Private investigators don’t get bylines and don’t win Walkleys. In fact, their involvement in a story is rarely acknowledged by the media organisations that hire them. But have no doubt: private eyes are used by Australian journalists to nail scoops.

In the UK, the News of the World scandal has exposed the unethical, often illegal way private investigators such as Glenn Mulcaire made a living working for the tabloid press. In Australia, it’s not The Daily Telegraph or Herald Sun where you’re most likely to find a private eye — it’s in the hyper-competitive world of news and current affairs television, infamous for its heroin-like addiction to controversial, exclusive footage.

“I don’t know of a TV station — public or commercial — that hasn’t used private investigators,” Warren Mallard, a private investigator with 33 years’ experience, told Crikey. “The media uses investigators because they know they can quite often get the truth. A lot more stories have been told — and more accurate stories have been told — because of the involvement of government-licensed investigators.”

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Luke Athens, a Sydney-based private eye, estimates he does a couple of jobs a month for journalists. He says he has friends in the industry who work full-time doing investigations for the media, with commercial current affairs TV programs the most regular clients.

“It’s common,” Athens told Crikey. “They do use them … They all say we don’t use them but they do.”

According to Peter Meakin, the Seven Network’s director of news and current affairs, private eyes are used by his network but only “very infrequently”.

“We sometimes use them for surveillance — when we want to monitor someone and see what their comings and goings are,” he said. “We probably use them a couple of times a year … I don’t see an ethical concern in using them if they’re ethical people.”

A senior producer at Channel Nine’s A Current Affair had a similar view: “The only time we use private investigators is when we want footage of someone but we can’t afford to have a camera crew sitting in a car waiting to get a shot. It’s a whole lot cheaper to use a surveillance operative.

“We’re not the shonks you guys make us out to be.”

Not all in the media game, however, are so sanguine about media outlets outsourcing their journalistic duties. Private eyes, after all, have no obligation to uphold the cherished MEAA code of ethics.

“My personal view is you do your own investigations and don’t rely on others,” said Bill Birnbauer, a former investigative reporter who spent three decades at The Age. “I’m dead set against the use of private investigators in almost all cases. I’ve never known anyone in print to use one.”

There’s no shortage of recent examples of Australian private investigators working with TV reporters. Crikey has confirmed with sources close to the investigation that a private eye was employed by Channel Seven in 2010 to help track down and film NSW government MP David Campbell leaving a gay bath house in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. That story has fuelled calls for tougher media regulation and privacy laws more than any other in recent years.

A private investigator was also responsible for tracking down the prostitute Nine’s ACA promised would tell all about an alleged dalliance with Craig Thomson earlier this year. The program insists it did not pay for the investigation.

In 2007, Channel Seven’s Today Tonight admitted a private investigator it hired, Colin Chapman, lured Schapelle Corby’s sister Mercedes to an interview by falsely identifying himself as an “official”. The same investigator had previously posed as a potential buyer of a helicopter owned by cartoonist Larry Pickering in a bid to expose him as a phony for claiming he could not pay child support.

A court had also once found Chapman guilty of “false or fraudulent representation” for financial gain by approaching doctors for fake medical certificates for an ACA story on sickies.

Warren Mallard, however, is adamant that illegal — or blatantly unethical — behaviour is extremely rare in the Australian private investigations industry. The popular stereotype of a private eye as a disgraced ex-cop who skolls three shots of bourbon before breakfast, he says, is unfair.

“There has been a stigma attached to our industry and it’s undeserved,” he said.

Mallard acknowledges the phone hacking scandal has further damaged the reputation of Aussie private eyes — even though the industry here is government-licensed and tightly regulated. “In Australia, you can’t bug a phone, bug a computer, put a tracking device on a car without the courts’ permission,” he said.

So why would a media outlet hire a private eye in the first place?

“A journalist is an investigator but they’re not trained in surveillance. They’re not trained in the skills of following people and being discreet,” he said.

“We have tracked down witnesses of crime, victims of crime, perpetrators of crime — people who rip off the public, shonky fridge mechanics or shonky home builders. Tracking these people down, following them and videoing them is very important to current affairs programs and consumers.”

And it’s not just tabloid TV, he says. Mallard worked on SBS’ highly acclaimed series Trafficked, the first documentary on Australian TV to explore the issue of s-x slavery. He’s also taught journalists surveillance skills so they can expose the illegal hunting and sale of tigers’ claws and elephant penises in developing countries.

The ABC, he insists, also uses private eyes. But ABC head of policy Alan Sunderland told Crikey it would fit into the “rare to non-existent category”.

Sunderland says he is only able to identify two examples of private eyes being used by Aunty’s news division: reconnaissance work in an African country to check whether it would be safe to report from there, and to help find a current address to contact someone for a story.

The ABC’s editorial policies state: “Any proposal to engage the services of a private investigator must be referred to the managing director.”

Bill Birnbauer says media outlets that use private investigators should at least declare their involvement to audiences: “Journalists need to be more transparent — the polls [reporting a declining trust in the media] show us that. If there was more accountability, there would be more trust.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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