Former reporters support News of the World’s methods

Two former reporters for the now-defunct News of the World spoke up for much-maligned tabloid tactics at Britain’s media ethics inquiry on Monday, saying undercover stings and kiss-and-tell stories helped expose criminals and hypocrites.

Mazher Mahmood, once the tabloid’s star undercover reporter, and ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck were the first of several witnesses from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to address the inquiry, set up amid a scandal over illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World.

Both said reporters and editors balanced privacy against the public’s right to know when deciding whether to publish titillating scoops.

Thurlbeck — on bail over alleged phone-hacking — used the example of a 2004 story alleging that soccer star David Beckham was having an affair. He said it was justified because the athlete and his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, traded on an image of wholesome, fairy tale family life.

“We thought it was important we exposed that the fairy tale was a sham,” Thurlbeck said.


He said the story had been a classic kiss-and-tell, with Beckham’s supposed mistress, Rebecca Loos, paid “a six-figure sum” for details of the affair.

Media intrusion
Thurlbeck was arrested in April on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone voicemail messages. Inquiry chief Brian Leveson said he would not be asked questions about phone-hacking because of the ongoing police investigation.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led inquiry after it emerged that the News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voicemail messages of celebrities, public figures and even crime victims in its quest for exclusive stories.

More than a dozen Murdoch employees have been arrested over the hacking scandal, which also cost the jobs of several of his top executives, two senior police officers and Cameron’s communications chief.

The inquiry has heard from crime victims and celebrities, including actor Hugh Grant and “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling, who have described the devastating effect media intrusion had had on their lives.

Monday’s first witness was the bane of many celebrities — Mahmood, a controversial figure nicknamed the “Fake Sheik” after his signature ruse of pretending to be a rich Gulf businessman to trap celebrities, politicians and suspected criminals.

He said his stories had to meet rigorous public interest standards, such as exposing criminality or “moral wrongdoing” by public figures such as members of Parliament.

Proud
“I don’t think I’d vote for my MP if I knew he was cheating on his wife,” Mahmood said. “If you hold public office, you should be open to scrutiny.”

He also said celebrities were fair game “if they present themselves as wholesome characters and trade on that status” while behaving hypocritically.

Mahmood, who worked for the News of the World for 20 years, has not been implicated in phone hacking. He said he had not been aware it was going on until the newspaper’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was arrested in 2006. Goodman was later jailed for eavesdropping on the mobile phone voicemails of members of the royal family staff.

Mahmood, who now works for Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper, said he was proud that his investigations had resulted in more than 260 criminal prosecutions — including the convictions last month of three Pakistani cricketers for match-fixing in a scandal that rocked the sports world.

He gave evidence out of sight of the press and public to protect his identity. His words, but not his face, were broadcast on the inquiry’s website.

Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July after evidence emerged that the tabloid had eavesdropped on the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old who was abducted and murdered in 2002.

‘Abhorrent’ behaviour
The revelation appalled many in Britain — especially the detail, reported in the Guardian newspaper, that someone had deleted messages left on Milly Dowler’s phone after she disappeared. Her parents have said this gave them false hope that their daughter was still alive.

The Guardian, citing police sources, reported on Saturday that the key “false hope” message might not have been deleted by someone working for the News of the World.

The Dowler family’s lawyer, Mark Lewis, said in a statement that it was unclear who had deleted the messages but that it “remains unchallenged that the News of the World listened to Milly Dowler’s voicemail and eavesdropped on deeply personal messages which were being left for her by her distraught friends and family”.

Earlier this year Murdoch’s News International paid £2-million compensation to the Dowler family and apologised for the News of the World‘s “abhorrent” behaviour. — Sapa-AP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Journalists believe news and opinion are separate, but readers can’t tell the difference

With many readers coming to news sites from social media links, they may not pay attention to the subtle clues that mark a story published by the opinion staff

Australian media challenge ‘unprecedented’ contempt charges over Pell reporting

Twenty-three journalists and 13 media companies face fines and prison terms for allegedly breaching a gag order

Herald Sun splashes Serena cartoon on its front page

An Australian newspaper has backed its cartoonist amid widespread criticism by reprinting the infamous Serena Williams caricature on its front page

Uh oh, there’s a disorderly Deadpool in the gene pool

CRISPR-Cas9’s responsible use has been welcomed as an important stride in medical research and molecular biology

In a takeover twist, Fox says Disney may buy Sky News

Fox has also offered to ring-fence the 24-hour news channel

Why Australia is ‘saving’ SA’s white farmers

There is only one reason why immigration minister Peter Dutton isn’t equally welcoming of Palestinians and the Rohingyas.
Advertising

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

Hope grows on Durban beachfront

Ten homeless men who turned a vacant lot into an organic vegetable garden are now reaping the rewards of their toil

Shabnim Ismail bowls her way into the record books Down...

The night before Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) final, fiery South African fast bowler Shabnim Ismail lay awake pondering how...

Hawks make arrest in matric maths paper leak

Themba Daniel Shikwambana, who works at a printing company, was granted bail and is due to return to court in January

Andile Lungisa: Early parole for the house of truth

Disgraced Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa calls for a change of leadership in the ANC immediately after being released on parole
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…