A former reporter at Britain's News of the World made a rare, robust defense of phone hacking Tuesday, telling Britain's media ethics inquiry that eavesdropping on voicemails was a "perfectly acceptable tool" to help journalists uncover stories.
Paul McMullan said hacking was common at the now-defunct tabloid, describing how reporters traded the phone numbers of celebrities and accessed their messages by entering factory-set passcodes.
"I think I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham," he said, going on to recount how he failed to hack into Beckham's voicemails on one occasion because the soccer star unexpectedly answered the phone.
McMullan, who now runs a pub in the English port of Dover, made headlines earlier this year when he was secretly taped by actor Hugh Grant claiming phone hacking was widespread at the News of the World and other U.K. newspapers.
He repeated that assertion Tuesday, adding that the bosses at the News of the World, including former top editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, knew of the practice _ a claim both former editors have denied.
Both resigned in the scandal _ Brooks from a senior role in Rupert Murdoch's media empire, and Coulson from his job as top communications aide to Prime Minister David Cameron.
"I don't think anyone realized that anyone was committing a crime at the start," McMullan said. "Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool given the sacrifices we make, if all we are trying to do is get to the truth."
Cameron set up the media inquiry in response to the scandal that began with the exposure of illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World. Murdoch shut the tabloid in July after evidence emerged that it had accessed the mobile phone voice mails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its search for exclusives.
The scandal has sparked soul-searching across the media _ but not from McMullan, who told the inquiry how he'd hacked phones, staked out homes, posed as a drug dealer, a millionaire and a male prostitute, and pursued celebrities through the streets in the years before the 1997 car-crash death of Princess Diana partially curbed the press pack's ways.
"Before Diana died, it was such good fun," 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 3 million copies a week before it was shut down.
"Sometimes I wouldn't have bought the News of the World, even though I was working for it," McMullan said. "But the British public carried on."
McMullan was one of three journalists giving evidence to the inquiry Tuesday after a week in which both famous and non-famous individuals _ from actor Hugh Grant and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling to the parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann _ described how their lives had been upended by media intrusion.
The other two journalists offered a diametrically opposed assessment to McMullan, describing stories driven by ideology and propaganda, and an industry scarred by bullying and the use of unethical "dark arts."
Ex-tabloid reporter Richard Peppiatt, who worked for the Daily Star but has become a critic of underhanded tabloid practices, said "much of tabloid journalism is not truth-seeking primarily. It's ideologically driven and it's impact-driven."
Nick Davies of The Guardian, who broke many of the stories about tabloid phone hacking in Britain, said there was "a culture of bullying in some Fleet Street newspapers." He described some of the "dark arts" he had been told of by tabloid reporters, including burglary, phone and email hacking and "blagging" _ obtaining information by deceit.
The trigger for the scandal was the revelation that the News of the World had hacked the voice mails of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler after she disappeared in 2002.
Her mother told the inquiry last week that she believed Milly was still alive when she found there was space in the girl's previously full voice mailbox. In fact, messages had been deleted by someone working for the News of the World.
Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the tabloid who was jailed in 2007 for eavesdropping on the voice mails of royal aides, has denied deleting the messages.
Davies said the messages were probably deleted by reporters from the paper working under the tutelage of Mulcaire.
"Mulcaire facilitated the hacking by one or more News of the World journalists," Davies said. Mulcaire "does not actually, on the whole, do the listening to the messages himself. Most of that is done by the journalists themselves."
The phone hacking scandal continues to widen.
Davies advocated an independent "public interest advisory body" to judge whether intrusive newspaper stories were in the public interest.
More than a dozen current and former News of the World journalists and editors _ including Coulson and Brooks _ have been arrested, and two top London police officers and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned.
The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to Britain's system of media self-regulation.
McMullan rejected in strong terms calls for tougher laws to protect privacy.
"Privacy is evil," he said. "Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in."
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless