The McCann family were followed to Canada by the People newspaper to covertly document their first holiday without Madeleine, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
Matt Sprake, a photographer and founder of the NewsPics agency, told the inquiry that he and a reporter for the Sunday paper followed and took pictures of Gerry and Kate McCann, and their young twins Sean and Amelie, at Vancouver Airport during a holiday in 2008, the year after Madeleine McCann disappeared in Portugal.
Sprake, previously a photographer for the Metropolitan Police, said he thought this was appropriate because it helped to keep the case in the news.
He said: “I have to be careful what I say because of where we are, but I recall a conversation as to where the information came from that they were in Canada, and it came from a source close to the family, ” he said. “So at the time I felt it was appropriate, bearing in mind with the McCanns, there was a feeling that publicity, keeping Madeleine in the news, was helpful to the cause of finding Madeleine.”
The photographer was called to give evidence at the inquiry following a report by investigation website Exaro News, which alleged that officials including probation and prison officers were being targeted by NewsPics. Sprake said he removed advertisements urging public officials to bring stories to the agency after the investigation alerted him to the “inappropriateness” of the wording on the website.
His written statement read: “The whole website was removed on 4th July 2012 after an article appeared on ExaroNews relating to our business. The website had been ‘broken’ since March 2010 when the database editor software became corrupted an we were no longer able to change the content.”
Sprake was questioned by Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, on the practices of photographers working for the agency. He said he had fired two “good” photographers for breaching the Press Complaints Commission code – one for harassing a former Big Brother contestant by following her down the street and backing her into a doorway, the other for refusing to call off an arranged job photographing a celebrity couple and their respective parents after the couple had a change of heart. He called the latter “a blatant breach of privacy”, adding: “I can’t have people doing that.”
A redacted list of commissions undertaken by the agency for publications including the People, Daily Mail and the News of the World was shown to the inquiry, documenting jobs carried out between July 2010 and June 2012. Sprake said the agency was used by newspapers to verify tip-offs for stories.
“If the story’s not true then nobody would ever know that we were there working on a story anyway. And if the story is proved to be true, then that’s a matter for the newspaper to decide whether to publish it or not,” he said.
Sprake was asked about several cases, including the surveillance in 2007 of a former senior Metropolitan Police officer and a married woman who was working for the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The photographer said he had been asked by the People to trail the woman and take pictures of her with her husband, and had then followed her to a meeting with the officer in a Liverpool Street pub on two consecutive evenings.
He said the story had been dropped after the couple left separately on both occasions, but was picked up months later when the affair was confirmed on a TV programme. The People and the Mail on Sunday then jointly used the pictures after the latter bid £10,000 to buy them up. Sprake said the story had been in the public interest as the IPCC were investigating the officer’s unit at the time.
He admitted to using a body-worn camera to capture bankers “spending their bonuses on a big booze up” in 2011, but said the accusations had turned out to be false.
He was also asked about a job on September 23, 2010 to expose “a drug-taking prostitute” using a hidden camera during an interview but he said the subject agreed to participate with an article and was paid for the story.
He said: “It was a full proper features job, it turned into in the end, where that person admitted to her mistakes, admitted to her remorsefulness about what she had done, and the story went in that direction other than what it could have gone into.”
Questioned by Jay about the ethics of hidden cameras, he explained: “If I went to interview you and I sat and I had a camera in my tie and I video’d everything that we said, the only thing that’s different between that and a dictaphone is that I have pictures of you. A reporter in the normal course of his duties would be expected to record an audio of the conversation, so all I’m adding is video footage to that.
“If I leave a camera in that room after we’ve finished our chat, and that video camera is transmitting imagines to my van, to me, to wherever – I haven’t even got that kit – but if that happened, that is blatantly breaking the law under RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] but we don’t do that. We’re only gathering the evidence.”
He said photographers faced many hazards. “I’ve been beaten up in the street by having a camera out because members of the public think that we are some sort of criminals, because we’re photographers. It is that bad. Security men think they can throw us in bushes and up against walls, and beat us up just for having a camera out. I feel far safer in the back of my van with a hidden camera, I really, really do. And at the end of the day, all were trying to do is prove the truth, because someone is phoning in a false story.”