The Express newspaper group yesterday admitted they may still be using the services of the convicted private detective, Steve Whittamore.
On a day its owner, Richard Desmond, claimed the paper was "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 group as late as 2010.
The Independent revealed last September that before his arrest, Whittamore had conducted 17,000 searches for personal data 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 Express 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 publicly, Whittamore's company was paid £174,000 for commissions over 10 years.
The list included searches on "John Birt", the former BBC director general and the singer Charlotte Church. Another search names Robert Murat, who was the man falsely accused of being involved in the abduction of Madeleine McCann in Portugal.
Asked by Mr Jay why Whittamore's company continued to be used when "a cloud hung over him", Ms Patterson said the hiring was "a matter for the editor and the news editor".
Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express from 2003 until last year, said he had no knowledge that private investigators had ever been used. His newspaper's coverage included published allegations that the McCanns had been responsible for the killing of their daughter. A 2008 libel action brought by Kate and Gerry McCann ended in the Express paying out £550,000. Mr Hill 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.
Current editor, Hugh Whittow, suggested the PCC was, at least in part, responsible for the paper libelling the McCanns: "I feel perhaps that they [the PCC] should have intervened. Everyone had too much leeway. As a result, the story carried on and on and on."
Mr Jay accused Mr Desmond of a "grotesque characterisation" when he said the Express "ran the story for four months and they [the parents] were quite happy to have articles about their daughter" on the front page. The Express owner refused to back down: "On your figures we ran 102 articles for four months and nothing happened until a new firm of lawyers... then came in to sue us. I'm sorry we got it wrong, but every paper was doing the same thing, which is why we paid money to the McCanns. But only we were scapegoated by the PCC."
Clarence Mitchell, the McCanns' spokesman, said Mr Desmond must be "living in a parallel universe" if he believed the couple were happy with the Express coverage.
Media mogul in full flow: What Richard Desmond said...
On his newspapers' libelling of the McCanns
"If there were 102 articles on the McCanns, and 38 bad ones... you could argue there were 68 or 70 good ones."
On the PCC
"A useless organisation run by people who wanted tea and biscuits, and phone hackers."
On the Daily Mail
"Britain's worst enemy... [Paul] Dacre is the fat butcher."
On his detractors
"The only thing I wasn't accused of is murder."
On the Leveson Inquiry
"Probably the worst thing that's ever happened for newspapers in my lifetime."
On phone hacking
"Hacking is illegal, why are these people still walking the streets?"