THE BBC spent £310,000 on private detectives over a six-year period, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.

The corporation once used investigator Steve Whittamore, who was later convicted of illegally accessing personal data, to check if someone was on a flight.

On another occasion a BBC journalist commissioned a private detective to find out the owner of a car from its number plate, the hearing was told.

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BBC director-general Mark Thompson told the press standards inquiry the corporation's staff used investigators 232 times between January 2005 and July 2011 at a total cost of £310,000.

News accounted for 43 of these occasions, at a cost of £174,500, excluding the use of private security teams.

BBC Vision, which produces the corporation's TV programmes, was behind the remaining 189, spending about £133,000, in most cases for consumer shows.

Mr Thompson said these costs represented 0.011% of the news budget and 0.002% of the Vision budget over this period.

The inquiry heard there were two mentions of the BBC in the documents seized in the probe into Whittamore's activities known as Operation Motorman. In 2001, a current affairs journalist commissioned Whittamore to supply information about whether a paedophile was on a flight into Heathrow Airport.

The programme, which for other reasons was never broadcast, was looking at whether people with UK convictions for child sex offences could get jobs giving them access to children in other countries. Mr Thompson said: "I would regard this as being justified in the public interest."

Whittamore's Hampshire home was raided by investigators from the Information Commissioner's Office in March 2003. He was convicted of illegally accessing data and received a conditional discharge at London's Blackfriars Crown Court in April 2005.

A BBC journalist also used an investigator to find out the owner of a car from its number plate after the vehicle was used by someone suspected of involvement in a serious criminal conspiracy, the inquiry heard.

David Barr, counsel to the inquiry, suggested this involved accessing private details from the DVLA's vehicle registration database.

Mr Thompson said: "It seems to me it is an example where the technique used was justified in the context of the public interest journalism that was involved."

The inquiry heard Mr Thompson commissioned a wide-ranging review of the BBC's editorial practices last July, covering phone hacking, "blagging" information, paying police and other public officials for information and the use of private detectives.

It found no evidence that any of the corporation's staff had hacked phones or made improper payments to police officers.

Channel 4 News editor Jim Gray told the inquiry he was only aware of two occasions in recent years when his journalists used private investigators.

In 2009 the programme paid £200 to find the solicitor in a case later shown to be a miscarriage of justice and in 2010 paid a private detective £1500 to locate suspects in an unsolved murder.

l A letter published by Surrey Police yesterday showed a News of the World journalist told police they got Milly Dowler's mobile phone number and pin from other schoolchildren.