News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch took a “hands on approach” to his UK newspapers, The Sun tabloid’s former editor told an inquiry into press ethics yesterday, recounting Mr Murdoch’s reaction to a story involving Elton John.
Mr Murdoch was angry about The Sun paying a £1 million ($1.54 million) settlement to the pop singer over a false news story in 1987, Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited the paper from 1981 to 1994, told the inquiry. The story wrongfully claimed Elton John paid for sex with underage “rent boys”.
“Murdoch thought I’d gone too far,” Mr MacKenzie said. “I then received something like 40 minutes of non-stop abuse” during a phone call from Mr Murdoch. “It wasn’t so much the money of course – it was the shadow it cast over the paper.”
The inquiry was called for last year by British Prime Minister David Cameron in response to a phone-hacking scandal at another News Corporation tabloid, the News of the World, which the New York-based company closed in July to contain public outrage over the scandal. Mr Murdoch, 80, told lawmakers last year that he wasn’t responsible for the scandal and that he’d “lost sight” of the News of the World.
Mr MacKenzie said he spoke to Mr Murdoch “most days” and that the chairman took an interest in “whether it was upbeat enough, and that kind of thing”.
The inquiry, overseen by Judge Brian Leveson, has heard evidence from celebrities, crime victims and other targets of media interest to determine problems in the relationship between the public and the press. Further segments of the inquiry will examine the UK media’s relationship with police and politicians, then suggest changes.
Mr MacKenzie, questioned about his views on accuracy, defended his record and said, “there is no certainty in journalism, in the same way there’s no certainty in the legal world”. He told the same inquiry in October that he checked the source of a story one time in his 13 years as editor of The Sun – for the Elton John story.
“I never did it again,” Mr MacKenzie said in October. “Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in.”
MacKenzie also told the inquiry it “wouldn’t surprise” him if Sun journalists had paid police officers for information under his leadership, although he wasn’t aware of any payments himself. Police bribery by News of the World reporters is one of the three related probes, along with phone hacking and computer hacking by journalists, or their private investigators.
Justice Leveson told lawyers yesterday there was no chance he would recommend the government call off the inquiry as the result of a potential error in a Guardian newspaper article about the phone-hacking scandal. The publication last month corrected a story from July about the News of the World’s interception of the voice mails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, when she was still missing – a story that triggered the closure of the tabloid and the start of the inquiry.
The Guardian changed the story to say the News of the World’s reporters hadn’t deleted Dowler’s messages to make room for new ones and hindered the police search. A report on the events surrounding the voice mail deletions is expected soon from the Metropolitan Police, Justice Leveson said.
Police have arrested 17 people since January after it was revealed the interception of voice mails was more widespread than News Corporation had said.
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