News from nowhere: How the papers got their stories

By Jon Manel
PM, BBC Radio 4

Image caption,
Phone-hacking allegations raised wider questions about the newspaper industry

A former private detective has admitted she obtained medical information without consent on behalf of newspaper journalists.

It came in a taped conversation during a BBC Radio 4 investigation into how some journalists got their stories.

For months I have been reporting on the various phone-hacking allegations involving the News of The World.

Since last summer I have been speaking to former journalists who worked for various papers and I started to examine wider questions about the newspaper industry.

I was given the name of a woman who, it was said, had been paid by journalists to obtain confidential information about people's health in the 1990s.

She confirmed she had been known as "the best in the business", when it came to getting medical information. She would not give an interview.

Apparent ease

Given the seriousness of what she had said, the BBC took a decision to secretly record a second conversation with her.

She told how she gathered the medical information, often with apparent ease, by phoning doctors' surgeries and hospitals.

Usually, she claimed, journalists were asking her to confirm something they had already been told by another source.

"You might ring through to a secretary: 'Just ringing about that report, have you received the report for the degenerative heart condition?' and they'll go 'yes, yes, that's confirmed'.

"They just start telling you things. It seems ridiculous but you'd be absolutely amazed what information you find out about somebody without actually even saying who you are.

"People who have information that they think is important, they're actually quite pleased to tell you things sometimes."

Illegal now

This technique of getting hold of information is known in the trade as "blagging".

She suggested she was not concerned about what she was doing: "Honestly, it's going to sound like a bizarre thing to say, but it was a job - I did it. I always felt if I didn't do it someone else would."

Asked if she would want someone looking into her medical records, she replied: "No, but then I haven't put myself in the public eye."

It is questionable whether what she did was against the law at the time - and it all took place long ago. That is why we are not naming her.

However, obtaining confidential personal information without consent would certainly be illegal now although, in some cases, a newspaper might say it was in the public interest.

Serious breach

What the former private investigator says appears to add credence to separate claims from three former journalists. In individual meetings, they told me that medical details about celebrities were obtained by papers they worked on.

One journalist described how health information about a football manager was read to him by a colleague over the phone. The second made claims about a former soap star.

The most recent example I have been told about relates to a well known actor in around 2004. My source claims to have seen information about her health first hand.

The Press Complaints Commission, which is the industry's self regulator, told us that obtaining confidential medical information without consent is potentially a very serious breach of its Code of Conduct.

It says standards have been tightened in recent years and a tough code of practice is now enforced in journalists' contracts.

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