Leveson Inquiry: Ex-News of the World reporter Neville Thurlbeck defends stories

 

Former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck today defended the public interest of publishing stories which alleged that David Beckham had cheated on his wife and F1 boss Max Mosley had taken part in a "Nazi orgy".

Mr Thurlbeck was fired by News International in September after being arrested in April on suspicion of hacking phones while working at the now-defunct Sunday tabloid.

He told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that he would not comment on phone hacking.

Instead he was questioned about the justification of publishing so-called "kiss and tell" stories.

In the case of David Beckham's alleged affair with Rebecca Loos, Mr Thurlbeck said there was a "huge public interest" in going to print.

"He was sponsored left, right and centre," he said. "He was always promoting himself with his family as a happy modern man. It was a wholesome image that the family cultivated and the public bought into on a massive scale, and we exposed that as a sham."

He said that although the average payment to the source of a front-page article was "£15,000 to £20,000", Ms Loos was paid "a six-figure sum".

Mr Thurlbeck said he spent six weeks in Australia and five to six weeks in Spain in order to validate Ms Loos's claims in 2004.

Formula 1 boss Max Mosley won £60,000 in privacy damages over a News of the World story claiming he took part in a "Nazi orgy".

Mr Thurlbeck, who wrote the article, said it was the "suggestion of the Nazi theme" which persuaded the newspaper that it was in the public interest to publish it.

He told the inquiry: "We firmly believed at the time that we had a story that was massively in the public interest."

Mr Thurlbeck was questioned about the decision not to contact Mr Mosley before going to print, but he said that that was the responsibility of more senior colleagues. "I'm just a person who is writing the story," he said.

But inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson asked him: "Aren't you being a bit unkind to yourself Mr Thurlbeck? You weren't just the reporter, you were the chief reporter for the paper, who had been the news editor, who had been the investigation news editor. You weren't part of any of this?"

"No I was not," Mr Thurlbeck replied. "This was the strategy. You might find this hard to believe but this is the way the newspaper worked.

"I can only tell you what I know to be true and happened."

Mr Thurlbeck also gave evidence about an email he sent to a contact of the women involved, asking if they would give an interview in return for money and having their faces pixellated in photographs. If they declined, he wrote that the newspaper would print pictures identifying them.

But he said that although he did sent the message, it was dictated to him by Ian Edmondson, who at the time was the News of the World's assistant editor (news).

Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, said: "One theme which is coming strongly across if I may say so, reading (and) preparing for this week's evidence is that he's getting blamed for everything Mr Thurlbeck."

Mr Jay went on to ask the witness about the contents of the email. "Did you say to Mr Edmondson that this comes close to threatening the women?" he asked.

In his reply, Mr Thurlbeck said: "We didn't see it as a threat. We saw it as an offer, a deal to do with the girls. In order for them to help us we would respond by helping them too."

Mr Thurlbeck's alleged role in the phone hacking scandal has been closely scrutinised since details emerged of a June 2005 email headed "for Neville" which contained transcripts of illegally intercepted voicemail messages.

The email, which surfaced in April 2008, appeared to contradict News International's previous stance that phone hacking at the News of the World was confined to a single "rogue reporter".

Sunderland-born Mr Thurlbeck has insisted he played "no part" in the matter that led to his dismissal and has lodged employment tribunal papers against News International.

In a letter to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee released last week, the journalist accused News of the World executives of "withholding information" about the scale of phone hacking at the paper from MPs and News International's top management.

Mr Thurlbeck is currently on police bail and has not been charged.

Lord Justice Leveson has played down concerns that his hearings could damage any future trial over phone hacking.

PA

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