Journalists from rival newspapers believe the Daily Telegraph paid £150,000 for data revealing the full details of the expenses claims of cabinet ministers.
This was the figure doing the rounds at the journalists’ bar in the House of Commons last night.
There were also suggestions that because the Telegraph apparently had access to the “unredacted” documents about expenses, MPs could have a case for breach of privacy over the leaked information.
Unredacted information could include details such as cabinet ministers’ private mobile phone numbers, phone records of who they have called and when, and contact details for any contractors who would have carried out work at their houses.
The documents detailing government expenses claims have been hawked around various Fleet Street newspapers for the past month by an intermediary acting for the source of the data.
The source is believed to have originally gone to the Sunday Express – prompting that paper to publish details of the expenses of home secretary Jacqui Smith, including the fact that her husband had claimed for adult films.
According to Fleet Street insiders there has since been a dispute between the Sunday Express and the source over paying for the information.
Then the source is believed to taken the documents to The Times.
On 1 April, The Times revealed that a City businessman had offered to sell it details of expenses claimed by MPs going back five years for £300,000.
It declined to pay the source but kept their identity secret – as have other newspapers.
MPs’ receipts were scanned this year by the Stationery Office after MPs failed to stop them being disclosed under Freedom of Information legislation.
The redacted information was due to be published on 1 July.
The source is also believed to have shown the information to The Sun, but not to have offered it to Fleet Street’s other big payers – the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and News of the World. The Mirror titles are also understood not t have been approached.
One Lobby insider told Press Gazette: “There is a rumour that this is Tory inspired because all the papers they have gone to are at that end of the spectrum.
“The suggestion is that the unredacted documents are available, meaning journalists will have details of ministers’ private mobile phone numbers, information about all the contractors that have visited their houses and so on. If so this will reap a treasure trove of stories.
“Enterprising journalists will go through the lists of contractors who have visited the home of a particularly minister and find one that is willing to spill the beans.”
Phone records could also reveal who MPs have called and when.
The Daily Telegraph today splashed its MPs expenses investigation over nine broadsheet pages.
Details include how Lord Mandelson claimed thousands to improve his constituency home after announcing his resignation as an MP; how communities secretary Hazel Blears claimed for three properties in a single year; and culture secretary Andy Burnham joked to Commons authorities in a letter that if an expenses claim to buy and renovate a new London flat was not met.
Business secretary Lord Mandelson told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme today: “When you see something like this in a paper like the Telegraph you can either react with sort of boiling anger at the attempt to smear or traduce half the cabinet and you should rail at what motivates a Tory supporting paper to mount an operation like this.
“Or you take it more philosophically, you accept that this is what passes for modern journalism – you don’t allow yourself to be diverted from it as a minister and you get on with your day job, and that’s what I intend to do.”
Telegraph journalist Ben Brogan told the BBC: “One of the great rules about journalism is that you never talk about your sources. What matters is that we’ve established that this information is reliable and it is certainly in the public interest that we publish it.
“For the first time after years of trying to get this information, Telegraph readers and the general public will have an idea of the systemic abuse of parliamentary allowances that has been going on for years and has grown up out of a system that clearly is no longer suitable for what it’s designed to do.”