- The Sun newspaper tasked a private investigator to carry-out unlawful inquiries on an industrial scale – in the United States.
- But then he says paper asked him to cover-up the criminality by posing as a journalist.
- The Murdoch-owned tabloid was provided with huge volumes of social security details, ex-directory phone numbers and car registration plates.
- However, he was asked to fake that he was a “Hollywood Reporter” and put phoney disclaimers on his invoices.
- This was FIVE years after Rupert Murdoch’s company had vowed to stop the unlawful use of private investigators.
Update: This story was updated on Wed July 1st 2020 after a member of an association that represents private investigators got in touch to put their point of view forward.
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
The Sun newspaper disguised the illegal use of a private investigator (PI) in the United States by asking him to pose as a celebrity reporter.
The American PI was asked to remove “suspicious” words such as “detective” and “investigation” from some of his invoices and an email address, following the phone hacking scandal.
He says that Sun journalists also asked him to put phoney disclaimers on his secret reports, pretending that the information he had been asked to get for them was obtained legally.
The sham was carried out, he claims, because editors at the Murdoch tabloid wanted to distance themselves from unlawful information gathering following various media scandals.
He told Byline Investigates: “This type of cover-up increased significantly in 2011-2012, following the phone hacking scandal in the UK.
“Private Investigators were taboo, because I guess a lot of what we did wasn’t permitted, and they were getting very worried about this – they were getting criticised.
“And the last thing they wanted was this thing spreading to America.”
This week, a professional body that represents private investigators worldwide, questioned whether The Sun should bear responsibility for the unlawful activity, and not just the PI who carried-out the client’s instructions.
The Chairman of the World Association of Professional Investigators told Byline Investigates that “there is an expectation, that those instructions are both lawful and for an ethical purpose.”
Sun reporters even asked him to probe the identities and backgrounds of murdered police officers and their families, following the 2016 Dallas shootings.
This was FIVE years after Rupert Murdoch’s company had vowed to stop using unlawful private investigators.
He added: “The dilemma they had, was that The Sun wanted to continue using my services.
“I was helpful for them in the US because I could find people involved in stories.
“So, they asked me to launder my business, so that I would look more legitimate on paper, at least.
“For a while, they even required me to create a new email address, that made it appear that I was some sort of stringer reporter, instead of a PI.
“So, I couldn’t use my regular email address with the words ‘investigations’ and ‘detective’ in it, because these were considered suspicious words.
“So, I used one with the word ‘reporter’ in it. I used another email account, too.
“Eventually, I slipped back into using the old one, out of habit, so they obviously knew.
“The same went for my company name – I used one which made me look like a news service instead of a PI firm, that did unlawful stuff for them.”
The existence of an American private investigator who worked for The Sun is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, the FBI and American lawyers now have evidence of allegations on US soil for the first time against Murdoch papers accused of phone hacking.
Secondly, the allegations aren’t historic – they were happening right-up until three years ago.
He added: “The Sun newspaper also asked me to sign a letter declaring that I was acting within the law, but this was sham.
“It also asked me to put disclaimers on my paperwork.
“I knew that nothing had changed, and they knew that, too.
“I was not asked to change my product, or my methods, which they knew to be illegal.
“The letter was not worth the paper it was written on, in terms of being any guarantee.
“They called me to explain that it was just a ‘formality’.
“It was just done to cover themselves, and it was explained that I should just sign or use the disclaimers, to carry on getting work from them, regardless of the true position.
“I understood from this, that The Sun did not want to partake from the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree.’
“Or, more importantly, be seen to partake.
“And, if it was ever questioned, The Sun could try to pretend they never knew.
“They wanted that same old thing of ‘plausible deniability.’ ”
The Sun’s parent company News Group Newspapers have been repeatedly accused of covering-up their use of private investigators in the High Court in London.
Last month a document deployed in court detailed allegations in a “concealment and destruction” case.
It revealed allegations of a widespread cover-up, including alleged email deletions and pay-offs, which NGN deny or do not admit.
But allegations – that relate to suspected data crimes and their concealment – on US soil, have never been put before an American court, criminal nor civil.
However, the private investigator told our journalists that he is prepared to give evidence to help the victims he targeted to get justice.
He said that he grew increasingly uncomfortable with The Sun’s demands, and it began to trouble his conscience.
He said: “I never realised that they were affecting my decision-making.
“I never thought I was doing anything wrong, because they knew what was going on, and I thought that they would have stopped.
“Because, at the end of the day, they were a big company, which had been in trouble for this exact same crime before.
“I never thought that what I did hurt somebody.
“It didn’t feel like I was robbing anybody.
“I don’t think it would have happened if The Sun had stopped calling me.
“I had no idea how my actions caused so much pain.
“These days, I feel a sense of remorse.
“There’s been a lot of wake-up calls recently.
“I’ve had a chance to examine my life, and I’m not happy with what I found.
“I should have stuck to work, like doing investigations for workers’ compensation cases.
“But you can’t unring the bell.
“I was manipulated by The Sun.
“I remember speaking to their reporters and they told me, ‘What you’re doing is legal, because you are doing it in the US, not the UK.’
“It made sense to me, at the time.
“But deep down, I knew they were wrong.
“Now we know it was.”
Tony Smith, Chairman of the World Association of Professional Investigators (WAPI), said: “The vast majority of professional PI’s would not undertake illegal or unethical investigations, or act unlawfully.
“When assignments are accepted, on behalf of professional clients – such as the media or law firms – there is an expectation that those instructions are both lawful, and for an ethical purpose.
“The professional investigator is a factfinder only, the purposes for ethically and legally eliciting investigations, and subsequently acting lawfully upon the reported facts is the responsibility of the client.
“Every effort is made by most professional investigators, and agencies, to conduct due diligence on all their clients prior to undertaking inquiries or research.”
WAPI has been a representative association since 2000, for professional investigators with 400 members and some 1200 E-group subscribers located worldwide.