Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre 'never approved hacking'

Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre denies any knowledge of phone hacking at the paper

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Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has told a parliamentary committee he had never "countenanced" phone hacking or blagging at his newspaper.

He told the committee both acts were clearly "criminal".

Asked if the Mail had ever published a story which he knew, or later found to be based on a hacked message he said: "Absolutely not".

He and the Times journalist Matthew Parris gave evidence to a committee examining defamation law plans.

But Mr Dacre was questioned about issues relating to the continuing phone hacking scandal which has engulfed another newspaper publisher - News International.

'Deep waters'

In 2006 the Information Commissioner named the Daily Mail among newspapers which had dealt with a firm of private investigators involved in the illegal trade of personal information.

The report, What Price Privacy Now?, said the Mail had used the firm the most - with 952 transactions by 58 journalists.

On Monday Labour peer Baroness Hayter asked Mr Dacre if he had ever countenanced activities such as phone hacking or blagging - the process of obtaining people's personal details by deception - by journalists.

Start Quote

I personally would not have it in the house but I would die in a ditch to defend its right to publish”

End Quote Paul Dacre Mail editor in chief

Mr Dacre told her: "Have I ever countenanced hacking or blagging? No."

Asked if there was a temptation to use material obtained in such ways to stand up evidence in a defamation case, he said: "Goodness me I mean - deep waters. I have considerable sympathy, I think it was advanced in the Sunday Times this weekend, that if there is a great public interest in revealing wrongdoing that those questionable methods could be justified. Whether you can then use that material to defend yourself in a defamation case - well I suppose that goes into an area of [the legal defence] Reynolds doesn't it?

"If you believed at that time you were acting in the public interest, then I suppose yes."

Mr Parris told the committee that he could argue that it was "because we set the bar so high, that journalists do sometimes resort to subterfuge because they feel they must have gathered the information they are going to need should they be sued and actually if we had more of a free-for-all in the press, people might not try so hard to tap people's telephones and find out what the truth was beforehand".

He added that journalists had a responsibility to behave in a responsible manner - but also had a responsibility to "get the facts right".

'Damned if we do'

Mr Dacre added: "Just to clarify my earlier thought, I don't think we should ever use hacking or blagging as a defence clearly they are criminal charges but I'm with Matthew on this, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't, if we get our facts wrong on an area of huge public interest - we can't win."

Asked by Conservative MP Stephen Phillips if the Daily Mail had ever published a story which he knew, or later discovered to be, based on a hacked phone message or "any other source of material obtained unlawfully", Mr Dacre replied: "Absolutely not".

He also told the committee that the end of the News of the World had "diminished democracy": "I personally would not have it in the house but I would die in a ditch to defend its right to publish," Mr Dacre said.

He added: "The News of the World has a lot of very prurient stories, it also publishes serious political news. And its death last week I think diminished democracy in this country because there were five million people who were buying it and in that process being engaged in the process of governance and democracy in this country. My guess is at least a third of those people will never buy a newspaper again."

Blagging has been described by Information Commissioner Christopher Graham as a "modern day scourge".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has suggested blaggers should be jailed - former Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to introduce prison terms of up to two years for the offence when he was in power, but the law was never enacted, amid concerns from newspaper bosses.

In a speech at the time Mr Dacre said the "frightening amendment" to the Data Protection Act would have made Britain the only country in the free world to jail journalists and could have had "a considerable chilling effect on good journalism".

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