McMullan’s evidence at the Leveson inquiry gives an insight into some in the UK media’s view of privacy.

November 30, 2011 |

Privacy protection is not about muzzling the media.  The right to privacy goes beyond any media intrusion.  But the Leveson inquiry has given the starkest and most recent example of how wanton and unbridled invasions of privacy warrant some form of protection with teeth.

In ‘Privacy is for paedos’: The world according to Paul Paul McMullan’s interesting take on the world of journalism and others privacy is freshingly, if somewhat chillingly, clear.

The article provides:

Former News of the World editor stuns UK media inquiry with a breathtakingly frank account of life at a British tabloid.

“Privacy is for paedos,” former News of the World man and tabloid veteran Paul McMullan declared in his evidence at the British Leveson inquiry into the British media.

He had only just observed that “in 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never found anybody doing any good”.

The statements together amounted to a credo for the brutal tabloid newspaper world of which McMullan, former deputy features editor of the now-defunct Sunday tabloid, became the chief spokesman in the otherwise stifled confines of courtroom 73 at the High Court in London.

The public interest added up to no more than the sheer number of copies the News of the World could sell, he said.

“Circulation defines the public interest,” he said, which meant that everything was legitimate as long as the public bought the paper.

“You have to appeal to what the reader wants. I was simply serving their need,” he said, before describing a career of capers justified by the observation: “You just don’t go up to a paedophile priest and say, ‘Hello good sir; you are a priest; do you like abusing choir boys?’ “

McMullan also called the inquiry former NotW editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were ‘scum.’

This, he argued, apparently gave cause for a culture of blagging, surveillance and even phone hacking, although he stopped short of incriminating himself on that one.

In some moments, it was impossible not to admire the bravery and the brio, as McMullan’s career flashed before our eyes.

He was sent home from the Gulf War – because it was not interesting his newspaper’s readers – and gave up investigative journalism after a lump of concrete was thrown at his head when he was looking into asylum seekers at the Sangatte immigrants’ camp near Calais, northern France.

Actress Sienna Miller said she was terrified to be chased by up to 15 photographers, a practice McMullan described as ‘sport.’ 

But he “absolutely loved giving chase to celebrities. Before Diana died it was such good fun. How many jobs can you have car chases in? It was great.”

And you could almost believe it, before he made the suggestion that Sienna Miller should have been “cockahoop” because she had 15 photographers outside her house harassing her, because “who’s she?”

McMullan paid one “rent boy” £2000, then dressed up as another to expose a priest. Having snapped the picture of the reverend in flagrante, the two ran off in their underpants “through a nunnery at midnight”.

Singer Charlotte Church told the inquiry her family was held to ransom with a tabloid expose of her father’s infidelity. 

“That under [one-time News of the World editor] Piers Morgan,” McMullan said.

Judge Brian Leveson seemed largely content to let this all play out, but it often seemed a bit too graphic for David Barr, the lawyer for the inquiry who nominally had the task of drawing out McMullan.

In fact, Barr battled to hold the man back; at one point he tried to dissuade McMullan from holding up a cutting of one his proudest stories – a topless shot of Carla Bruni. McMullan did so anyway.

It should perhaps have not come as a surprise that McMullan would defend the decision to hack into the phone of the murdered British teenager Milly Dowler.

The police, he said, were “incompetent” and should be “ashamed” they failed to catch Milly’s killer earlier.

“The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone was not a bad thing for a well-meaning journalist, who is only trying to find the girl, to do,” he claimed. “Our intentions were good, our intentions were honourable.”

One can only wonder what the Dowler family think of that.

As he arrived at court, McMullan asked an ITV journalist for the way in. He was advised that if he chose the side entrance he would be filmed and photographed. The side entrance was the route he chose.

McMullan wanted his viewpoint to be seen and heard; after all, he said, he felt that Rupert Murdoch “didn’t have a right to close” the News of the World, calling former editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks “scum” for blaming journalists for practices he claimed they themselves endorsed.

He admitted: “Sometimes I wouldn’t have bought the News of the World even though I was working for it,” but added that the British public had continued to do so. “There is a taste for it. There is an appetite for it,” McMullan said.

Asked about the suicide of Jennifer Elliott, daughter of the late British actor Denholm Elliott, McMullan expressed regret about the way he revealed in the paper she was living on the street and working as a prostitute years earlier.

“I went too far on that story,” he said, describing her as “someone crying out for help, not crying out to meet a News of the World reporter”.

McMullan was tipped off by the police about Elliott’s predicament in the 1990s.

He explained: “I was driven primarily to write the best story I could. When I heard a few years later that she’d killed herself I did think ‘Yeah, that was one that I really regret.'” She was found hanged in 2003.

But if there was grandstanding, it was still worth hearing every word: here espoused was the end point of the regulation-free, market-driven, anything-goes tabloid morality.

And for it, he was paid £60,000 a year as deputy features editor, and claimed £15,000 to £20,000 in expenses, of which, he added, “£3000 was legitimate”.

Of course the culture in Australia is entirely different but excesses do occur and are not one offs.

