Buried at the bottom of a Newcastle cul-de-sac, the Lynwood Business Centre has few obvious links to the Palace of Westminster. It is only the name Abbey Investigations on the list of tenants that betrays the presence of an allegedly unhealthy interest in the seat of British democracy.
Until this week, Glen Lawson, the fishing enthusiast and private detective who runs Abbey Investigations, had been quietly running his business, offering the bread-and-butter services of Britain's burgeoning investigation industry – surveillance of cheating spouses, eavesdropping on dishonest employees and "debugging" of company offices. Yesterday, Mr Lawson found himself at the centre of claims about a more unsavoury aspect of the commercial snooping business, when he was named as the claimed conduit for an operation by unnamed journalists to obtain confidential information on the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and two other Labour MPs.
Mr Lawson, a father-of-two who often visits his office solely to pick up his post, declined to comment on the allegations that he bought information from another detective agency in the south- west which operated a network of insiders, including police officers and civil servants, who could access databases, including the police national computer and social security logs.
When asked about the claims that he targeted Mr Brown, who has accused The Sunday Times and The Sun of printing stories about him based on illicitly obtained information, Mr Lawson refused to discuss which newspapers had employed him. The private investigator, who was raided in 2003 by police investigating a claimed illegal snooping operation against Mr Brown but released without charge, said: "I have nothing further to say."
The allegations shine a bright light into the tenebrous and entirely unregulated world of private investigation, which is now worth at least £250m a year, and its links with the newspaper industry, in particular Rupert Murdoch's News International.
What emerges is a clandestine network of conmen, bent policemen, corrupt civil servants, impersonators and computer experts who were sub-contracted by unscrupulous private detectives, including at least one murder suspect, to obtain information from car registration details to criminal records to sell them on to voracious customers on Fleet Street. The Independent understands that at least 15 investigators, many of them with links to one another, have been identified by police in the past ten years, operating as "hubs" for groups of "blaggers" or individuals who tricked information out of organisations.
They include Jonathan Rees, whose shadowy south London detective agency earned more than £150,000 a year from the News of the World (NOTW), and Steve Whittamore, the Hampshire-based private investigator who ran a team of blaggers including a Hells Angel with access to ex-directory phone numbers. Mr Whittamore, who was convicted of data protection offences in 2005, worked for nearly every national newspaper group. It is a world where phone-hacking is just one, outmoded tool of operatives who now wield a bewildering array of hi-tech methods, ranging from the use of so-called trojan viruses which can deliver the entire contents of a target's email inbox, to gadgetry which would seem more at home in James Bond.
An investigation by The Independent has established that for as little as £3,000, a modified mobile phone and software can be bought which allows its user to "enslave" another handset simply by standing in proximity to a target. The so-called "spy phone" then records every phone call, text message and email received by the targeted phone. One London-based private investigator, specialising in work for blue-chip corporations, said: "With the right phone call you can buy gear straight out of a spy novel. Within a few minutes, I can have a mirror copy of your computer and be listening live to your every phone call. By definition it's incredibly intrusive. It's an extremely powerful piece of kit, in more widespread use than you would imagine."
A toxic combination of large editorial budgets on Britain's red-top tabloids, an insatiable demand for personality-driven scoops and a body of willing operatives has blurred the line between clandestine tactics deployed legitimately in the public interest and illegal snooping for prurience.
Mr Rees, who was cleared earlier this year of the 1986 murder of his business partner Daniel Morgan, found with an axe embedded in his skull in pub car park, saw £150,000 a year paid to his company by the NOTW. His business partner, Sid Fillery, a former Scotland Yard detective who recruited corrupt officers and was convicted of possessing child pornography, now owns a Norfolk pub. The question of whether their successors have found new customers in Fleet Street remains unanswered.
The inside men
A freemason whose Southern Investigations was used by News International and the Mirror titles. He was jailed for attempting to frame a young mother by planting drugs in her car and from May 2004 to 2006 worked exclusively for the NOTW.
A former south London detective who was Jonathan Rees's right-hand man at Southern and helped recruit corrupt police officers. Convicted of possession of child pornography. Now runs a Norfolk pub.
The blagger who, on behalf of The Sunday Times, obtained details of a property transaction by Gordon Brown. A convicted fraudster, he was involved in a number of attempted newspaper stings against public figures.
The amateur footballer was the NOTW's contractor and phone-hacking specialist. He is alleged to have been instructed to access and listen to the voicemails of public figures on the instructions of journalists.
The Hampshire-based private detective was the subject of Operation Motorman, an investigation by the Information Commissioner into the large-scale obtaining of illegal data, including criminal records and ex-directory phone numbers. He was convicted of data protection offences in 2005.
A private detective linked to Whittamore, Boyall had a network of contacts who could provide confidential information. He recruited an assistant in the late 1990s to help in his work – one Glenn Mulcaire.
A civilian worker at Wandsworth police station, Marshall had unrestricted access to the Police National Computer. He passed details of criminal records to Whittamore via a corrupt police officer.