A Virgin Atlantic employee has resigned following allegations she routinely fed information about the company’s celebrity clientele - including Princess Beatrice, Madonna, Rihanna, Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Daniel Radcliffe, Sienna Miller and Russell Brand - to a paparazzi agency, just weeks after the agency’s boss gave evidence to Britain’s Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, insisting his agency strove to never “cross the line” when it came to photographing celebrities.
The long-running and expensive inquiry into press standards, which is currently taking place in London, was set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, with its stated purpose to, “examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media”, and, “make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.”
Many in the UK understand it more simply - an attempt to at least air, if not clean, the Augean stables of Fleet Street, and in the process hopefully shame the British tabloid press into behaving a little bit better.
It has been, in many ways, an extraordinary spectacle. A seemingly endless succession of celebrities (Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, Charlotte Church) and aggrieved (and often, tragically, bereaved) parents have given evidence on the one hand, testifying to the wicked and ruthless ways their personal information has been mined for grist with which to feed the tabloid mill, while, on the other side, newspaper editors who have been called (Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail in particular), have all robustly defended their methods and insisted that they have done nothing (or at least, very little) wrong.
On 9 February this year, it was the turn of Darryn Lyons, the irrepressible, pink-haired Australian-born boss of London-based picture agency Big Pictures to take the stand.
His comments were much what one might have expected. Whenever he was challenged about certain photographs, he simply restated in a variety of different ways the argument he presented in his written statement, that he was not “responsible” for the behaviour of freelancers, and that both staff and freelance photographers were “informed what is expected from them and what they can or cannot do which is based on PCC recommendations”, and that any pictures that appeared to “cross the line” would not be carried by the agency.
He talked at length about how celebrities court the media, implying they only had themselves to blame when the tables were turned.
A lengthy section from his memoir was read out, in which he explains how to get the best ‘car shots’.
“You run at the car crash, bang, wallop with a wide angle lens. We used to run up to people driving home … and practice on them. Must have scared the living crap out of them. Funnily enough, just recently I took a call from the police who were making a complaint about a couple of my big guys. They were outside TV personality Ulrika Jonsson’s house and had been practising their car shots on a family and almost caused a major accident. While this was in truth no laughing matter, it did remind me of the old days.”
It was just as well that Lyons appeared not to care in the least what the Leveson Inquiry thought of him, and he soon returned to his central theme:
“The fact of the matter is that celebrities court publicity when they want to court publicity and then all of a sudden they want to switch it off very, very soon after…I don’t agree that people should be hounded up and down the street all day in any shape or form, but I do agree that people, as a part of historical - as a part of history—should be photographed in public places, absolutely, and I’m avid about it.”
Mr Lyons, it has to be said, was a profoundly unconvincing witness for the integrity of tabloid press photography as a whole. It was not a great surprise, therefore, that when it was revealed by British newspaper the Guardian that the travel plans of some 60 celebrities including Princess Beatrice had been supplied to a photo agency by a wayward employee of Virgin Atlantic (who has now resigned), the agency in question was none other than Mr Lyons’s Big Pictures.
Embarrassingly for Virgin, the private travel plans of celebrities – including singer Rihanna and what were described as “Madonna’s kids” – had been sent to an executive at Big Pictures by an airline employee specifically tasked with dealing with celebrity travel.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “The allegations that have been raised are extremely serious and we have launched an immediate investigation, which is ongoing. The security of customer information is a high priority and we have robust processes in place to ensure that passenger information is protected. It is too early to draw conclusions on this matter but of course we would deeply regret any concern that these allegations may cause the individuals involved.”
Buckingham Palace has declined to comment on the alleged leak of Princess Beatrice’s private travel details.
The Leveson inquiry into press standards was urged to investigate the alleged disclosure of private information and recall Mr Lyons.
Martin Moore, Media Standards Trust director and co-founder of the Hacked Off campaign, told The Guardian: “Darryn Lyons should be called back and asked to respond to these allegations, which go against his earlier testimony. Certainly Mr Lyons needs to explain apparent discrepancies in his testimony and answer the allegations that have been made, especially if there are other airlines and organisations which are also alleged to be illegally selling on private information.”
Moore said the revelations indicate the illicit trade of private data by media companies, laid bare by the information commissioner’s office in 2006, continued as a “significant trade”.
Big Pictures declined to comment.
Sixty years and hardly a slip.