The New Yorker has provided an interesting piece on privacy.  It is an excellent discussion on the need for privacy.  It provides:

Every so often a person comes along who is inadvertently devastating to the cause he purports to espouse. To the ranks of Kato Kaelin, Susan Sarandon, and Herman Cain, now add Paul McMullan, a former reporter and features editor so mindblowingly unbothered about the phones he hacked and the cars he tailed and the garbage he rifled during his seven years, from 1994 to 2001, at the News of the World that you’d almost think he’d been genetically engineered by a celebrity publicist bent on proving to the public, and the authorities, that reporters are amoral dirtbags. McMullan gave evidence Tuesday at the Royal Courts of Justice, in London, to the Leveson Inquiry on press ethics. He wore a sweater vest and a fat knot in his tie. He said, “When I’d heard a few years ago that she’d killed herself, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s one I really regret.’ But there’s not many” (this, of a the drug-addicted daughter of a minor actor whom he had solicited to prostitute herself) and “I absolutely loved giving chase to celebrities. How many jobs can you have car chases in? It was great” (pining for the “glory days” before Princess Diana’s death-amid-paparazzi). He stood by the statement, “I felt slightly proud that I’d created a riot and got a pediatrician beaten up.” If journalists, in some people’s esteem, rank alongside used-car salesmen and tax collectors, they descended, with every word McMullan spoke, closer to hangmen.

McMullan’s testimony riveted Britain, much like the “three-in-a-bed with cocaine”—as McMullan described it—in which the News of the World, in December, 2005, reported that the Welsh singer Charlotte Church’s father had participated. (A day earlier, Charlotte Church told the Leveson committee that the story, which began, “Superstar Charlotte Church’s mum tried to kill herself because her husband is a love rat” was “horrific” and had a “massive impact” on her mother’s health.) McMullan’s performance was intoxicating, if odiously so. Observers likened him to a Martin Amis character circa London Fields, a Dickens villain, a person in the midst of a self-exorcism, and someone who had drunk truth serum. Tom Jamieson, of Private Eye, wrote, “It’s like being trapped with the weirdest taxi driver in the world on a journey that never ends.” McMullan said that he was giving the readers what they wanted. He was preventing a monopoly on surveillance by MI5 and MI6. (“For a brief period of about twenty years, we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back.”) He was risking his life, hanging out with drug dealers who forced upon him joints laced with cocaine, and running through a nunnery in his underwear, after stinging a priest by dressing up as a character he called Brad the Rent Boy. He was proud of his exploits—twiddling scanners, sweet-talking cleaning ladies—and disgusted by the laziness of reporters who outsourced their snooping to private investigators. Like a mafioso, he exhibited a warped code of ethics: “I’d never want to ring anyone until I’d spent a weekend in a van outside their house.”

McMullan, in his telling, wasn’t a lone chancer—a man in a van spying on philandering footballers—but a skilled and fearless technician working at the apex of his profession. He testified that his bosses, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson (former NOTW editors who went on to become, respectively, the chief executive of News International and David Cameron’s press secretary, before being forced to resign over their involvement in phone-hacking) knew about, and encouraged, the procurement of information by illegal means. He was angry with them, not because they had pressured him to break the law in pursuit of scoops, but because they had blown the racket. “They should have been the heroes of journalism, but they aren’t,” he said. “They are the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it.”

These days, McMullan is the proprietor of the Castle Inn, a pub in Kent. (He recently installed a pole for topless dancers.) As an admitted thief, phone hacker, and blagger-of-all-trades, he is obviously not an unimpeachable source. But his nuclear testimony singed indiscriminately, and his sheer recklessness seemed to suggest that he was telling, at least partially, the truth. He was hired and promoted at NOTW, after all; the editors, at least for a while, liked the cut of his jib. One could hear the encrusted defensiveness of the newsroom in McMullan’s belittling of Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller. “Hugh Grant, what does he do?” he said. “Puts on a bit of makeup and prances around in front of the camera and then complains about it.”

McMullan will be quoted for ages by those who want to conscribe or malign the press. “How lucky it was that the Dowlers had bright, enthusiastic, well-meaning journalists on their side to help look for Milly,” he actually said, when asked about the NOTWs hacking of the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. (Her parents, finding that messages had been deleted, had false hope that she was alive.) The indelible moment of the afternoon came when a lawyer sought to force McMullan into acknowledging that some right to privacy—at the very least for anonymous, dead teen-agers—exists. McMullan, in a move that would have made Joseph McCarthy proud, replied,

In twenty-one 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 things in. Privacy is evil; it brings out the worst qualities in people. Privacy is for paedos; fundamentally, nobody else needs it.

But McMullan had it exactly wrong: fundamentally, everyone needs privacy. For the most unremarkable and law-abiding person, as much as anyone, privacy is a prerogative. You don’t earn privacy; it is a right. Each of us has e-mails, texts, and phone messages that harbor no malfeasance, hypocrisy, or hint of scandal but that nonetheless contain details that would be mortifying were they shared with people other than those with whom we intended to share them: the nicknames, the stupid forwards, the to-do lists. Privacy shouldn’t preclude public accountability, particularly that of politicians, but McMullan, by taking the ideal of transparency to its extreme, offered a reminder of what is at stake. Privacy is as much in the public interest as the invasion of it is often suggested to be.

In Northumbria, a university lecturer named Bethany Usher was watching. She tweeted, “For god sake Paul McMullen, shut your sickening trap.” Usher, who once worked at NOTW, was named Britain’s young journalist of the year in 2003. She had left journalism, she wrote, because “academia is far nicer ;).” Last night, the BBC reported, she was arrested, the seventeenth person to be taken into custody as part of Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting investigation into phone-hacking.

 

 

 

 

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