Two private investigators (PIs) have told the High Court trial into hacking allegations at Mirror Group Newspapers about the “dark arts” and “illegal” methods they used to allegedly help newspapers obtain private information for stories.
But on Friday a former Daily Mirror news editor told the court he had no knowledge of hacking at the newspaper and a story about Prince Harry and his ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy was “obtained legitimately”.
Steve Whittamore, now retired, claimed it was “well known” among journalists that information his firm JJ Services helped provide was through illegal means such as “blagging” – the practice of getting information through deception.
Whittamore was convicted of illegally obtaining secret information following the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman investigation in 2003. It was later revealed national newspapers, including the publisher of the Mirror, had spent more than £1m on his services although their payments were not necessarily for unlawful purposes.
Mirror Group Newspapers is contesting allegations of unlawful information gathering and has said there is “no evidence, or no sufficient evidence, of voicemail interception” in the four claims, including Harry’s, currently in court as “representative” cases.
In his written witness statement, Whittamore said he was “in no doubt” that journalists using his services regularly “knew that the information was obtained through illegal means such as blagging”.
He said: “The email address I used to invoice the newspapers was even email@example.com and was included in invoices.”
“There would have been no doubt in the mind of those responsible for checking these schedules, and paying these invoices, what work had been carried out,” he said.
During cross-examination on Thursday, Andrew Green KC, for MGN, put it to the ex-PI – who subcontracted his work to others – that an address search could be a “perfectly legitimate” request and telephone number checks could be done “perfectly lawfully”, with journalists having “no reason” to think work would be done in an “unlawful manner”.
Green asked Whittamore if he agreed that if, according to evidence from hundreds of invoices, the “majority” of the work he did was “consistent with most of your work being entirely lawful”.
“It may be so,” Whittamore replied.
‘Detective Danno’ says newspapers asked him to ‘disguise… indicators of illegality’
Also giving evidence on Thursday was Daniel Portley-Hanks – also known as “Danno” Hanks or “Detective Danno” – who alleged British newspapers asked him to “disguise” or “wash” the product of his information searches to “reduce the indicators of illegality”.
“In other words, to give more of an appearance of legitimacy or reduce the indicators of illegality or ‘shadiness’ if viewed by a third party,” he said in his witness statement.
He claimed he was encouraged to invoice as the “British American News Service” instead of as “Detective Danno” or “Backstreet Investigations”.
“Essentially, they wanted all mentions of ‘investigator’ or ‘detective’ removed from invoices, emails and reports to disguise my true modus operandi,” Hanks said.
Asked in court if he remembered anyone at MGN asking him to do this, Hanks said: “Not specifically.”
In his statement, Hanks explained that he used to work in Los Angeles in the US as a private investigator for media clients and admitted to a “checkered career”.
He claimed that as a PI he had authorised access to databases of personal information that could be used to track down witnesses for a lawyer or to prevent fraud.
However, it was not permitted to access information such as social security numbers or a date of birth through searches for a journalist.
“That was why I was so useful to newspapers and that is what they paid me to do which they could not legally do themselves,” he said.
He claimed to have sold personal data to British newspapers obtained “under the false pretence of legitimate PI work”.
Hanks said he unlawfully obtained phone numbers and billing data, adding that he got the phone records for the ex-boyfriend of singer Kylie Minogue, Oliver Martinez, and provided them “to more than one British newspaper”.
“I am sure that the UK newspapers and their journalists knew what I was doing,” he said, later adding: “I was never asked to change my product or methods which they knew to be illegal.”
The court heard, amid discussion about an interview Hanks previously did with The News Agents podcast, that he claimed he was asked by the Sun newspaper to obtain private information on the Duchess of Sussex.
The court heard Hanks said it had not been unlawful in the US for the PI to obtain her social security number but it was not legal to pass it on to the media.
Green, representing MGN, said it could be taken from the interview that Hanks only disclosed the social security number because he “didn’t think about it” and had been “too lazy” to take it out of data he passed on.
The barrister suggested that a journalist who received such information without asking for it would be “blameless” because it was down to Hanks’s “laziness”.
