Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie told the Leveson Inquiry that the paper would have come “very, very very close to being shut down” had it “got the Milly Dowler story wrong”.
MacKenzie, who edited the UK’s most popular daily paper from 1981-1994, was referring to reports in the Guardian that the News of the World had deleted voicemails on the abducted teenager’s phone, giving her family false hope that she was alive.
The Guardian reported last month that, while the News of the World had hacked into Dowler’s phone, it was unlikely that it was responsible for the deletion of messages that led to a false hope moment.
Leveson LJ said MacKenzie’s view that the broadsheet got the story “completely wrong” was “interesting”.
MacKenzie accused the newspaper world of “snobbery” and claimed ethics depended on the paper in which an offending story was published. “If you publish in the Sun you get six months’ jail, if you publish in the Guardian you get a Pulitzer.”
MacKenzie added that the culture of the Sun had changed after his departure, noting that subsequent editors Rebekah Brooks and Dominic Mohan were more “cautious”.
He admitted to adopting a “bullish” approach to journalism during his editorship particularly in the 1980s, adding later that the paper’s editor’s office was a “massive hour-by-hour sprawl of phone calls and general rioting”.
Pressed on fact checking by Leveson LJ, MacKenzie said there was “no absolute truth in any newspaper”, adding that journalists attempting to get to the truth while being told lies was a “massively difficult problem”.
He also spoke in favour of newspapers being subject to heavy fines for lying to the Press Complaints Commission.
Mackenzie admitted he did “not really” have much regard for privacy while editor.
Meanwhile, current editor of the paper’s Bizarre showbiz column, Gordon Smart, said ethics were a balancing act between public interest and individual’s right to privacy. “There is a grey area there and we walk that line every day,” Smart said, adding that he believed he and his team “get it right more than we get it wrong”.
He said that the onset of Twitter meant showbiz reporters were more accountable than ever before, adding that social media added to the pressure to meet deadlines.
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