By Dan Evans
A SENIOR Editor at the Sunday Mirror newspaper was once caught on film offering to illegally buy celebrities’ private medical records, Byline Investigates can reveal.
Nick Owens was taped saying the paper would pay at least £3,000 for stories based on highly confidential data purportedly leaked by an ‘administrative nurse’ at a plastic surgery clinic.
But the tabloid journalist was actually speaking to a documentary maker posing as a fictitious tipster to test whether Fleet Street was willing to break data protection laws for celebrity gossip.
“If this was somebody in show-business, with that on their record, it would impede their career,” Press campaigner Brian Cathcart
And Owens, whose responsibilities have increased since a reshuffle sparked by Mirror Group Newspapers’ February purchase of the Daily and Sunday Express, took the bait.
He said: “Obviously the people coming through her doors are fucking AA list… I was worried that you might come here and talk to me about someone from (90s pop band) Steps or something.”
Then, discussing fees paid by the paper for exclusives, he added: “You are in a really good situation, personally.”
He went on: “Think you are looking to get over three grand (£3,000) minimum – that is a start.
“How it works is right, page lead (main story on an average page) in the paper is a grand – but the further it gets to the front of the paper the more it is.”
But as none of the ‘stories’ – about actors Hugh Grant, Rhys Ifans, Gemma Arterton and Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – enjoyed a ‘public interest’ legal defence, Owens was at risk of breaching both the 2006 Fraud Act and 1998 Data Protection Act (DPA).
Conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years when tried at Crown Court, where breaches of the DPA could attract fines up to £5,000 per offence.
Yet neither police nor Press Complaints Commission (PCC) – industry regulator at the time the recording was made, whose Code of Practice forbade intrusion into private medical issues – ever investigated the journalist.
Under cross-examination, Owens insisted, that when he met Atkins he had been merely “reacting to a string of stories that have just been thrown at me there by somebody,” and that he was “going along with” the supposed source.
However viewers were left to make up their own minds (starting at 23 mins) after seeing Owens’ conduct at the Sunday Mirror exposed in the 2009 BAFTA-nominated film Starsuckers.
Now, Owens – who has enjoyed a succession of promotions by his employers Mirror Group Newspapers since the secret recordings were made public – is in one of the paper’s top jobs.
As Head of News, Owens runs a team of department heads, junior executives and journalists, and is responsible for stories in the hard-copy paper and online.
Reach have denied that Owens edits The Sunday Mirror in the absence of Acting Editor Paul Henderson, who stepped into the breach earlier this year after newly promoted Editor Peter Willis went off.
Owens has to make sure that they follow the codes laid down by press regulator IPSO, and that advice from in-house lawyers is taken into consideration.
Atkins’ investigation began in March 2009 with a phone call to the Sunday Mirror’s news-desk, who according to the film wanted to set up a meeting over a “cup of coffee or a glass of wine”.
Owens then spoke to Atkins admitting patient confidentiality was an “extremely sensitive” subject for newspapers, only then to go on: “You know, if you want to set up a relationship with a journalist to start feeding information through, then that’s absolutely fine.”
He added: “I have the eye and the ear of the news editor and editor as well. Which is quite handy.”
Chris Atkins later told Lord Justice Leveson: “Owens, acting under guidance from the Sunday Mirror news desk, was looking to pay us £3,000 a story in return for wholesale mining of as many medical records as possible from our clinic.
“He explained how the public interest requirement is set aside by editors if the celebrity is big enough or the story is funny.
“He also explained that in some cases they will write a “have they haven’t they?” article about the operations in order to shield that the source involves a breach of the DPA.
“Owens also hinted that he has been involved in similar health stories in the past.”
Six days after their initial phone call, Owens met Atkins in a hotel, where the journalist immediately gave reassurances that he was not making any secret recordings – as this is a trick used routinely by British tabloid journalists – while oblivious to the role reversal really going on.
Owens was filmed reclining in an easy chair, one foot up, resting on his knee, A4 notepad open in front of him. He looked relaxed and appeared to control the conversation.