Hanks also told the court he had been convicted of crimes “more than I can remember”, estimating it to be “at least” 20.
The court heard that his most recent conviction was in 2016 involving extortion and the making of threats on behalf of a criminal gang.
Hanks confirmed he had been arrested around 50 times and spent eight years in US prisons.
Asked by Green when he decided it was time “to do the right thing”, Hanks replied: “My brother passed away from cancer and I started thinking about eternity and felt I should do whatever I could do to correct the wrongs that I have done before I passed.”
Ex-news editor says Chelsy Davy article ‘obtained legitimately’
On Friday, the trial heard from former Daily Mirror news editor Anthony Harwood, who told the court he had no knowledge of phone hacking or other unlawful information-gathering.
Harwood, who has been freelance since 2015 and since 2021 has been providing journalistic support to MGN regarding the ongoing litigation, said in a witness statement that an article he wrote headlined “Harry is a Chelsy fan” – one of the articles complained about by the duke – did not involve any unlawful means.
He said he was the Daily Mirror’s US editor at the time of the article and had been asked to go to Argentina to cover Harry’s holiday in November 2004.
Harwood said he had a front-page “splash” which reported details of the duke’s “13-day bender” in Argentina, two days before the article about Davy.
He said that splash, which is not alleged to have come from unlawful information-gathering, included the wife of a bar owner saying “Harry’s group was accompanied by a ‘mystery blonde’, but nothing more than that” and added that the paper’s night log shows he was going to spend the weekend trying to find out her identity.
He said in the statement: “As it happened, the Mail on Sunday identified the girl as Chelsy Davy and so provided me with my follow-up.
“According to the Mail on Sunday, published the day before the article, Chelsy Davy was already back in South Africa when its story appeared. It even carried a picture of her which they said was taken there.
“So, it is likely the picture in the article was taken there too, after local photographers were alerted by the Mail on Sunday story. If we had had the photo before then, we would have used it in Saturday’s paper.
“As it happened, I would have asked the freelancer to go back to the people he had spoken to for the Saturday story to try and get any more on the ‘mystery blonde’.
He added: “There were also other papers as well as Splash News, the US-based news agency, in Argentina covering the story so the quote from the nightclub goer … could have come from someone else or I could have got it myself, or (a freelancer) might have have got it.
“I just can’t remember, but I am confident that this story was obtained legitimately.”
During cross-examination by David Sherborne, representing the duke and the other claimants, Harwood was asked about phone numbers for famous individuals contained in his palm pilot device.
The court heard this included former football star David Beckham, ex-England cricketer Ian Botham and retired boxer Frank Bruno.
Sherborne suggested to Harwood that the reason he had these numbers was to give them to journalists “so they could hack these phones or blag information as a result”.
“No, absolutely not,” Harwood said.
He later added: “Most of these numbers of celebrities I never ever called. You got numbers in case you might need them, that’s why you have them.”
In his written statement, Harwood said: “My Palm Pilot was not a list of intended or actual victims of phone hacking, rather it was simply a digital record of my hard copy Filofax, which contained all my contacts.”
Sherborne showed Harwood evidence he authorised payments to private investigator John Ross, who the barrister said was a corrupt former police officer.
This included for work relating to murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor, entertainer Michael Barrymore and the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.
Sherborne claimed this was “someone giving tips that plainly must have made you think that this was unlawful”.
“I had no reason to believe he was up to no good,” Harwood said.
In his written statement, the journalist said that as a news editor he might have 50 to 100 payments a week to authorise in relation to contributor work.
“There was never enough time to check each payment – so I only checked those which appeared large or unusual. I did not know the details of some of the payments I approved,” he said.
Sherborne also asked Harwood whether he was “blind” to alleged unlawful activity or if he “just didn’t want to admit it now?”, to which he replied: “I have no knowledge of hacking or unlawful information-gathering.”
Coronation Street actors Michael Turner and Nikki Sanderson and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman are also named as “representative” cases for the seven-week trial.
The hearing before Mr Justice Fancourt continues.
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