Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, yesterday conceded that a private detective the paper commissioned hundreds of times may have been engaging in criminal activity.
Challenged at the Leveson Inquiry into media standards over the paper's prolonged use of Steve Whittamore to obtain personal information, Mr Dacre said: "There was a prima-facie case that Whittamore could have been acting illegally."
But he said that there was no evidence that the newspaper's journalists had broken the law in commissioning the detective.
The editor had been invited by Lord Justice Leveson to consult a lawyer before responding to further questioning over the paper's use of Whittamore, who was convicted of data-protection offences in 2005 after the Operation Motorman inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson told the hearing he was not convinced all the illicit searches were in the public interest: "It seems to me that it's extremely difficult to justify some of the requests that were made."
Robert Jay, QC, counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, told the hearing that the Motorman files showed that the Mail had paid £500 for the details of 10 "friends and family" numbers of the subject of one of its stories. Mr Dacre argued that such searches were necessary to corroborate news stories.
Angered by a line of questioning he at one point denounced as "preposterous", Mr Dacre was obliged to defend his paper and "a company I love" over repeated attacks on its journalistic standards. Answering criticisms of his columnist Jan Moir's piece on the death of the singer Stephen Gately, he said: "I think the piece, the column, could have benefited from a little judicious sub-editing." But he maintained that "there is not a homophobic bone in Jan Moir's body".
He also stood by his organisation for accusing Hugh Grant of a "mendacious smear" after the actor told Lord Justice Leveson that the Mail and the Mail on Sunday had been involved in phone hacking. "I have never placed a story in the Daily Mail as a result of phone hacking, that I know came from phone hacking," he said. He said he believed Mr Grant made the statement to "hijack" the inquiry.
Earlier in his evidence, Mr Dacre called for a new system of accrediting journalists and argued for a new self-regulatory body.Reuse content