LONDON — A blunt-spoken former newspaper editor who once said that if a story "sounded right it was probably right" told Britain's media ethics inquiry Monday that tabloids are the victim of snobbery and double standards in the media.
Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid between 1981 and 1994, was the first in a string of past and present newspaper editors due to appear this week, and gave a robust defense of media muckraking.
"There is a tremendous amount of snobbery involved in journalism," MacKenzie told the inquiry, arguing that a tabloid would be punished for using underhanded investigative techniques, while a more highbrow paper would not.
He gave the hypothetical example of "if you had Tony Blair's mobile number and you hacked into it and discovered that he was circumventing the Cabinet in order to go to war."
"If you publish it in The Sun, you get six months in jail," MacKenzie said. "If you publish it in The Guardian, you get a Pulitzer."
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led inquiry last year after evidence emerged that Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid eavesdropped on the cell phone voice mail messages of celebrities, politicians and crime victims to get stories.
The case has triggered soul-searching about the balance between media freedom and individual privacy. MacKenzie said that he had not given much thought to privacy when he was The Sun's editor.
He said he took "the First Amendment approach, the American approach" to journalism.
"I basically took the view that most things as far as I could see should be published," MacKenzie said.
Britain does not have the same constitutional free-speech protection as the United States, and the U.K.'s libel laws are more weighted in favor of plaintiffs than those of many countries. Britain's tabloids regularly pay out substantial sums to settle libel suits from celebrities.
Mackenzie said his successors had taken a more cautious approach, and current Sun employees said tabloid practices were different now.
"We act ethically and we act responsibly at all times," said Sun showbiz editor Gordon Smart.
He insisted editors always considered privacy issues, and said he had no knowledge of phone hacking at The Sun.
Duncan Larcombe, the tabloid's royal editor, said MacKenzie's claim at the inquiry that "if it sounded right, it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in" no longer reflected reality.
"It doesn't work like that on royal stories, and it frankly doesn't work like that on Fleet Street anymore," he said.
The phone-hacking scandal has engulfed the News of the World — shut down by Murdoch in July — but some alleged victims have accused other newspapers of wrongdoing, too. The Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, faces a lawsuit from actor Jude Law for allegedly listening to his voice mails.
Also due to appear Monday is The Sun's current editor, Dominic Mohan. Mohan could be asked about reports that in 2002 he thanked "Vodafone's lack of security" for exclusive stories he got while at the Daily Mirror.
The hacking scandal has spawned a huge police investigation and seen top police officers, media executives and the prime minister's communications chief — an ex-News of The World editor — all resign their posts.
The furor exploded after The Guardian reported in July that the News of the World had eavesdropped on the voice mails of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002, and may have hampered the police search for her by deleting messages. She was later found murdered.
Last month a police lawyer said one element of The Guardian's story had been wrong — it was unlikely anyone from the tabloid had deleted Dowler's messages.
Since then the Murdoch-owned press has been sharply critical of The Guardian, saying the error showed that the News of the World was shut down for a crime it did not commit. The Guardian says its allegations about phone hacking were largely correct.
Leveson said Monday that he is expecting the results of a police review into the voice mail deletions, and has received an explanation from The Guardian about how it came to publish its original story.
The judge said his inquiry into media malpractice would continue whatever the police review showed.
"Whatever the outcome of this new evidence I have no intention of suggesting either to the home secretary or to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport that as a result this inquiry is no longer justified," he said.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless