The editor of The Sun yesterday said he had learnt from his mistakes as he sought to distance his regime from the "anything goes" practices of the tabloid's past. Dominic Mohan, who has had to deal with the recent arrest of one of his senior reporters on suspicion of paying police and the arrest of the tabloid's former beauty editor on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice, warned the Leveson Inquiry that statutory regulation of the press would be "open to abuse".
Mr Mohan said that remarks he made in 2002 thanking "Vodafone's lack of security" for exclusives in rival paper the Daily Mirror were a joke. "It was a cheap shot at the Mirror, attempting to undermine their journalism because they had a particularly good year," he said.
He said it was "well-known" in Fleet Street how to hack into mobile phone voicemails. Dressed in a suit and tie, Mr Mohan described how staff at the tabloid now attend seminars on ethics, Samaritan-led workshops on suicide and discussions about how to treat and understand Travellers. The paper is, he claimed a "powerful force for good" thanks to its campaigns and efforts to explain complicated stories in a clear way.
Mr Mohan told the Inquiry that although he has made mistakes over the years, he has learnt from them. He no longer used private detectives, he said, instead using "search agents".
The subtext was clear. Although Mr Mohan appeared at the High Court on the same day as Kelvin MacKenzie, the controversial former Sun editor, the two men edited very different papers.
Mr MacKenzie, whose time at The Sun from 1981 to 1994 included the "Gotcha" front page on the day the Royal Navy sank the Argentinean battleship Belgrano during the Falklands War, has already branded Lord Leveson's review of the practices of Britain's press a "ludicrous" exercise.
He was expected to be combative and abrasive when he appeared as a witness yesterday. Instead, however, he tempered his criticism and admitted that when he left, his successors were more cautious "and were probably right to be more cautious".
Normal service was resumed when he decided to take on Lord Leveson. He said there was "no certainty" in journalism, and later compared Fleet Street and the law's quest for truth and facts as both doomed to human error.
Asked by the inquiry's counsel Robert Jay QC if he had concerns about privacy during his years as Sun editor, he replied "Not really, no," and said that any definition of the public interest depended on which newspaper was publishing a story. Hack into Tony Blair's mobile and discover the Prime Minister is lying about the Iraq War? "Publish that in The Sun you get six months: publish it in The Guardian and you get a Pulitzer Prize."
He said The Sun would have come "very very close to being shut down" if it had "got the Milly Dowler story wrong". The reference to The Guardian's recent correction regarding who was responsible for deleting the murdered schoolgirl's voicemail prompted Lord Leveson to state that it was "an interesting assertion" if he meant the whole Dowler story was "completely wrong".
Later, Mr Mohan claimed that Rupert Murdoch had drastically scaled back his day-to-day involvement with the tabloid since Mr MacKenzie's time.
Whereas the Australian proprietor spoke to Kelvin MacKenzie almost every day when he was editor, Mr Mohan said that he goes months without talking to Mr Murdoch.
"Sometimes he might ring several times a week; other times I might not hear from him for a month or two," Mr Mohan said.
Mr Mohan also insisted that The Sun's decision to back the Conservative Party in the 2010 general election was not taken by Mr Murdoch but was a "group decision". "I think we felt that perhaps ... it was time for a change," he said. "We certainly sensed that among our readers and I think I reflected that."
Asked by Mr Jay whether the idea of changing sides was "his or yours", Mr Mohan replied: "It was a group decision. Me and my fellow executives felt that was the right way to go and we made our feelings known to Mr Murdoch."
Although Mr Mohan initially boasted to the inquiry that there were only a few occasions when a complaint against his paper had been upheld by the PCC, he later admitted that there had been 38 complaints of breaches of the PCC code which had been settled before they reached formal adjudication.