Sources who worked at the News of the World have confirmed an allegation, made at the Leveson inquiry by maverick blogger Paul Staines, that the paper paid him £20,000 to buy up a photograph of a special adviser to the foreign secretary, William Hague, which they subsequently never published. [Hmmm,who was in the background? - al]
Staines's claim is potentially explosive because the now-disgraced former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, was acting at the time as the Cameron government's press adviser, and is likely to have been involved in what proved to be a successful battle to save Hague's job.
The photograph was bought at the height of a controversy about Hague sharing a hotel room during campaigns with a 25-year-old special adviser. Hague was forced to issue a detailed statement denying he had had a gay relationship, and the recently appointed adviser, Chris Myers, resigned.
Staines, who runs a gossip site under the name Guido Fawkes, told Lord Justice Leveson in sworn testimony: "We also had pictures of the special adviser in a gay bar … We took the photos to the News of the World. They bought them for £20,000 and never published them. I don't know very much but I know you don't pay £20,000 for photos not to publish. The News of the World was in regular contact with Downing Street, and perhaps to curry favour or for whatever reasons, they chose to buy up those pictures and take them off the market."
News International, the owners of the defunct tabloid, declined to comment on the allegations, saying they were not prepared to disclose details of payments made. However, two former executives at the paper confirmed the deal, on condition of anonymity. They said the purchase was negotiated via the paper's political staff and authorised by the editor, Colin Myler.
One source claimed Myler bought the picture in order to "keep it off the market for a week" because he was planning to expose allegations of spot-fixing at Pakistan cricket matches and wanted it to dominate the headlines that week. But, according to Staines's testimony, he sold the photograph the week after the cricket story, which ran on Sunday 29 August 2010, along with printouts of on-line chat from a website.
The following week, after a statement by Hague describing his happy marriage and denying any gay relationships, every Sunday paper bar one carried news stories about the issue, with speculation about the foreign secretary's future.
The sole exception was the News of the World.
[Funny that – al]
The Guardian [et al]