A couple of important hearings with far reaching consequences for UK private investigators have drawn to a close within weeks of each other.
The Home Affairs Select Committee on Private Investigators published a report in early July after hearing the testimony of private investigators and those who work with them.
The close of the month saw the drawing to a close of the Leveson Enquiry, which heard statements from no less than 474 witnesses, ranging from phone hacking victims like Hugh Grant and the families of high profile crime victims, to the tabloid reporters who pried into their most intimate details in the name of journalism.
By far the wider of reaching of the two for investigators in the UK will be the Select Committee, which identified a vast range of problems facing the industry.
Chief among those is that the number of investigators at work in the country is a complete mystery at present. The Association of British Investigators (ABI) said that 2023 registered data controllers are currently listed as being private investigators. But the real number could be up to five times that amount.
Even for the ABI – the closest thing us Brits have to a licensing body – private detectives are akin to that little understood phenomena of dark matter, which scientists believe could make up around a quarter of the known universe, yet is completely undetectable.
With internet access now nearing universal levels these dark forces now have unprecedented amounts of personal information at their fingertips, as well as the connections to a thriving market in personal data.
An estimated 65 percent of this huge, unknown number is ex-police officers whose skill and experience in public sector detection undoubtedly makes them ideal private operators. But the report found some sinister side effects of this default post-retirement migration. Many officers retained old contacts within the police who would willingly access databases and pass on supposedly restricted inside information for a fee.
When networks are found to be illicitly accessing and disseminating information, penalties for doing so are ‘derisory,’ the report said – sometimes as little as £100 ($155.) In some cases, police who accessed databases were merely given written or verbal warnings or ‘management advice.’
To combat these problems the committee set out a number of recommendations that will change the face of the industry beyond recognition. It recommends full licensing of private investigators by as early as 2015, with investigators obliged to undergo training and stringent criminal background checks before being allowed to set up in business.
For those who want to make the move, the committee recommends a ‘cooling off period’ of at least a year before police officers can make the transition to private work.
All this amounts to a radically different outlook for the industry, leaving some small operators concerned over meeting the associated costs of licensing.
Whilst the enquiry will have far reaching ramifications it is, in terms of scope, a mere sideshow to a much larger carnival that has occupied center stage of the UK media for the past eight months.
The Leveson enquiry began as an investigation into press standards following revelations that journalists had been colluding with private investigators to hack into the voicemail accounts of celebrities, politicians and royal aids.
Over its duration Lord Justice Leveson heard evidence from hundreds of witnesses, including Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The uncovering of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s extremely close relationship with the Murdochs – despite being assigned to independently oversee Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of broadcasting group BSkyB left Mr Hunt fighting for his political career. And he wasn’t the only politician forced to publicly defend his reputation as the controversy climbed right to the top of the political establishment.
David Cameron – already widely criticized for employing disgraced News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press advisor, was left red faced when his close personal friend resigned from the post following more gory details uncovered by the enquiry.
The PM’s reputation was further damaged when Coulson’s successor Rebakah Brooks revealed just how close her own relationship with the Cameron was. He met Brooks regularly for supper and famously signed off text messages to her with the abbreviation ‘LOL, which he believed meant ‘lots of love.’
Both Coulson and Brooks were this week charged with hacking into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and Cameron has been left defending his personal and professional ties with both.
Also charged with the same offense is private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose imprisonment in 2007 for hacking into the voicemail of royal aides helped kick off the enquiry. Mulcaire will undoubtedly face more jail time if found guilty and the murky relationship between investigators and journalists is once again under the spotlight.
Lord Justice Leveson has now retired to consider a way forward, based on evidence given over thousands of hours. As with the select committee, recommendations are likely to include a radical new form of regulation for the UK’s press and curb journalist’s widespread collusion with private investigators.
For both professions the select committee and Leveson have been bitter, but necessary, pills to swallow.