October 15, 2009 / 6:57 PM / 8 years ago

British tabloids caught out by filmmaker's hoaxes

4 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters) - Three British tabloid newspapers discussed buying confidential medical information about celebrities, in a possible contravention of Britain's privacy laws, after being offered it as a hoax by a filmmaker.

Journalists from The Sunday Mirror, News of the World and People met Chris Atkins, director of new film "Starsuckers," after he offered them the stories to see how far journalists would be willing to go to obtain intrusive information.

A fourth tabloid, The Sunday Express, refused to meet Atkins, telling him his proposal breached the code of practice laid down by the industry's self-regulating body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), and was a "legal minefield."

"We wanted to do a test to see how they would react," Atkins told Reuters. "It is just showing the public what goes on behind the stories that they pay for every day."

Atkins, who claimed to have a contact working as an administrative nurse in a fictitious cosmetic surgery clinic, offered the papers the chance to obtain supposedly confidential information about celebrities including actor Hugh Grant and film director Guy Ritchie.

All three journalists said they would need to see proof of the claims but expressed interest in obtaining the information, with The Sunday Mirror's reporter telling Atkins the paper would pay around 3,000 pounds ($4,900) for every story published, a video clip on The Guardian newspaper's web site showed.

Public Interest

Obtaining private medical records without consent is usually a breach of the Data Protection Act, although some breaches may be justified by media organizations if they can prove that obtaining the data was in the public interest.

The PCC code prohibits intrusions into privacy without a person's consent, but its powers are limited.

In a statement The News of the World said it had made clear throughout that, given the information offered, any story would have to be justified by a public interest.

"As it was not in this case, we did not pursue the matter and no information was purchased or story published," it said. "We are confident our reporter followed the correct procedure and abided by the PCC Code of Practice."

Trinity Mirror PLC, which owns The People and The Sunday Mirror, declined to comment on the documentary.

As part of the documentary, which premiers at the London Film Festival later this month, the team also planted several fake reports with British tabloids to expose inaccurate celebrity reporting.

They posed as members of the public to offer the papers fabricated stories about well known-figures to test whether the journalists would check the facts.

"We kept trying to do things that they wouldn't print and it happened a couple of times but they pretty much printed most of what we said," Atkins said, adding that their stories had featured in The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mirror and Daily Star.

Their greatest success, he added, was a fictional story about Sarah Harding, a member of British pop group Girls Aloud, which featured in the flagship gossip section of The Sun, Britain's top selling daily.

The paper ran a story headlined "Sarah's a real boffin" which claimed the singer was a secret stargazer, after a Starsucker researcher -- posing as the wife of a removal man who had helped Harding move house -- called the paper to say the singer owned a telescope and several books on quantum physics.

Editing by Myra MacDonald

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