At one level, The Guardian‘s allegations that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World routinely pays private investigators to illegally listen to the mobile phones of public figures are shocking and contemptible.

At another level — the wink-wink-nudge-nudge-whatever-it-takes-to-get-a-story, engine-room level of tabloid journalism — the really shocking aspect of these revelations is that they have appeared in public. The cat is out of the bag. A slimy cat and a filthy bag, to be sure, but not the kind of information that an upstanding tabloid publisher like Mr Murdoch ever intended to go on public display.

Of course, certain tabloid newspapers have always operated in a sleazy, subterranean world. Of course, their reporters (“correspondents”) and informants (“sources”) slink around boudoirs and bordellos in pursuit of scoops (“truth”). Of course they pay dubious characters to procure voyeuristic information (“news”). How else, and where else, would they so regularly obtain the dirt they publish week in and week out? From the Government Gazette?

If you need any confirmation of this subterranean tabloid world — the tactics, the culture, the ammorality, the arrogance — read “Confessions of a tabloid hack“, published a few days ago in The Guardian. Here are a few highlights:

As a reporter, we used every tool at our disposal. On one highly risky tabloid escapade in the 80s I used an electronics surveillance expert to bug Richard Burton’s hotel room to see if he was having an affair with his leading lady. We ended up overhearing him arguing with his daughter about her allowance, and learned what type of whisky he preferred, but we never stood up the affair. For every story that got in the paper, there were three like this that never made it.

By the 1990s, the News of the World‘s … huge editorial budget enabled it to out-bid the others for the biggest, most salacious stories. And they certainly had the most money to spend on private investigators.

[Today] the tabloids are finding it increasingly hard to dig up any really juicy stories without using private investigators. It’s a bit like DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars admitting: “I had to take a bribe when I first started working as a copper otherwise none of the other bastards would have talked to me.” They’re all at it.

Private investigators rarely put their name to anything and are often paid through a myriad of companies to avoid any direct link to the story they have helped expose through illegal surveillance activities. There is even a code of honour between the private investigators and their tabloid paymasters. Massive fees are paid out on condition the shady snoopers never “grass up” their employers.

If there’s one big story you’ll never see in a Murdoch tabloid it is a genuine piece of investigative journalism into investigative journalism. After all, who’d be interested in reading that, apart from Guardian readers and civil libertarians?

Eric Beecher is Crikey’s publisher and former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.