Beckham's 'family-man image' made him target

The News of the World published allegations that football icon David Beckham cheated on his wife after deciding it showed his family man image was a sham, the paper's former chief reporter has said.

Neville Thurlbeck told the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics, culture and practices of the British press that the now-defunct weekly tabloid decided the story was clearly in the public interest.

In 2004, he got the scoop on allegations that England, Manchester United and Real Madrid star Beckham had an affair with his assistant Rebecca Loos.

"We decided there was huge public interest in that matter because the Beckhams had been using their marriage in order to endorse products," he said.

They were making "millions of pounds on the back of that image. It was a wholesome image that the family cultivated and the public bought into on a massive scale and we exposed that to be a sham," Thurlbeck told the inquiry.

He said he spent five months on the story in total, including six weeks in Australia and at least five weeks in Spain, and revealed that Loos received more than 100,000 ($156,000, 118,000 euros).

"It was the most I think I'd ever paid for a story. We're talking about a six figure sum. Just," he said.

The tabloid was nicknamed the "News of the Screws" due to its numerous sex stories, but Thurlbeck said: "Privacy has become a huge matter over the last three years and I would say the kiss-and-tell story now is largely dead as a genre."

The journalist has been arrested as part of the police investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. But he has not been charged and the inquiry agreed not to ask him questions on that subject.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid was shut in July following allegations that phone hacking had involved not just celebrities and public figures but also a murdered teenage girl, Milly Dowler.

In a new twist this weekend, it emerged that claims that journalists not only listened to the 13-year-old's voicemail but also deleted messages to make room for more, thus providing false hope that she was alive, were wrong.

Nick Davies, the reporter who broke the story in The Guardian newspaper, claimed the revelations accurately reflected the view of the police at time and insisted they were still devastating for the News of the World.

"It is delusional to try to pretend that the new evidence on this one element of the story would have changed the outcome," he told Sky News television.

Earlier Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World's ex-investigations editor, told the inquiry he had not been aware of any hacking until the arrest of royal reporter Clive Goodman, who was jailed for the practice in 2007.

Mahmood, known as the "Fake Sheikh" after the disguise he regularly used to dupe targets, rejected previous testimony from Paul McMullan, another former News of the World journalist, that it was a perfectly acceptable tool to expose the truth.

"That certainly doesn't reflect my experience of the News of the World," he said.

Mahmood, who now works at Murdoch's Sunday Times, claimed his work had led to more than 260 "successful criminal prosecutions", the most high-profile case involving three top Pakistan cricketers jailed last month for corruption.

The reporter said he had targeted people who were guilty of criminality, moral wrongdoing and hypocrisy, adding that only a minority were celebrities.

All his investigations were scrutinised carefully by lawyers and the newsdesk, he insisted, adding that tip-offs normally came from well-established informants but were "thoroughly checked" before they were written up.

Murdoch's news empire is still paying out to victims of phone hacking, and on Monday lawyers for ex-Olympics minister Tessa Jowell said she had accepted 200,000 in damages after she was targeted.

- AFP

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