< Former News of the World Reporter Paul McMullan

Transcript

Friday, December 02, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This past summer British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that a public government inquiry would look into the practices of the British press, in the aftermath of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. For weeks now the Leveson Inquiry has been hearing testimony from witnesses like Hugh Grant, JK Rowling and the parents of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old murder victim whose phone was hacked by the News of the World back in 2002.

This week Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor for the News of the World, was questioned by the Inquiry.

QUESTION:

In your experience, how common was voice mail interception by journalists at the News of the World?

PAUL McMULLAN:

By the rank and file journalist, not uncommon. These journalists swap numbers with each other. I think I swapped Sylvester Stallone’s mother from David Beckham, I think, for example.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

McMullan described such tactics as pretending to be a teenage prostitute to trap a suspected pedophile priest or luring the strung-out daughter of British actor Denholm Elliott into prostituting herself so he could take nude photographs of her for News of the World.

McMullan said that he tried doing more honest journalism, as when he went to Iraq to report for another British tabloid, The Sunday Express.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Here I was, in Al Jabbar with the British and American forces, filing copy on a satellite phone in a chemical suit. And then to go through that, for them to ring up and say,  you know, the war’s not doing very well, come back to London and do some show biz, that – uh, I’ve got – gone through this extreme to try and do something worthy with my career, but the reality is it doesn't sell. They didn’t care. They wanted more David Beckham fooling around with another woman. That’s what the British public wants.

So despair at the British public. Don’t despair at the journalist who simply keeps the journal of the day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You don't have to feed that appetite.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Someone else would get my job. I mean, this is what – my great-grandfather was a journalist, my father and now I am. I mean, it’s kind of a family tradition.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What was the experience like, appearing before the the Leveson Inquiry?

PAUL McMULLAN:

I have to say I was a little bit nervous to start with, ‘cause basically you're about to be ripped apart by one of the top legal minds in the U.K. And they warned me that a lot of this is self-incriminating and you could go to jail.

But I sort of didn’t mind, ‘cause I thought the principle of freedom of speech, which is at stake, is more important, you know, in Britain and America. We laugh at countries like China and Iran for jailing journalists, and right now as we speak, in the U.K. we have seven journalists under arrest.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Well, given the threat, you were, nevertheless, stunningly candid. Sarah Lyall writing for The New York Times said, “It was hard to think of any dubious news-gathering technique” you hadn’t confessed to, “short of pistol-whipping sources for information."

PAUL McMULLAN:

What's wrong with getting the truth in any way possible? I mean, you just don’t go up to a politician and say, “Hello, I work for the News of the World, are you having an affair with your secretary behind your wife’s back.”

You have to be cleverer than that by tricking them or by secretly tape recording them. And I – I have no issue with that at all.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

There was a lot of discussion during the inquiry about the public interest. You said what is of interest to the public is what they put their hand in their pocket and buy.

PAUL McMULLAN:

We are just a mirror to the society we report on, and that’s why Murdoch is such a professional. He just wants to create the shiniest mirror that reflects the society in the clearest possible way.

If people really don't like the fact that we expose say a three-in-a-bed romp between Charlotte Church - a famous singer in the U.K. - ’s dad on cocaine, then they won’t buy it and we will stop reporting it.

The truth was we were selling five million copies a week, and that was the biggest-selling English language newspaper in the world. The public was interested in that, so we fulfilled their need.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let's talk about the incident that really kicked off this whole round of inquiries and the ultimate closing of the News of the World.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And that was the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. The News of the World hacked into her phone, and in order to clear space for incoming calls, from perhaps the abductor, I don't know, gave her parents false hope that her daughter might be alive. It caused outrage.

PAUL McMULLAN:

I understood the emotion. But you equally have to understand that the British police are not that great. They have a little bit of corruption and a lot of stupidity. And it actually took them, in the end, seven years and several more murders of other young girls like Milly before they found the killer. So I see nothing wrong with a bunch of bright young journalists also trying to find the girl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What about the parents, the anguish that was being inflicted on them?

PAUL McMULLAN:

Indeed. It wasn’t inflicted by the phone hack. It was inflicted by the mistake of deleting the messages by someone who didn't realize that that would bring the phone back to life. You know, that mistake has closed the biggest-selling English-language newspaper in the world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The Inquiry brought up the case of Denholm Elliott's daughter –

PAUL McMULLAN:

Oh, yeah –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- which is one case that you truly do regret.

PAUL McMULLAN:

I do, yeah. After Denholm died, she hit rock bottom, was allegedly doing methadone. And although she had, you know, the half-million-pound flat that Denholm had bought her, she didn't have any money to get her ten-pound bag in the morning. So she’d get up and go begging at the tube station.

Here was a young girl crying out to be helped, and she met a police officer who didn't help her but rang up the News of the World and asked for money because he couldn't believe that this is the same girl who’d walked down the red carpet behind Eddie Murphy with Denholm Elliott, you know.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And you offered her 50 pounds –

PAUL McMULLAN:

Yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- if she would come to your place and have sex. So you led her into prostitution, which she wasn’t in that space for.

PAUL McMULLAN:

No, indeed. But she was in such a bad place that someone offering her 50 pounds for sex. I mean, that’s five bags.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So how do you justify that? Yes, she was a drug addict, yes, she was begging. Why push her that extra step? Why take pictures of her topless?

PAUL McMULLAN:

I was keen. It was in my first year. I wanted to impress Piers Morgan, who was my boss at the time, and just wanted to say, not only have I caught this girl begging, but I’ve got pictures of her topless and I’ve got her offering me sex for 50 quid. How great am I?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This is a pretty dehumanizing enterprise, not just for Jennifer Elliott, but for you, yourself.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Yeah, that’s why I feel terrible about it, not just ‘cause she killed herself afterwards, but I, I actually liked her as a  person.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you wonder what's happening to your own integrity that you're missing something inside yourself?

PAUL McMULLAN:

I – regret it. I have two girls who I’ve interviewed have ended up killing themselves. But it, it wasn’t the interview per se. It was the fact that they were in a bad place and that maybe pushed them over.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You also said privacy is just a space that bad people need to do bad things in.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Yeah, in 21 years of tabloid reporting, I don't think I ever come across anyone who needed their privacy to do something good.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you value your own privacy?

PAUL McMULLAN:

No, I’m an open book. I don’t know, I’m not – I’m not very interesting, you know.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Paul, thank you very much.

PAUL McMULLAN:

Nice to speak to you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Paul McMullan is a former deputy features editor of Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid.