The Mail on Sunday continued using convicted private investigator Steve Whittamore for 18 months after his arrest on suspicion of illegally trading information with national newspapers and magazines, the Leveson Inquiry heard this afternoon.
Whittamore’s home was raided by police and officers from the Information Commissioners Office in March 2003, when they discovered a ‘veritable treasure trove” of information on reporters ordering searches on everything from addresses to criminal records, including the MoS and Daily Mail.
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In April 2005 Whittamore was given a two-year conditional discharge after he was found guilty of obtaining and disclosing information under the Data Protection Act and received a conditional discharge, though no journalists were ever prosecuted.
Today MoS editor Peter Wright revealed that reporters from his newspaper continued using him until September 2004.
He said that in early 2004 he instructed journalists that Whittamore wasn’t to be used unless department heads were consulted and there were no other means to find out the information.
They were told to take ‘enormous care’when commissioning Whittamore, who could only be use in a ‘defined set of circumstances”, he told the inquiry.
In September 2004 they eventually banned journalists from using him altogether – though two subsequent payments were made after this date which Wright said ‘no one can quite explain”.
He admitted that a ‘substantial sum of money’had been paid to Whittamore over several years, estimating the figure to be around £20,000.
This is a substantially lower figure than the one presented to the inquiry by former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who said that the MoS could potentially have made as many as 797 transactions totalling £41,132 when he gave evidence in November.
Wright, who became editor of the paper in 1978, said the paper took action when it ‘became aware that he [Whittamore] was going to be prosecuted’around the ‘turn of the year 2003/04″
‘In February that year we took steps to stop the use of Whittamore, or at least only use him when we were extremely sure that what he was doing was legitimate and there was a good reason to do it,” he said.
‘Situation that put our staff at risk’
Reporters on the road would use Whittamore because he was ‘very good and very quick’at accessing information contained on electoral rolls, for example, and supplying reporters with the ‘basic information needed to do their jobs”.
His staff were under the impression that Whittamore was only using legitimate sources, he claimed, adding: “There was something of a learning process at this period.
“We were coming to terms with very rapidly changing technology, and reporters and other writers in our newsroom were finding ways of adapting to technology more rapidly than editors were aware that they were doing so.
“And, rightly or wrongly, it took us a time to catch up with what had taken place.”
Asked why he didn’t try to find out which journalists had been involved, he told Jay that there would have been a public interest defence in the majority of the inquiries, but he admitted that using Whittamore was a ‘situation that put our staff at risk”.
In his witness statement Wright said that following an ICO report into Whittamore’s activities in 2006 the paper’s publisher Associated Newspaper conducted a review and discovered that a number of external agencies were being used by staff, including ‘genealogical researchers, tracing and inquiry agents, credit reference agencies and database holders”.
‘As far as I am aware none of these agencies were used to source stories,” he continued. “They were used to locate people who were in the news or who might be able to help reporters find people inthe news in order to check their facts or give someone the opportunity to comment orgive their side of the story.
‘As such they mostly involved searches of databases such as Births, Marriages and Deaths, Companies House, the electoral roll and telephone records. At this time (2000 – 2005) the internet was not widely used by journalists as a research tool: Google and Facebook were in their infancy, reporters on the road had laptops that only communicated with the office.
“Inquiry agents such as Mr Whittamore possessed CD-Roms containing databases of public records and were adept at searching them.”
He added: ‘Previously an electoral roll search would involve dispatching a reporter to the relevant town hall, which could take all day. Inquiry agents could search every electoral rll in the country in a matter of minutes.
‘Although the agencies assured us they acted within the law, Motorman demonstrated that we could not always rely on such assurances.
“For that reason the editor-in-chief banned all use of external search agencies in April 2007 with immediate effect.”