Leveson Inquiry: Ex-Sun editor defends 'bullish' style
- 9 January 2012
- From the section UK
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has defended his "bullish" approach to journalism, while giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics.
Mr MacKenzie said he had taken the view during his 1981 to 1994 editorship that most things "should be published".
But he said later editors had become more cautious "in a changing world".
The Sun's showbiz, royal and picture editors also gave evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice on the first day of the inquiry since its Christmas break.
The Sun's current editor, Dominic Mohan, who took over the top job at the tabloid in 2009, also gave evidence.
He told the inquiry it was "important to emphasise the positive as well as the negative", and said the Sun could be a real force for good.
Mr Mohan said he would often ask where a story came from and whether the sources had a good track record.
He also took a close involvement on issues involving the Press Complaints Commission and potential legal points. "A lot of my working day is spent having these discussions," he says.
He told the inquiry the newspaper was considering appointing an independent ombudsman to deal with complaints from readers. Mr Mackenzie said earlier that he did not replace the Sun readers' ombudsman after his death because there were so few complaints.
Earlier, Mr MacKenzie stood by comments he made in a Leveson Inquiry seminar in October, when he said: "My view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in."
However, he defined "lob" as "to throw in a slow arc", adding: "The point I'm making is that we thought about something, and then put it in."
Mr MacKenzie suggested there was "no absolute truth in any newspaper".
"It's so hard in life, in the press, in the law, to get things 100% correct."
Asked by counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC whether he had any regard for privacy while editor, Mr MacKenzie said: "Not really, no."
He said his view had generally been that "most things, as far as I could see, should be published".
But Mr MacKenzie said that attitude had changed at the Sun after his departure.
"The editors were more cautious and were probably, in a changing world, more right to be cautious," he said.
"In the end of the day you're a commercial offering and if the atmosphere towards what you're doing is different than before, then you must change with it.
"Even towards the end of my time with editing I was less bullish."
Mr MacKenzie told the inquiry that News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch had been furious when he found out that the Sun had to pay £1m in damages to Elton John over allegations it had published. He recalled receiving a 40-minute phone call of "non-stop abuse".
Mr MacKenzie said the perception of what was in the public interest differed depending on which newspaper published a story.
Offering a hypothetical example, he said: "If you had Tony Blair's mobile number and you hacked into it and discovered that he was circumventing the cabinet in order to go to war.
"If you publish it in the Sun you get six months' jail and if you publish it in the Guardian you get a Pulitzer prize," he said.
"There is a tremendous amount of snobbery involved in journalism."
'He was no Thatcher'
Mr Jay asked Mr MacKenzie about the Sun's publication of an image of a funeral held for presenter Anne Diamond's son Sebastian, a cot death victim.
Ms Diamond has previously told the inquiry that she begged Fleet Street editors to stay away from the funeral. In her evidence, she said Mr Murdoch's editors had waged a vendetta against her.
But Mr MacKenzie said Ms Diamond was a "devalued witness".
"If she felt as strongly as she appeared to feel at Leveson you would have thought 20 years earlier she would have been massively hostile to us, and she wasn't," he said.
Mr MacKenzie said that in 13 years working with Rupert Murdoch the News Corporation chairman never told him to "go after" anyone.
He described his relationship with politicians, saying he saw Margaret Thatcher about twice a year when she was prime minister, and other cabinet ministers about six times annually.
Mr MacKenzie confirmed that he told then-Prime Minister John Major that he was going to throw a bucket of waste over him in the next day's edition of the newspaper after the UK's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.
He told the inquiry newspapers were commercial entities and financial penalties could keep them in line.
"I would be in favour of fines - and heavy fines - for newspapers that don't disclose the truth to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC)," he said.
Week of editors
Gordon Smart, the editor of the Sun's "Bizarre" showbusiness column, followed Mr MacKenzie in giving evidence to the inquiry. He said he had no knowledge of any phone hacking at the newspaper.
Mr Smart said that the advent of social media had put reporters under more deadline pressure.
He said his job was a balancing act between public interest and individual right to privacy, and said "we act responsibly at all times".
Royal editor Duncan Larcombe also told the inquiry that he had seen no evidence of phone hacking at the Sun. He said that there was an "obsession with getting stories right" at the newspaper.
Mr Larcombe said the paper published less than half the paparazzi photos of the Royal Family it received. This was because of concerns about intrusion into privacy, he said.
Discussing how his relationship with Buckingham Palace worked, he said: "If I've got an exclusive story about the royals I will always try to notify them before we publish.
"We speak pretty much daily with the Palace."
He gave as an example how he had alerted the Clarence House press office after being offered photos of Prince William and Kate Middleton on holiday in the Caribbean, which were subsequently found to have been stolen from Pippa Middleton's car.
Mr Larcombe also said the Sun did not use a photo of a Royal Family member dancing on a table over the holiday period.
The Sun's picture editor John Edwards later gave evidence, discussing among other things photographs of Hugh Grant with his baby daughter, and a heavily-pregnant Lily Allen.
He said balancing public interest and intrusion into privacy was "a difficult line to walk".
Witness statements from former editors Stuart Higgins and David Yelland are due to be read later.
Editors of other papers will appear later in the week.
BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins says until now newspaper editors' ability to respond to criticism has been limited.
He says they will have to make the case in their evidence not just for the quality of their journalism, but for the state of their industry.
Opening Monday's hearing, Lord Justice Leveson said that his inquiry would continue regardless of the outcome of the investigation into how messages on murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone were deleted.
Allegations that the News of the World deleted messages from Milly's phone when she was missing prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to launch the inquiry. However, in December, Scotland Yard said it was "unlikely" that News of the World journalists had deleted the messages.