From the outset, Owens showed awareness of the Code of Practice of the newspaper industry’s former self-regulator the PCC, an organisation dissolved in 2014 over its failures to tackle phone hacking and since replaced with another self-regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
He used the example of television presenter Fern Britton, whose gastric band operation was exposed because publicly she claimed to have lost weight through exercise and diet, and was therefore deemed to have been revealed in the ‘public interest’.
Owens pressed Atkins to illegally obtain documentary evidence about the medical procedures undertaken at the clinic, adding that final decisions on stories lay with editor Tina Weaver.
Owens said: “Is there a document somewhere – a piece of paper – is there an email – something that would prove (the story)…”
He went on: “I’ve never had any cosmetic surgery – but I suspect there is a record in the clinic of that surgery taking place.
“It is not like the NHS obviously where you phone up and they tell you about an operation that’s happened on such a date as it’s private.”
In discussing each story, he explained on what basis the Sunday Mirror might be able to construct a public interest defence to justify running it.
Told James Bond actor Gemma Arterton, then aged 23, was having a similar gastric band operation to Britton, despite having no apparent need to lose weight, Owens said: “We could get away with Gemma – that’s massive, good story that… because as you see she does not need one. You have got to ask yourself why? Why is she bothering? That age as well. So that’s all great.”
He added: “Gemma Arterton we’ll need if possible some documentation. The thing to say to your friend is “what can you get? “Because the more the better really. If she can ’t get anything then fine.”
On actor Rhys Ifans supposedly having a “tummy tuck” to tackle a “beer belly”, Owens said: “I think Rhys is funny – cos, you know, Rhys Ifans wanting a tummy tuck is a very funny story – but then again – is it justified in the public interest? That’s the problem.”
But he went on to add: “It’s a fucking good story that – but out of all of them you could do Rhys – if you wanted to do one you could probably do Rhys (in the next edition to be printed) Sunday, but we’re not gonna do that.
“But looking at it, Rhys you could probably get away with (from a public interest point of view) because it’s so funny.”
Told a singer from Girls Aloud was having a consultation for breast augmentation, Owens said: “Girls Aloud is potential… very, very, good story.
“Depends who it is. If it’s Cheryl then it is massive – with Cheryl you can expect a big pay. That makes it less dodgy for your source.
“It’s almost worth the wait, till she had it done… Have they had it done or it is just a consultation?”
On learning the singer was another member of the group, Nicola Roberts, Owens added: “This one is ‘Nicola’s Got A Boob Job’; it is a one fact story… there’s no getting around it.
“As a journalist you write that story up, there’s almost a point where you put a full stop and you’ve finished the story. Then you have to write round it.”
“It’s a boob job then that goes without saying – if you say to me that she (Nicola) has had a boob job in May – and we know about it and then we put pictures on her (appoint a photographer to follow her) very early on and we would be the first paper to fucking run that story – do the ‘before and after’ pictures.
“Because what you do with boob job stories is ‘has she or hasn’t she had a boob job?’
“And we know she has, which means I can write it quite strong.
“With Gemma Arterton it is slightly more tricky cos it’s a consultation for a gastric band and obviously it goes without saying you can’t see it. Cos then we do have to go to her – with her we might need some documents, we need to know when it happened.”
Cross-examined on his Starsuckers appearance at the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, Owens insisted: “What was happening here was that this was an informal meeting between myself and Mr Atkins and we were discussing information which did not lead to any story being published at all, and I was simply engaging with him and trying to get to the bottom of what it was he had to say.”
Byline Investigates asked Sunday Mirror owners Reach PLC a series of questions about Mr Owens, which it declined to acknowledge or address.
But journalist, author, and co-founder of media standards campaign group Hacked Off, Brian Cathcart, told Byline Investigates: “The Sunday Mirror’s readers should know about this.
“The only reason the readers don’t know about this is because other newspapers are not telling them.
“Is there a conspiracy in the Press to cover up the past of somebody who in any other walk of life would be exposed and called out by these same papers?
“If this was somebody in show-business, with that on their record, it would impede their career.”