Murdoch affair spotlights UK`s dirty detectives

Sleuths tap police contacts and criminal informants for information that they then sell on to tabloid reporters.

London: In a small, semi-detached house overlooking a park in the unlovely south London suburb of Croydon, Jorge Salgado-Reyes sits at a glass-topped desk in his living room plying his trade as a private eye. In the corner, a goldfish glides around a water tank. A flat screen television hangs from the wall alongside replica samurai swords and photographs of landscapes. Black leather sofas line two of the walls.

The phone rings. Salgado-Reyes answers it, jots down a few notes and consults his screen. "A non-molestation order," he says, referring to a court order he is being asked to monitor.

Charging up to 75 pounds ($120) an hour, the dapper, goateed gumshoe takes on cases that range from the banal to the tragic -- tracing missing people, serving court orders, monitoring "anti-social behaviour" such as vandalism or noisy neighbours, checking cases of benefit fraud, or simply carrying out checks for people who are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that their house is bugged.

Salgado-Reyes is the acceptable face of private investigation in Britain. But there`s another side to the industry, a subculture in which sleuths tap police contacts and criminal informants for information that they then sell on to tabloid reporters; where private detectives excavate nuggets that can be used to embarrass politicians or celebrities and titillate readers.

Of all the dark corners the country`s phone-hacking scandal has lit up over the past two weeks -- illegal tabloid tactics, cosy ties between newspapers and the police, the press`s influence over politicians -- perhaps none are murkier than London`s private investigator underworld.

One former Metropolitan Police detective who spoke on condition of anonymity said that in some cases the line between private investigation and organised crime is nonexistent.

Investigators like Salgado-Reyes say their less scrupulous counterparts are tainting the industry.

"I know for a fact that there are some people convicted of offences who are working as PIs," he said. "If PIs are providing services for organised crime, then I think we are talking about people who are already part of the criminal world."

That could now change. An advocacy group called HackedOff that campaigns against press intrusion is demanding that the most notorious snoopers face an official inquiry into the hacking scandal, where their testimony might pose a threat to figures in Britain`s establishment. It could also lead to tighter laws around the industry, which is currently unregulated.

"These are criminals masquerading as investigators," said Tony Imossi, president of the 98-year-old Association of British Investigators (ABI), the oldest representative body of private detectives in Britain.

Alert, cunning and devious

One detective in particular may hold the key to the News of the World scandal and even the political fortunes of Prime Minister David Cameron. Jonathan Rees, a convicted criminal who was once acquitted of a murder charge, regularly sold information to the News of the World and other newspapers, according to police documents obtained by anti-corruption researcher Graeme McLagan.

In the 1990s, Rees was a super-broker of scurrilous information. Unusually prolific, he tended not to use the voicemail hacking most closely associated with the News of the World. (The Guardian newspaper reported on July 4 that the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by a News of the World investigator, triggering a public outcry.)

Rees`s speciality was buying information from cops and civil servants and arranging drug stings, according to McLagan, author of "Bent Coppers", a study of graft inside London`s police, also known as Scotland Yard. Rees would then tip off both police and press to strengthen contacts and make money, he wrote.

According to the Guardian, Rees`s targets have included members of the royal family, central bank officials, rock stars Mick Jagger and George Michael, the family of Peter Sutcliffe, a notorious serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, and leading politicians.

Rees even tried to undermine the Yard`s internal efforts against corruption by spreading rumours about some of the people associated with it, McLagan reported.

"They are alert, cunning and devious individuals who have current knowledge of investigative methods and techniques which may be used against them," said an internal police report into Rees and his associates cited by McLagan.

Mutual admiration Society

John O`Connor, former head of the specialist detectives unit known as the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, wrote in the Independent newspaper that the roots of police and News International cooperation on stories go back to the 1980s. In an era of tension between employers and labour unions, he said, the police would help the company get its papers to market during strikes.

In the process, Scotland Yard and company executives formed friendships, he wrote.

"This mutual admiration society worked very well for a time. Information passed freely both ways. The police benefited from undercover operations run by the newspapers, and in return the papers got their exclusive stories. ... The culture of police officers mixing with journalists was encouraged, and little thought was given to the potential of misconduct."

Soon the papers were using their own private detectives like Rees and Mulcaire, the snoop who listened in on Milly Dowler`s phone.

In May 2006, the Information Commissioner (ICO) published a ground-breaking report into the trade in illicit data. In a study of just one private detective, Steve Whittamore, the ICO discovered that 305 different journalists had instructed him to obtain about 13,343 different items of information over a three-year period.

While it is not illegal for newspapers to use private eyes, the ICO said it suspected that around 11,345 of the items were "certainly or very probably" in violation of data protection laws.

The offence of deliberately and wilfully misusing private data in Britain is punishable only by a fine. Since 2004 the ICO has prosecuted at least 14 cases of private detectives obtaining information illegally, but fines seldom go above a few hundred pounds.

The ICO has recommended judges be given the option to jail offenders, but five years on, that proposal has gone nowhere. In a joint submission to the ICO, newspaper proprietors said custodial sentences would have "a serious chilling effect on investigative journalism."

Do me a favour: can you check it?

The publicity surrounding the role of private detectives in the phone-hacking scandal infuriates many mainstream operators who say regulation is long overdue.

"If money is exchanged from journalists to serving police officers it`s abhorrent," said the ABI`s Imossi, who estimates there are 3,500 private investigators in Britain, of whom only about 500 are members of his organisation. It vets new members and tests their expertise.

After a few pints together in the pub, he says, "someone says `do me favour, I`m interested in this registration number of a vehicle, can you check it?` The serving officer should have the discipline to say `No you`re bang out of order. It`s not going to be done.

"But four pints of lager later their judgment is impaired and, `Yes, it`s no hassle, I can do it.` It`s a difficult situation. They have my sympathy. But I`m sorry, it`s the law of the hand. If you break it, that`s it."


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