Journalists and private detectives: an unhealthy symbiosis

Independent on Sunday, 17 July 2011

When did British journalists start getting entangled with seedy private eyes? Back in the 1980s, when I worked for the Sunday Times Insight team, I spent hours rooting about in archives and trying to persuade strangers to talk to me. We produced lengthy investigations into the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry and the Iranian embassy siege in London; sometimes we used freelances with specialist knowledge but I can’t recall an instance where we turned to a private investigator.

Now, as the phone hacking scandal engulfs sections of the British press, I am aghast at how things have changed. In May, detectives from Operation Weeting showed me photocopies of handwritten notes about me and my then-partner compiled by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the News of the World until his arrest in 2006. Seeing even a few of the 11,000 pages seized from Mulcaire made me realise the extent of both phone hacking and the surveillance operation he carried out on behalf of the paper. But I don’t think the wider public understood until the revelation about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.

The allegations against Mulcaire and the News of the World highlight a practice – newspapers using private investigators to get personal information – that’s become widespread. In 2005 Operation Motorman led to the conviction of a Hampshire-based private eye, Steve Whittamore, who passed information obtained from the police national database to newspapers. The material seized from Whittamore should have prompted searching questions but the public wasn’t much interested while the names belonged to celebrities and politicians. There’s a widely-held view that they’ve forfeited their right to privacy, encapsulated by the Sun’s furious insistence that it used legal methods to obtain medical information about Gordon Brown’s younger son. So what? The story was a gross intrusion and shouldn’t have been published.

Journalists’ training courses address questions of law and ethics but private investigators don’t have to be trained or licensed to operate. It seems that a symbiotic relationship developed on some papers, with each side encouraging the other in a frenzied pursuit of famous (and not-so-famous) people. A report from the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2006 said that 305 journalists had been identified during Operation Motorman ‘as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information’.

The report identified the cause of the malaise: ‘Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell’. A follow-up report listed publications which had used Whittamore’s services: top of the list was the Daily Mail, where 58 journalists had dealings with him on 952 occasions, beating the News of the World into fifth place. The Observer and the Sunday Times appeared lower down, but neither of the Independent titles.

Mulcaire and Whittamore are the investigators whose links with newspapers we know most about, and they help build up a picture of how this unhealthy relationship developed. The News of the World’sinvolvement with Mulcaire started in 1997 and by 2005 he was under exclusive contract, earning £2,019 a week and available ‘all the time’. Meanwhile Whittamore has confirmed that journalists’ demands ‘got more and more personal….telephone account details, that sort of thing, maybe a bank account detail’. He said he couldn’t provide such material but would try to find someone who could.

Because of this kind of behaviour, British journalism finds itself on trial. That’s unfair on reporters and newspapers who follow a strict code of ethics and and haven’t ever resorted to dubious methods to gather information. As various inquiries get under way, I have a very simple suggestion: let’s agree that journalism is the business of journalists, not something to be outsourced to people who will spy on anyone for money.

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