A recent slew of negative press stories during the Leveson inquiry has left private investigators facing something of an image crisis. Peter Taylor separates fact from fiction about experts in this field.

WITH its detailing of voicemail hacking, the Leveson Enquiry has snowballed into an avalanche of negative publicity for journalists and private investigators.

The leak by political blogger Guido Fawkes of Steve Whittamore’s now infamous Motorman files has recently uncovered the true extent of this unholy partnership.

It shows newspapers of all stripes collectively spent around £1.2 million buying private data from investigators in the several years leading to 2003 while exercising no proper oversight on how that information was obtained.

Public officials were caught red-handed, too. At the recent Home Affairs Select Committee Seminar on Private Investigators, details emerged of rogue operators putting a high-profile fraud case at risk by purchasing information from senior Met officers.

The committee had met to discuss plans to regulate the industry and respond to Channel Four’s Dispatches documentary ‘Watching the Detectives’- which itself dealt another blow to the reputation of investigators.

This alarming but insightful programme showed a thriving market in sensitive information belonging not just to the rich and famous, but to us all.

And the featured investigators were more than willing to break the Data Protection Act to get it.

With no sign of abating any time soon, such stories have formed a weighty pile from which the overwhelming majority of ethical and lawful investigators is struggling to emerge with reputation intact.

So low has the public’s perception fallen, that the depressing regularity with which investigators are now asked to climb through windows, procure fake passports, obtain illegal information, or even ‘arrange accidents’ is becoming something of a grim industry joke.

Our paralegal Clients are quite rightly beginning to ask what kind of company they keep.

For the majority of professionals in the legal industry, dealings with private investigators are limited to process service and criminal defence
investigations. Neither of these allows much scope for data protection breaches or out-and-out information theft.

But what if your enquiry agent is involved in naughtiness elsewhere? And does it matter?

The answer is yes.

Law firms working with operators who break the law at the mere sight of a brown envelope keep uncertain company.

These illegal operators do untold damage to the private investigation industry and deserve to be driven out of the marketplace for good.

The UK is one of the last places in the world where private investigators remain unlicensed. Discussion is currently ongoing as to whether regulation might represent the first step towards restoring the industry’s tattered reputation.

This very subject was discussed at the same select committee meeting that unearthed details of dodgy dealings at the Met.

The current word on this from the Association of British Investigators (ABI) is that regulation is on its way, most likely in the form of a move to Chartered Institute status.

Current plans are for this to take place towards the end of next year. Proposals are set to introduce tough ongoing assessments, strict vetting procedures, mandatory insurance and adherence to a code of ethics.

Surprisingly, investigators themselves remain split on whether licensing in any form is a good idea at all. Some argue that the costs involved in becoming chartered could end up driving smaller operators out of business. Another argument is that those intent on breaking the law are unlikely to be deterred by regulation in any form – no matter how stringent.

Currently, ABI membership does represent a voluntary regulation of sorts. Association members must undergo background checks and provide proof of insurance. They Would certainly face expulsion for appearing on the front page of the Guardian or subject of a Channel Four documentary.

ABI membership is a reasonably good indicator of quality, but it’s not the only one.

It’s worth remembering that the majority of operators – particularly smaller ones – choose not to join. Inevitably this means many reputable agencies aren’t ABI members.

A potential move towards Chartered Institute status represents a first tentative step in a reputation repair and restoration exercise that is likely to take years.

Until then, only stiffer penalties for breaches of the Data Protection Act for both investigators and those who contract them to hack phones or access medical records is likely to have any effect on the booming trade in illegal information.

Peter Taylor is a senior detective with a private detective agency specialising in criminal litigation, Tort and legal support in the UK and internationally.