Exclusive: Criminal ‘Blaggers’ Specialised in Selling Phone Numbers to Fleet Street – Later Used in Industrial-Scale Voicemail Interception

By Graham Johnson

Editor, Byline Investigates

Byline reveals the Daily Mail spent huge sums on a firm who sold illegal information to Mirror Group journalists for use in hacking.

· Previously, in our series investigating The Daily Mail, Byline has exposed the untold story of the paper’s massive use of illegal PIs.

· Part Five of our investigation revealed that the Mail group spent more than £1 million on private investigators after the illegal trade in personal data was exposed and despite a police probe into the shadowy crime network. 

• Now we shine a light on the Daily Mail’s connections with a specific company which provided data to Fleet Street journalists, which is known on other papers to have then been used to hack phones.

• The Mail refuses to answer our questions on what sort of information was provided to them by the rogue firm, and what it was used for, but denies its OWN reporters hacked phones.

The Daily Mail spent more than £115,000 in 21 months on a firm of private detectives that was the first rung in a tried and trusted phone-hacking system

The company was named by a specialist High Court judge as a peddler of unlawful phone data which was used routinely by national newspaper journalists to break into voice mails.

Express Locate International (ELI) was identified by Mr Justice Mann as a source of phone numbers in the supply chain to newspapers where the end result was hacking. 

He awarded nearly £1.25m damages to eight victims of phone hacking by The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People.

Byline can reveal that the same firm was used by journalists at the Daily Mail,  according to payment ledgers submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by the Mail’s owners, Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL).

The Mail was required by Lord Justice Leveson to provide the data but the ledgers were never published by the Inquiry.

As Byline reported in part five of its investigation into The Mail blagging scandal , the spreadsheets reveal that the Mail and its sister paper, The Mail on Sunday, paid a total of £823,218.54 to ten different private detectives or search agencies.

In 28 months between January 2005 and April 2007, they spent an average of more than £30,000-a-month.

Byline has also exclusively revealed that ANL paid more than £150,000 to Steve Whittamore – whose company JJ Services is included in the ledgers – after he was raided in 2003 on suspicion of unlawfully obtaining personal data by deceit (blagging).

Whittamore was convicted in April 2005 and confessed to Byline that most of those payments were for information he had obtained unlawfully.

Legal rulings and court papers indicate that a substantial amount of the information unlawfully supplied by both Whittamore and ELI to Mirror Group journalists was used to hack phones.

ELI also supplied phone data to News Group Newspapers, which published the defunct News of the World and The Sun, and which is currently defending hacking claims in the High Court and denying hacking at the Sun.

However, the Daily Mail has told Byline that it was different from its rivals and didn’t hack phones based on ELIs unlawful phone numbers. However, it has refused to say what data it bought or what it was used for.

But the documents obtained by Byline clearly show that it used ELI in the same way as those papers who were hacking.

The payment ledgers, which have languished in unopened files for five years, reveal that the Daily Mail paid ELI £115,585.78.

This cash bought Britain’s favourite middle-market paper 802 requests between January 5th 2005 and October 5th 2006, when the payments appear to stop abruptly.

This termination of trade with ELI took place six months before ANL said it introduced a ban on journalists from using any private investigators. 

But, interestingly, it was shortly after Mail executives became aware that the police were investigating phone hacking on Fleet Street when a private investigator working for the News of the World and a senior journalist on the News of the World were arrested.

Though the ELI link to phone hacking was revealed in court cases involving the Mirror Group, the method of obtaining phone data is now being cited in court cases involving other newspapers, such as the Sun and the News of the World Features desk.

In a written judgment handed down in May 2015, following a civil trial which found that reporters from the Mirror group had hacked phones on a ‘very large scale’, Mr Justice Mann said that ELI was paid to obtain a range of illegal information. 

The judge stated at paragraph 51:

‘This company could apparently find out the telephone number and address of an individual (for £125) or a quarterly phone bill (£250). It could “spin” a number – find out the individual who owned a number – particularly useful for identifying someone who left message on a victim’s phone if it was not apparent from the message.

‘They were also employed to provide credit card details (potentially useful for identifying stays in hotels, the amount spent there, meals in restaurants, and the like). In one case they obtained details of gambling transactions between a celebrity and bookmakers.’
He added that one reporter said if a story broke elsewhere about a celebrity, ‘the first thing’ he would do was contact ELI to obtain that person’s phone number and phone data.

Mr Justice Mann continued:

‘That would reveal who had been called first thing in the morning and last thing at night, who was frequently called and what patterns there might be. Once other individuals were identified in that way an attempt was made to hack their phones. If useful information was revealed, a photographer could be despatched to maintain a watch (on both sides of the apparent affair) and get incriminating photographs.’

The Daily Mail responded: 

As we have previously made clear, our use of inquiry agents – and the decision in 2007 by the Editor-in-chief to ban all use of them – was covered in our evidence and submissions to the Leveson inquiry and we have nothing further to add.

“We have also repeatedly made clear that there is no evidence whatsoever that any Associated Newspapers publication has ever engaged in phone hacking. Mr Justice Mann’s Mirror judgment gives no grounds to speculate that phone hacking took place in this group and there can be no justification for any such inference or allegation.”