Tabloid journalists were caught on tape by a police surveillance operation obtaining information from a private detective agency which in turn paid corrupt officers for confidential police material.Transcripts record reporters from the News of the World, Mirror and Sunday Mirror doing business with Jonathon Rees, whose company, Southern Investigations, was being secretly bugged.
The tapes provide a rare picture of the covert black market in data run by private detectives and corrupt police.
A separate Guardian investigation for today's third and final issue of the Big Brother series has established the ease with which snoopers can obtain personal data for anyone willing to meet their price.
A private eye provided only with a reporter's business card took less than 24 hours to obtain a month's worth of his mobile phone records, and only a week to obtain a detailed record of his banking transactions, his home address, telephone number and national insurance number.
Operation Nigeria, the surveillance of Southern Investigations between May and September 1999, was run by the Metropolitan police's anti-corruption squad CIB3. It ended when listening devices picked up evidence that Southern's director was involved in a plot to plant drugs on a woman so that her husband would win a custody battle for their child. Rees was subsequently jailed for that, along with a serving detective, Austin Warnes.
Documents from Operation Nigeria reveal that senior officers were keen to bring charges against reporters if any evidence was found that they had committed crimes. However, no such evidence surfaced of criminal offences by any of the reporters or that they knew the origin of the material.
Alex Marunchak, of the News of the World, is identified by the transcripts as a lucrative customer of the agency. In a bugged telephone call in July 1999, Rees said Mr Marunchak owed the agency £7,555. The transcript says that the money would be paid in the name Media Investigations. Rees added that the account would be "back within the agreed limit" by the following week.
The transcripts also contain details of a call Rees made to Mr Marunchak the same month in which they discuss information about Kenneth Noye, the notorious criminal later convicted of the M25 road rage murder.
Rees asked: "You know the information I gave you about Noye?" He then explained that his contact had come up with something else and went on to talk about a minor royal couple who, he claimed, were suffering marriage and financial difficulties.
Asked to comment on the transcripts, Mr Marunchak said: "Are you recording this call?" Asked if he disputed that he bought material from Rees, he said: "You haven't heard me admit it."
The Mirror was another client. Rees discussed delivering a bag containing a hidden camera to the Mirror and the following month claimed the paper owed him £12,000.
In July 1999 the bugging operation captured a conversation between Rees and another corrupt serving detective, Tom Kingston - later jailed for drug theft - in which they discussed a police contact in the diplomatic protection squad at Buckingham Palace whose firearms certificate was withdrawn because he had been taking steroids.
On July 28, the story appeared in the Mirror under reporter Gary Jones's byline with the headline Drug Claim Royal Cop in Gun Ban". Mr Jones told us: "We used the agency on occasion. They came on with the odd tip, what they'd heard from the Old Bill."
Doug Kempster of the Sunday Mirror also obtained stories from the agency. In one conversation caught on tape, Rees and Kingston claim the reporter had been frantically trying to find a confidential internal police report, obtained by Kingston, which had got lost. "Get me that one back," Kingston told Rees.
"Get him to do what he's got to do. Otherwise we ain't getting no more." Rees replied: "We only do it for newspapers really." Mr Kempster, now a government press officer, was asked what information the Sunday Mirror had purchased from Rees. He said: "It's something we just don't comment on.
"Rees was a man who put up stories. Where he got them from was up to him. If anyone rings up and gives you info, there's no way of knowing where it comes from."