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News of the World reporter: Phone hacks 'perfectly acceptable'

In evidence to a phone hacking tribunal, former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan says the practice was simply part of getting the story at any cost. He adds that reporters swapped celebrities' numbers, in his case Sylvester Stallone's mom's number for David Beckham's.

There's a certain entertainment to be had from an inquiry currently being held in the U.K. to examine the prevalence of phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World.

The latest evidence presented today by Paul McMullan, a former reporter for the paper, offered that phone hacking was a perfectly normal activity for a newspaper that was read by 5 million adults every Sunday.

The Telegraph reports that McMullan told the inquiry that it was Piers Morgan, currently a rather charming presence on CNN, who "set the trend" for an ethos in which the story had to be obtained by any means.

The last edition of the paper. CC Gene Hunt/Flickr

The AP reports that McMullan also claimed that reporters were routinely in possession of celebrities' phone numbers, traded them between each other and used factory-set passwords to enjoy intimate private conversations.

"I think I swapped Sylvester Stallone's mother for David Beckham," he told the inquiry.

I wouldn't wish to suggest who got the better of that deal, though a fair guess might be that some beer was thrown in on one side to make it fair and balanced.

McMullan also offered that he really didn't think what he was doing was terribly criminal.

"Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool given the sacrifices we make, if all we are trying to do is get to the truth," he declared.

Many might ponder this heroic assertion, after it was revealed that News Corp. paid $3.2 million to the family of Milly Dowler. Dowler, 13, was murdered and, while she was still missing, News of the World reporters hacked into her phone and erased some of the voice mails.

Some might still wonder, though, what was going through the minds of those who read the News of the World. Every Sunday, the paper would be the prime topic of conversation among all classes in Britain. The readership was by no means downscale. Anything but.

The paper traded on the desperate need, especially prevalent in the U.K., of bringing the wealthy and famous down. Or, at least, of peering behind their net curtains in order to see their whips, chains, and foibles.

Did any of the readers perhaps wonder how this entertaining information might have been obtained? Did anyone actually care, given that the entertainment--I mean, the truth--was just so very entertaining?

Moreover, some celebrities and their agents actively worked with the News of the World to present stories or even cover up their indiscretions.

Sometimes, the News of the World used all sorts of methods in order to unveil corruption--such as the recent cricket scandal in which three famous Pakistani players were jailed after agreeing to the equivalent of throwing wild pitches at the behest of bookies.

But now the paper's technological touches are being subject to criticism from celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, as well as those journalists who claim they would never hack phones.

Some might wonder whether anything, in the long term, will really change. However, in McMullan's view, it all changed with the death of Princess Diana.

"Before Diana died, it was such good fun," he told the inquiry.