(updates with more evidence)
By Jack Stubbs
LONDON, April 11 (Reuters) - The mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne took to the witness stand in Britain’s phone-hacking trial on Friday to tell a jury that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid had been a “force for good”.
Sara Payne, whose daughter was abducted and murdered 14 years ago, appeared as a character witness at the Old Bailey and said staff at the weekly tabloid had supported her and worked to secure changes in the law regarding child sex offenders.
She said the paper’s former editor Rebekah Brooks and ex-managing editor Stuart Kuttner had become good friends who cared for her family.
Kuttner and Brooks are on trial with the paper’s former editor and ex-media chief of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Andy Coulson. They are accused of conspiracy to intercept voicemails on mobile phones. All three deny all charges.
Brooks and Coulson also face charges over illegal payments to public officials, which they deny.
Payne said she had met the former News International staff soon after her daughter’s murder. They had provided advice on media contact, worked on the Sarah’s Law campaign for changes in the law regarding child sex offenders and supported her to write a series of columns for the newspaper.
Writing in the final edition of the tabloid on July 10 2011, before it closed following allegations of widespread phone-hacking and payments to public officials by its journalists, Payne said: “It is easy to forget in these dark times, that the News of the World has often been a force for good, and that has more than anything to do with the people who work for it.”
Asked to describe Kuttner’s character, she said: “Stuart is a gentlemen: he is everything my parents taught me about being a gentleman and having manner and etiquette. He is a good guy.”
She said Brooks, 45, had worked with politicians and rival newspapers to control the media frenzy surrounding her family.
”I can’t really describe what we were going through at the time, it was just traumatic,“ she said. ”This was a world that was crazy and it was madness.
“Rebekah and her team would always look after us ... Rebekah is a very sweet girl, she’s very sweet natured.”
Payne is the latest in a series of high-profile character witnesses for Kuttner, who was managing editor at the News of the World for 22 years until 2009. The jury has previously heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who said the 74-year-old newspaper veteran was a man of integrity.
Former director of the British Press Complaints Commission Lord Guy Black also addressed the jury on Friday, saying he had often sought Kuttner’s advice on major stories such as the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Omagh bombing a year later.
“He is in many ways the reporter’s reporter,” said Black. “Intrepid and courageous in pursuit of the story but also immensely professional ... he would never, ever play fast and loose with the rules.”
The court has previously heard that private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was convicted of phone-hacking in 2007, was paid by the newspaper to intercept mobile phone voicemail messages in the search for stories.
Kuttner, whom the jury has been told is suffering from ill health, has been accused by prosecutors of concealing payments to Mulcaire from senior News International executives.
He broke the payments of as much as 100,000 pounds ($167,000) a year into weekly cash instalments and instructed journalists to falsify the names of confidential sources, the jury was told.
“The reason for that is because his activity was criminal phone-hacking, and you knew it,” said lead prosecutor Andrew Edis.
Kuttner replied: ”Such activity is as remote from my concept of newspapers as it is possible to be.
“I was employed by News International on the staff for 29 years. I received the very warmest letter from Mr Rupert Murdoch on my retirement. I completely reject your suggestion,” he said.
The trial continues. (editing by Stephen Addison)