News of the World reporters routinely hacked people's voicemails and did so because it was in the public interest, a former journalist at the now-defunct paper said today.
Paul McMullan, who worked at the paper for seven years, told the Leveson Inquiry that editors were aware voicemails were being hacked, but threw reporters "to the wolves" by denying they knew anything about it.
Asked by David Barr, counsel to the inquiry, if editors were aware journalists at the tabloid were hacking people's voicemails, the former deputy features editor said "yes".
"We did all these things for our editors, for Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson," he said.
"My assertion has always been that Andy Coulson brought that practice wholesale with him when he was appointed deputy editor, an appointment I could not believe."
He launched a scathing attack on both former editors, saying: "They should have had the strength of their conviction to say, 'I know, yes sometimes you have to enter into a grey area or enter a black illegal area for the good of our readers, for the public good, and yes we asked our reporters to do these things'.
"But instead they turned around on us and said, 'oh, we didn't know they were doing it, oh heavens, it was all just Clive Goodman and later it was just a few others'.
"They should have been the heroes of journalism, but they aren't, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, they are the scum of journalism for trying to drop me and my colleagues in it."
Mr McMullan said reporters routinely swapped phone numbers: "I think I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham."
He said hacking into people's voicemails was a common "school yard trick" - calling a number, pressing 9 to access voicemail, then typing in 0000, often the standard passcode.
He told the inquiry he once tried to hack David Beckham's voicemail but was caught out when the footballer answered the call.
"Once I rang up David Beckham expecting his phone to ring because he would never normally answer the phone to me.
"But he did and it was, 'Hello, who is this, and how did you get my number?', and I went, 'Oh 9, too late'.
"So I didn't hack his phone in that instance because he answered really quickly."
He told the inquiry private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was "much better at these things than your rank-and-file journalist".
Mr McMullan told the inquiry he believed hacking was in the public interest, saying it should not have been limited to "MI5 and MI6".
"For a brief period of about 20 years we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back," he said.
"And if you start jailing journalists for that, then this is going to be a country that is laughed at by Iran and by China and by Turkey.
"Surely to prove that our politicians are dishonest men, and as such may have dishonest motives when they sent our boys to be killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan, is more important than jailing me for saying I hacked David Beckham's phone, for example, if I was going to say that."
He said all of the interviews he had carried out were recorded and added: "All I have ever tried to do is to write truthful articles and to use any means necessary to try to get to the truth.
"There's so many barriers in the way that sometimes you have to enter a grey area that I think we should sometimes be applauded for entering because it's a very dangerous area.
"My life has been at risk many times, at home more than in war zones. I used to get a death threat at least once a month for 15 years of my career.
"I sacrificed a lot to write truthful articles for the biggest circulation English language paper in the world and I was quite happy and proud to do it, which is why I think phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool given the sacrifices we made if all we are trying to do it to get to the truth."
Mr McMullan defended the choice of stories run by the News of the World.
"I see no difference between what the public is interested in and the public interest.
"Surely they are clever enough to make a decision whether or not they want to put their hand in their pocket and bring out a pound and buy it.
"The reason why the News of the World sold five million copies was because there were five million thinking readers and that's what drove the paper."
He said there was a pressure to build up a list of contacts to provide a range of stories.
"You can get a front page on Sunday, but next Tuesday you have to have three fresh ideas and that's fine for a few months.
"But week after week after week there becomes a real pressure to build up a list of contacts from police officers to private investigators to basically anyone who can give you a story, and you lean on these figures to help you keep your job.
"I think Clive Goodman fell foul of phone hacking because he was getting on a bit.
"He was royal editor, he had a really high salary there and plenty of people who were 25-year-olds who would have taken his job and spent longer on doorsteps and worked harder, always snapping at his heels - in order to stay ahead of them he got himself into phone hacking."