The SMH‘s Gordon Wood scoop, “We find model’s accused killer”, was a result of years of painstaking research by reporters, but they didn’t do all the dirty work themselves – the paper hired private investigators to help out.

James Button and Robert Wainwright reported on their private eye adventure in TheSMH last week:

Just before dawn on Monday, Terry Couzens, a police officer, arrived outside an apartment in central London to arrest Gordon Wood. He was shocked to find a Herald team waiting. Couzens, who works for Scotland Yard’s extradition unit, slipped into our car. He was courteous but blunt: what were we doing there?

…Couzens was alarmed. Had our surveillance over weeks tipped off Wood?

“Our work was covert, and we had even given NSW Police important information, including Wood’s plans to travel overseas,” bragged James Button and Robert Wainwright. But they fail to mention the fact that the paper had paid PIs to help the journalists track Wood’s movements.

In a story that looks suspiciously like sour grapes, The Weekend Australian reported that The SMH shelled out $40,000 for private investigators to track down and film Mr Wood, which is why they knew where the murder suspect was and “made sure its journalists were on the spot when the Australian was arrested in London.”

So is this practice commonplace? Why pay PIs to do the job of investigative journalists?

SMH editor Alan Oakley told Crikey that it was “outstanding investigative journalism (over some eight years) that resulted in us being present when Wood was located and eventually arrested”.

Oakley didn’t deny that the paper had hired private eyes, but said, “The Oz, once again, is wrong – we did not spend $40,000, or anywhere near it. It’s a figure they just invented.”

As for the Oz’s suggestion that the SMH ‘s use of private detectives might have jeopardised the investigation, Oakley responded, “We did not in any way compromise the investigation – quite the reverse. Relevant, new information was passed on to NSW Police in a timely manner. At the press conference to announce the arrest, the NSW police thanked us for our co-operation.”

“In the words of the head of crime, Graeme Morgan, the Herald provided ‘valuable information’ that enabled police to ‘expedite’ the arrest,” said Oakley. “We acted responsibly.”

Peter Fray

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