Not so private dicks: The Sun was using private investigators long after Leveson

But it was all legal, right? So don't worry about the morality...

If the story of the British tabloids were made into a Netflix series1 viewers would find themselves constantly rushing to Wikipedia, as they did with The Crown, in an attempt to separate fact from fiction, utterly baffled by cartoonish characters that turn out to be 100% real.

The latest addition to the cast list is the infeasibly-named Daniel Portley-Hanks, a Los Angeles-based private investigator. ‘Danno’, whose CV includes a rash of prison stints, has spent decades doing ‘hush hush’ work for some of the most horrendous people going, including British tabloids and Fox News.

Portley-Hanks, who is not as the name might suggest a cartoon pig in a trilby, reentered stage left yesterday when he revealed details of how The Sun hired him in 2016 to go digging for details about Prince Harry’s new girlfriend, Meghan Markle. He logged onto TLOxp, a huge database of restricted information about individuals and businesses, and built a dossier on Markle, her parents, her siblings and her ex-husband.

According to an invoice seen by BBC News, The New York Times and Byline Investigates (which broke the story), Danno then gave the document to The Sun’s US editor, James Beal, for $2,055. The data allowed The Sun to hunt down Markle’s half-sister, Samantha, who called painted her as a callous social climber, but it really hit pay dirt when it tracked down Thomas Markle, the future Duchess of Sussex’ father. He’s the tabloid gift that just keeps on giving.

Portley-Hanks’ use of TLOxp to supply The Sun with information was a breach of US privacy laws. He had the right to access the database to collect details for use in civil and criminal cases, but not to provide a tabloid with tidbits that might be turned into ‘stories’. And he knew that.

Graham Johnson, a former News of the World reporter and Sunday Mirror investigations editor who blew the whistle on his newspaper group’s industrial use of phone hacking and received a suspended sentence for his involvement in it, broke the Portley-Hanks story for Byline Investigates .. Back in June 2020, before naming Portly-Hanks, Johnson reported that The Sun had asked a private investigator to conceal his true profession and pose as a celebrity journalist.

In 2012, Charlotte Harris, a lawyer acting on behalf of several phone-hacking victims, told a parliamentary select committee that she believed private investigators working on behalf of The News of the World and News UK had posed as journalists to solicit information of her. She said she had been ‘disconcerted’ to find details of telephone conversations she had had with ‘journalists’ contained within a private investigator’s ‘secret’ dossier.

During his time at The News of the World, Graham Johnson was a self-described “tabloid terrorist”, using increasingly underhand and unhinged tactics to wring stories out of vulnerable people. In 2012, two years before he appeared in court on the phone-hacking charges, Johnson told Joshua Haddow of Vice about his News of the World experiences while promoting his book Hack: Sex, Drugs, and Scandal From Inside the Tabloid Jungle.

He talked about using ‘swarming’, a technique he said he’d picked up from reading about the CIA, where you make a target’s life unbearable then present yourself as their saviour:

… this is another example of swarming: There was a woman, she was a fraudster who pretended she had cancer in order to set up a charity to raise money for herself. Only she didn’t really have cancer. We pulled the medical records, but she wouldn’t admit it and you need a confession. So I paid a load of freelance photographers to swarm her, to bang on her door, hose her down with flashes, bang on her windows — to be really intrusive.

Then I turn up and go, ‘Listen, you can either talk to me, or you can talk to this pack of disgraceful, unruly press photographers. I’m the good guy, these are bad guys. What are you gonna do?

Some might dismiss that as dirty tricks to trap a dirty person, but Johnson’s emotional blackmail was not confined to criminals. Another example he gave was getting the footballer Steve McManaman to talk about his mother’s terminal cancer. He told the ex-player:

Listen, we know that your mum’s got cancer. You don’t want to speak about it. We don’t care about that, you tell us or we’re gonna put it in the paper anyway.

