The BBC has told MPs that it has "not ruled out" hiring private investigators to help with stories, despite assurances by the Sun, Mail and Telegraph that they no longer use them.
David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards at the BBC, told the Home Affairs Select Committee in parliament that the corporation spent £150,000 on private eyes from 2001 to mid-2011.
Asked if the BBC had made a decision to stop using them, Jordan said: "I don't think that we've ever made a decision."
Committee chairman Keith Vaz replied: "I would suspect from an organisation like the BBC with some of the finest journalists in the world you would have protocols or guidance in order to decide whether or not a journalist can use private investigators - and the use of licence payers money would actually be monitored very carefully."
Jordan said: "At the moment I don't think we are [using them] but we haven't ruled out the possibility. Anybody wanting to use a private investigator, it would be a referral to me personally and I would have to agree it."
Giving evidence to the committee earlier, representatives from the Sun, Telegraph and Mail sought to differentiate between "private investigator" and "information provider".
Managing editor of the Sun Richard Caseby told the committee that no private investigators had been used at the title since last year.
He said: "Private investigators have been used in the past. The situation at the moment is that should anyone wish to use a private investigator that would have to be signed off by the editor and the chief executive of News International."
Caseby added: "I think there can be confusion. The Sun uses search agents. These are all legitimate, publicly available databases.
"Any third party such as an information broker will be required to give an undertaking that they abide by the law and that they abide by the PCC code."
Daily Telegraph assistant editor Philip Johnston said: "No we don't use them. We do investigations, but we use our own reporters. If a journalist wished to use one they would have to go to their line manager or editor and explain why. They wouldn't be allowed to use one without permission to do so.
Asked by the committee about the 2006 information commissioner's report suggesting the Mail paid £143,000 to private investigator Steve Whittamore, Daily Mail deputy editor Jon Steafel said: "We did in the past use information providers - as distinct from private investigator - but we drew a line under that in 2007.
"Mr Whittamore, who we did indeed use in the 1990s and early 2000s was an information provider, not a private investigator.
"An information provider, simply in response to a request, would supply information such as a phone number or an address - I think there is a significant distinction.
"We've looked into this very closely and overwhelmingly the requests our journalists made to Mr Whittamore were for what we would call perfectly legitimate pieces of information such as a phone number or an address in order to contact them.
"No journalist to our knowledge ever asked him or required him to do something that was unlawful."
Steafel said that Whittamore's files, which were seen last summer, appeared in many areas to be "contradictory or inconsistent". Caseby agreed that Whittamore's data was "quite chaotic and confused".