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Agency boss exposed by Exaro defends activities to Leveson

Cash offer to public officials for information was first made in ‘different environment’

I am sure that you can understand why [it] excited the attention of the inquiry

Lord Justice Leveson

Former police photographer Matt Sprake defended his picture agency at the Leveson inquiry this afternoon after being exposed by Exaro.

Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into newspaper practices summoned Sprake to explain why his agency, NewsPics, offered thousands of pounds to police officers and other public officials for information on celebrities. The offer was made explicitly on the agency’s website.

Sprake admitted under questioning by the judge today that the offer was a mistake.

Leveson told him: “I am sure that you can understand why [it] excited the attention of the inquiry.

“But I would be interested to know why you ever thought it appropriate to put on your website that you were prepared to pay – that you were inviting, nurses, prison officers and civil servants – to provide you with stories, doubtless in breach of their duty, and make money out of it.”

Sprake, a former forensics and surveillance officer for the Metropolitan Police and now managing director of the agency, said: “It is a hypothetical situation.” He explained that a nurse might, for example, offer a story that was in the public interest.

Leveson: “But Mr Sprake, you chose to put this offer on your website. Are you saying that you were only interested in public-interest stories, and, if so, why did you not put that? Or is this just a total aberration?”

Sprake: “It was a mistake to put the wording on there.”

The agency supplies pictures to national newspapers. Its website still made the cash offer despite a police investigation into alleged payments made by journalists to public officials, and Leveson’s wide-ranging inquiry into newspaper practices.

Sprake told Leveson that the offer was first made many years ago. “It was a very different environment to what it is now, and when that website was first created, probably it would have been acceptable to have spoken in those terms. Now, obviously, it is totally inappropriate.”

The website was “broken” in 2010 and no content could be changed, he told the inquiry.

Sprake had given the same explanation to Exaro. The former Met photographer also repeated to the inquiry that he had never paid a police officer or “anyone in authority” for information.

Visitors to the NewsPics website were told: “All sorts of people have been paid thousands of pounds by us for giving information that leads to a picture being sold or a story being written, are you a doorman, police worker, civil servant, probation officer, prison officer, nurse? Make some extra money without anyone ever knowing...”

In a section headed “news exclusives”, the agency tempted public officials to provide details of “a scandal” or, “where a prominent person is living or what they get up to,” or, “a celebrity having an affair.”

“You can earn yourself good cash now by calling… 24 hours a day and remember, nobody ever needs to know it was you that told us!”

Within hours of Exaro’s disclosures a fortnight ago, the website containing the appeal was taken down and replaced with a holding page. But Exaro had already published the key page from the website, and an extract is shown to the right.

Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, asked Sprake whether it was a coincidence that the website was removed on July 4, very shortly after the article appeared on Exaro.

Sprake replied: “No, I removed the website on purpose when the story came out because of the inappropriateness of the words on the website and how out of date that website was.”

He also submitted to the inquiry a statement showing that most of the agency’s surveillance work over the past two years was for The People. It also carried out similar work for the News of the World before it closed in 2011.

Sprake said that he and his wife, Marion, are the directors of the agency, which he launched in 2003.

Under ‘Operation Elveden’, Scotland Yard is investigating allegations that journalists paid ‘bribes’ to police and other public officials.

Scotland Yard has so far refused to comment on the case of Sprake, whose 10-year career in the Met included anti-terrorism duties.

Update 23 July 2012: Leveson today invited Lloyd Embley, editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror and formerly of The People, to provide evidence in response to Sprake’s testimony.

During today’s hearing, Leveson made the following statement: “In a number of the closing submissions, it has been suggested that one of the consequences of the fast-moving nature of this inquiry has been an inability to challenge material, particularly where relevant witnesses have already given evidence prior to new allegations being made.

“That is to misunderstand how the inquiry has proceeded. It has always been open to core participants (and others) to submit evidence to the inquiry to answer allegations that have been made and, in appropriate cases where the interests of fairness require, that evidence will be published as part of the record of the inquiry.

“There have been a number of examples where this has already happened, and I am prepared for that type of material to be provided to the inquiry over the weeks to come (albeit no later than the end of August 2012 in respect of evidence prior thereto).

“One example will suffice. The inquiry only learnt of the existence of Matthew Sprake very recently, but I am conscious that his evidence last week concerned, in large part, the work that he had been employed to carry out for The People. Further, it raised issues relating to the responsibilities for the ethical decisions in connection with its commissioning.

“Although I recognise that it is now too late to serve a notice under Section 21 of the [Inquiries] Act on the editor, Mr Lloyd Embley (who gave evidence during the course of Module 1), should he wish to provide his account of that relationship, dealing with what Mr Sprake has said, I shall, of course, consider it.”

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