He succeeded in getting the interview with McManaman’s mother and described looking her up and down and “interrogating” her.

Johnson told Haddow frankly about the extremes of the ‘swarming’:

I know that if I turn up on your doorstep and shout through the mailbox and kick your door in, am really intimidating, and keep it up for a long time, it’s like being tortured. I know of another case where a News of the World reporter pretended to be — and this is a criminal offence — a cop, booted in someone’s door and staged a fake police raid.

The News of the World was closed in 2011, as Rupert Murdoch tried to contain the backlash against his organisation after the phone-hacking revelations, but the culture never went away. It was in the bones of The Sun and The Sun on Sunday, which was merely The News of the World with a new paint job.

News UK says it requested ‘legitimate research’ and instructed Portley-Hanks to act lawfully. It’s impossible to know whether The Sun’s US editor was nodding and winking while he gave that instruction. Certainly having to explicitly instruct your contractors to “act lawfully” suggests a company where acting unlawfully has never been tolerated… sorry, I had to stop writing for a moment to laugh until my lungs were empty.

Portley-Hanks says The Sun wrote to him after the Leveson Inquiry, asking him to sign documents — seen by BBC News, The New York Times and Byline Investigates — that committed him to act within the law. He says he repeated that assurance when he billed The Sun for his work. But he also claims that no one at the paper ever asked him how he got his information, which looks a lot like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation designed to give Sun editors some measure of deniability.

A story bylined to James Beal and Emily Andrews, published two days after Portley-Hanks obtained Markle’s private phone number, talked about Harry’s text messages to his future wife under the headline Prince Harry so smitten with US TV star Meghan Markle the fifth-in-line to the throne texted her until he got a date. Of course, The Sun says that story was obtained legally from ‘sources’.

Twitter avatar for @hackinginquiryHacked Off @hackinginquiry
The private investigator, Dan Hanks, has apologised to Meghan Markle and The Queen. The Sun has not. Read Hacked Off's response here:
hackinginquiry.org/claims-that-pr…

The New York Times @nytimes

The Sun, one of Britain’s most popular tabloids, paid more than $2,000 to a Los Angeles private investigator who improperly handed over a trove of personal details about Meghan Markle and her family in 2016, when she first began dating Prince Harry. https://t.co/OqrNZ8CmJX

Prince Harry is currently suing News UK as well as the former publishers of the Daily Mirror over allegations of phone hacking before 2011. He and his wife released a statement yesterday after the ‘Danno’ story broke. It’s short and shrouded in the Californian therapy speak that the couple specialises in but the underlying anger is still discernible:

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex feel that today is an important moment of reflection for the media industry and society at large, as this investigative report shows that the predatory practices of days past are still ongoing, reaping irreversible damage for families and relationships. They are grateful to those working in media who stand for upholding the values of journalism, which are needed now more than ever before.

There will never be a “moment of reflection” in the British media, especially not from the tabloids who, shark-like, can never stop swimming or looking for their next prey. Appearing before a parliamentary investigation into phone hacking, Rupert Murdoch claimed that July 19 2011 was the “most humble” day of his life. If the humbling happened it didn’t last long. Five years after assuring parliament and the public that it would no longer use private investigators, News UK was tasking Danno with digging up dirt on Meghan Markle.

There is no cleaning up the tabloids and no world in which The Sun does not turn to tactics that, at best, skirt the line of legality. The closure of The News of the World was not a fresh start but an attempt to bury the toxic waste of a tabloid that rampaged across the world with no concern for the human cost of scoops. News UK has never changed; it simply got a little bit more cautious for a while. And the revelations about Danno’s digging suggest that didn’t last long.

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Correction: The original version of this newsletter incorrectly stated that the News of the World closed in 2012. It was, in fact, shut in 2011. The ‘Danno’ story was also incorrectly attributed to Byline Times rather than Byline Investigates. Thank you to Dr Evan Harris for highlighting these errors.

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