooks, whom Mr. McMullan called “the archcriminal,” is also suspected of making illegal payments to the police.
Both have repeatedly denied the allegations, and neither has yet been charged.
Nothing that Mr. McMullan said was particularly surprising; anyone following the phone hacking scandal that engulfed News International and its parent, the News Corporation, over the summer is now more than familiar with outrageous tales of tabloid malfeasance. What was startling was that Mr. McMullan, who left his job in 2001, eagerly confessed to so much and on such a scale — no one else has done it quite this way — and that he maintained that none of it was wrong.
Most people from the tabloid world have reacted to the revelations in the manner of Renault when discussing gambling in “Casablanca,” saying they are “shocked, shocked.” But Mr. McMullan veered so far in the other direction that at times he sounded like a satirist’s rendition of an amoral tabloid hack.
Underhanded reporting techniques are not shocking at all, he said, particularly in light of how often he and his colleagues risked their lives in search of the truth.
As examples of the dangers of his job, he described having cocaine-laced marijuana forced on him by knife-wielding drug dealers in a sting operation; being attacked by a crowd of murderous asylum seekers; and, in his “Brad the teenage rent boy” guise, sprinting through a convent dressed only in underpants to escape the pedophile priest he had successfully entrapped.
“Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool, given the sacrifices we make, if all we’re trying to do is get to the truth,” Mr. McMullan said, asking whether “we really want to live in a world where the only people who can do the hacking are MI5 and MI6.”
No, he said, we do not.
“For a brief period of about 20 years, we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back,” he said.
Journalists in Britain have traditionally justified shady practices by arguing that they are in “the public interest.” Asked by an inquiry lawyer how he would define that, Mr. McMullan said that the public interest is what the public is interested in.
“I think the public is clever enough to decide the ethics of what it wants in its own newspapers,” he said. Referring to articles about Charlotte Church, a singer who told the inquiry this week of her distress at her family’s treatment by the tabloids, he said, “If they don’t like what you have written about Charlotte Church’s father having a three-in-a-bed with cocaine, then they won’t read it.”
For all that, Mr. McMullan said that The News of the World had come to rely too much on outsiders to do work that could have easily been done by reporters, like conducting surveillance on potentially adulterous athletes. Also, he said, some of the investigators were incompetent.
The year he became deputy features editor, he said, the department had a budget of £ 3.1 million — more than $4.5 million — to pay sources, buy stories and hire outsiders to find addresses, medical records and other information. “That was the joy of working for Murdoch,” he said. “They had that big pot of money.”
Mr. McMullan, who now owns a pub and does occasional freelance work, spoke nostalgically of his tabloid career, seven years of it spent at The News of the World. He loved spiriting exclusive sources away “and hiding them from other journalists,” he said, as when he “spent two weeks locked in a hotel room with Princess Diana’s gym instructor in Amsterdam.”
He also liked jumping in one of The News of the World’s stable of 12 cars and speeding away in pursuit of famous targets.
“I absolutely loved giving chase to celebrities,” he said. “How many jobs can you have car chases in? Before Diana died, it was such good fun.” (Some celebrities liked it, too, he said. Brad Pitt “had a very positive attitude” about being pursued by crazed journalists in cars.)
Mr. McMullan had brought along some illustrative materials, including a photograph of his surveillance van. He also briefly displayed a topless photograph of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in The News of the World, apparently as a way to show how easy it is to obtain racy photographs.
“That’s the president of France’s wife,” he said.
“It’s a little early in the day for that, Mr. McMullan,” the inquiry lawyer said.
Many witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry, especially victims of the tabloids, have called for a law to protect citizens from news media intrusion. Mr. McMullan said he thought that privacy was “evil,” in that it helps criminals cover up their misdeeds.
Using a Britishism for “pedophile,” he said, “Privacy is for pedos.”