Emails indicate Virgin Atlantic supervisor passed information about eight celebrities to Big Pictures agency
A senior employee at Virgin Atlantic has resigned after allegations that she passed private flight details of celebrities, including Ashley Cole and Sienna Miller, to a global paparazzi agency.
Emails seen by the Guardian indicate that a Virgin Atlantic supervisor of Upper Class customers passed detailed flight information for at least eight celebrities to the London-based firm Big Pictures.
The Virgin Atlantic employee, who resigned on Thursday after the Guardian raised the claims, appears to have been told in an email from Big Pictures that the agency was “trying to sort you out some money with accounts”.
The allegations will intensify scrutiny by politicians and the courts over the alleged illicit trade of private information by some media companies in the UK. Solicitors for Cole and Miller, two of those named in the email, said they were taking legal instructions over the alleged leak.
The email to Big Pictures says: “Got a few more for you!” then lists celebrity flights from London for Miller, Cole, his former wife Cheryl, the Tottenham footballer Jermaine Defoe, actors Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow, and singers Robbie Williams and Nicole Scherzinger.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic said it was taking the apparent leak “extremely seriously” and launched an urgent inquiry into the affair. The company said in a statement: “The allegations that have been raised are extremely serious and we have launched an immediate investigation.
“The security of customer information is our highest priority and we have robust processes in place to ensure that passenger information is protected. The incident that has been alleged concerns eight customers’ flights booked in 2010 and we are in contact with all of those people. 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.”
The airline employee, who looked after high-profile customers on Virgin Atlantic flights, is understood to have resigned on Thursday yesterday but denies passing the information to Big Pictures. The employee said she was “not going to comment on that at all” and hung up the phone when contacted on Wednesday morning.
Checks by the Guardian confirm that, where known, the whereabouts of the celebrities matched the details apparently disclosed by the Virgin Atlantic employee.
Cole, the Chelsea and England defender, was pictured at Heathrow by a Big Pictures photographer on the date given in the correspondence. Miller was pictured arriving at Los Angeles airport from Heathrow on the correct dates. Defoe was reported to be in St Lucia for his children’s charity between the dates listed in the email.
Sources at the airline said that four of the eight celebrities flew on the dates given, but the other four cancelled their bookings. The flight codes given in the correspondence – such as VS7 for Heathrow to JFK flights – also match information published on Virgin Atlantic’s website.
The exchange suggests a longstanding and friendly relationship between Big Pictures and its apparent airline source. In one email, headed “Hello …”, the picture agency asks for holiday advice after saying that it was “trying to sort you out some money with accounts”.
The reply goes on to say “Got a few more for you!” and lists celebrity bookings on Virgin Atlantic flights to and from London airports. “Talk soon!” the message ends.
The Virgin Atlantic employee behind the apparent leak is understood to have told colleagues that she was recently a victim of identity theft. The employee, whom the Guardian has chosen not to name, is also understood to have cited other reasons for her sudden resignation on Thursday.
Virgin Atlantic was attempting to contact the celebrities involved last night. The company is trawling email archives and investigating who has access to its booking system. Sources at the airline indicated that other travel firms may have had partial access to its bookings system.
Big Pictures is also understood to have launched an investigation into affair. The agency and its lawyer had not returned repeated requests for comment at the time of publication.
Legal experts said the disclosure may not necessarily be a criminal offence, but appears to be prima facie evidence of a breach of the Data Protection Act and a breach of the individuals’ right to privacy.
“This could just be the beginning: this could be the tip of the iceberg,” said Gerald Shamash, the privacy lawyer who founded the firm Steel & Shamash. “It’s extremely worrying but nothing in the whole of this saga has surprised me, with everything that is coming out.”
Shamash said advance knowledge of the whereabouts of celebrities was the “bread and butter” of life as a picture agency or tabloid newspaper. “This has got to be private information. It has to be. There’s no public interest in this whatsoever.
“Once it has these details, the agency does one or two things: it keeps [the information] to sell it or phones a newspaper to say this person has gone to Los Angeles. It’s a symbiotic relationship with newspapers.”
The Leveson inquiry into press standards has heard a string of claims of illicit trade of private information by media companies. Big Pictures’ founder, Darryn Lyons, told the inquiry in February that his company, famous for its dogged pursuit of celebrities and public figures, does not have a formal code of practice but “photographers are informed what is expected from them”.
The agency, which employs 29 members of staff and 152 freelance photographers, paid £53,000 in damages to Miller in November 2008 over harassment and invasion of privacy. Big Pictures also agreed not to photograph the actor in public.
“I don’t agree that people should be hounded up and down the street all day in any shape or form,” Lyons told the Leveson inquiry.
“But I do agree that people … as a part of history, should be photographed in public places, absolutely, and I’m avid about it. We have a free press and a free press should be able to work in public places.”
He added: “We live in a world of voyeurism. It is a business where young people look up to … 50% of celebrities want to be photographed and they love it for their own self-gain in terms of financial back pocket, and to make them more famous.”