The Express newspaper group admits it may still be using the services of convicted private detective, Steve Whittamore.
On a day which also saw proprietor Richard Desmond claim the Daily Express had been "scapegoated" over its coverage of Madeleine McCann's disappearance, the group's legal manager told the Leveson Inquiry that Whittamore's company was still carrying out work for the Express as late as 2010. Whittamore, who was at the centre of the Operation Motorman police investigation, was arrested in 2003, charged in 2004 for trading in illegally held information and convicted in 2005. i revealed last September that before his arrest, Whittamore had conducted 17,000 searches for personal information on behalf of journalists, but the authorities were afraid to question newspapers on the apparently illicit activities.
The conviction of Whittamore and the subsequent jailing of the royal editor of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, along with the private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, was widely regarded as the closing chapter of Fleet Street's use of private detectives. The revelation by the Express challenges that. Nicole Patterson, the group's legal boss, said an internal audit had revealed no evidence that phone hacking had been practiced by Express journalists.
However, Ms Patterson was asked by the inquiry's counsel, Robert Jay QC, if the group was still using Whittamore's company, JJ Services. "The last entry [in the audit of Whittamore's commissions] was 2010," she said. But she also admitted she did not know if the firm was still being used.
In a list of invoices and payments showed on the inquiry's internal monitors, but not published, Whittamore's company was paid £174,000 for commissions over 10 years.
The commissions list included searches on John Birt, the former BBC director general, and the singer Charlotte Church. Another search names Robert Murat, the man falsely accused of being involved in the abduction of Madeleine McCann in Portugal. Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express from 2003 till last year, denied he had been "obsessed" with the McCann story, blamed the Portuguese police for giving the paper false information and said there were reasons to believe the stories had been true.