Long before the national burst of outrage over phone hacking, Stephen Whittamore, a smooth-talking private investigator well versed in the dark art of information gathering, was the go-to guy for hundreds of British journalists in search of a scoop.

Whittamore, a stocky 63-year-old who took part in an illegal information ring from a cramped back office in his home near the jutting cliffs of England’s south coast, pleaded guilty to obtaining unauthorized data from police computers. His case underscores the long failure of authorities, the legal system and news organizations in Britain to come to grips with a broad array of illicit newsgathering that went far beyond News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the phone hacking scandal, which has rocked this nation’s pillars of power.

A 2003 raid on Whittamore’s home appeared to catch the British press red-handed, with his client list containing the names of about 305 journalists from 32 media outlets. They came to him for information, the kind that is hard to get in a country with notoriously strict privacy laws. For a little more than $200, court records show, Whittamore supplied information about criminal records of celebrities that was bought via a corrupt official at Scotland Yard. For a tad more, he could name the owners of vehicles — a trick used to identify the possible paramours of famous British personalities — through the same illegal source.

Among the materials seized at his home, officials say, were phone numbers of family members of Milly Dowler, a young murder victim. The Dowler hacking case openly shocked the nation and finally ignited a full-blown scandal last month. Authorities say they think the phone numbers were obtained after Whittamore misrepresented himself as a relative or employer, in violation of Britain’s Data Protection Act.

His 2005 conviction, however, led only to a slight tap on the wrist: no fine, and a suspended sentence without jail time. None of the journalists who hired him was investigated. After a 2006 report largely based on his case, a crusade was launched to win harsher sentences for violators of the Data Protection Act. The effort died in Parliament in 2008.

“There was this sense out there that a little bit of gossip didn’t really do anyone any harm,” said Chris Bryant, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party and a repeated target of the tabloid press, which he believes used illegal methods to obtain private data about a former partner. “And politicians were terrified of putting their heads above the parapet and challenging these tabloids that sold millions of copies. We know now that was wrong.”

Hiding in plain sight?

Illicit newsgathering in Britain finally burst to the forefront last month in the form of one practice at one newspaper — phone hacking at the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. But for years, many here argue, it was hiding in plain sight.

Former British tabloid editors, including Piers Morgan and Rebekah Brooks, head of News Corp.’s British newspapers before her resignation last month, have denied direct knowledge of phone hacking. But they have suggested that the use of private investigators employing dubious methods was common in the industry.

Asked in 2009 about the “nasty, down-in-the-gutter” journalism of the tabloids, Morgan, now a major personality at CNN, told the BBC: “A lot of it was done by third parties rather than the staff themselves. That’s not to defend it, because, obviously, you were running the results of their work.”

He added, “I make no pretense about the stuff we used to do. I simply say the net of people doing it was very wide, and certainly encompassed the high and low end of the supposed newspaper market.”

Those questionable practices date to at least the 1990s, an era of tabloid frenzy over the “battle of the Waleses.” In 1992, Scotland Yard investigated the interception of phone conversations between Diana, Princess of Wales, and her sports-car-dealing lover, which had been purchased and published in the Sun. The crown prosecutors dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence.

Whittamore’s case, observers say, later supplied perhaps the best and clearest evidence of illegally obtained information in the British press on a broad scale. But its handling illustrated a certain truth: Only the victims of such practices — most often celebrities or politicians — seemed outraged by the crimes.

A case in point: Although reports had circulated for years that News of the World had hacked the phones of royalty, celebrities and politicians, a full-blown scandal erupted only after revelations that its victims included a total innocent — Dowler, a 13-year-old British girl abducted and killed in 2002 whose police investigation was hampered by the paper’s illegal snooping. Authorities say Whittamore supplied News of the World with Dowler family phone numbers, but he has denied committing any acts of hacking. The Dowler family has charged that another private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, was commissioned to hack her phone.

Almost overnight, Britain seemed to wake up to years of failures by the police, the media and politicians to take such allegations seriously, leading to breathtaking recriminations. The heads of Scotland Yard and Britain’s Press Complaints Commission resigned. Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old News of the World. An independent inquiry is set to call a list of witnesses up to and including Prime Minister David Cameron.

The phone hacking — a tactic once thought confined to News of the World — might have been more widespread. Paul McCartney’s ex-wife, Heather Mills, said the Daily Mirror had hacked her phone in 2001. Mark Lewis, a lawyer representing six alleged victims, said in an interview that he is preparing a lawsuit claiming that both the Daily and Sunday Mirror engaged in hacking — a charge the tabloids deny.

“Every so often, an event like this happens and we have to ask ourselves deeper questions,” Ed Miliband, head of the Labor Party, said last month. “What does it say about our country? How did we let this happen? And how do we change to ensure this does not happen again?”

Raid produced evidence

On a May morning in 2002, the Sunday Mirror dropped a bomb of a scoop about a minor British celebrity. Under the headline “TV Kat’s Guilty Secrets,” the tabloid outlined lurid details of actress Jessie Wallace’s formerly undisclosed run-ins with the law.

Those details — protected under British law from all but those conducting authorized queries — and dozens like them came from a corrupt chain that started with a civilian officer at an east London branch of the Metropolitan Police and ended with Whittamore. His home had been raided as part of an investigation into illegal rings peddling information to a multitude of sources. But what authorities found was evidence that some of Whittamore’s biggest clients were members of the British press.

Although News of the World was among the most prominent, records show that Whittamore did even more business with journalists from other British publications. They included 952 jobs for the Daily Mail and 681 for the Daily Mirror — two of Murdoch’s biggest rivals.

Authorities caution that they did not have the manpower to definitively prove that each and every transaction broke the law. But the evidence, they say, suggested that the majority of them did.

Nevertheless, a decision was made not to investigate the 305 journalists on Whittamore’s client list. Authorities at the Information Commissioner’s Office said the light sentence given to Whittamore by the courts suggested that the reporters would receive even more lenient treatment. That discouraged them, ICO authorities say, from deploying the massive resources it would have taken to investigate the journalists and file charges.

“We could not expend vast amounts of public money after the conditional discharge,” said Dave Clancy, the ICO’s head of the investigations, referring to Whittamore’s sentence. “We sought counsel’s advice, and the decision to discontinue was made in light of that recommendation.”

The case did spawn two official reports in 2006 that prompted a push for tougher penalties for violating the Data Protection Act. But the move gained little traction in Parliament, where politicians who challenged the tabloids often found themselves on the stinging end of smear campaigns.

After the publication of the 2006 reports naming the 32 publications, only one — the more prestigious Observer — opted to request and review the names of employees who had hired Whittamore. Roger Alton, its editor at the time, conceded that like many British publications, the Observer had used “the services of an outside agency.” He said the vast majority of the instances had been in the “public interest” — a legal term often used by publications here as a defense for buying information. But, he added, “it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criterion.”

Reached at his home, Whittamore declined to comment for this article. He has maintained that he did not know the corrupt official at Scotland Yard who was selling the information, which he said he bought through a third party, and insisted that he did not know the information was obtained illegally. Nevertheless, he pleaded guilty to charges of violating the Data Protection Act.

In a BBC interview last year, however, he described himself as a fall guy for the press.

Journalists “actually asked me to do it on their behalf,” he said. “I suppose you could view it as my Oliver Twist to the press’s Fagin."

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.