It's delusional to believe only 100 blue-chip companies have hired PIs

Plus: The island getaway of white-collar crime and David Jacobs' lesser-known talents

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The Independent Online

Very soon now we will know the names of the 100 or so companies and individuals that allegedly hired private investigators who illegally obtained private information about their business rivals or members of the public.

Included in the roll-call, which will be published by the Serious Organised Crime Agency – or if it fails to do so by Monday, the Home Affairs Select Committee – are 22 law firms. Stand back for much huffing and puffing, that those named should be excommunicated, pilloried and worse. Without a series of articles in The Independent, the existence of the Soca list would not be known. But this scandal goes far broader and deeper than 100 or so blue-chips and a handful of people rich enough to retain the services of private detectives. When their identities are released, right across the entire business and City spectrum there will be sighs of relief. For the idea that the entire corporate sleuthing industry was propped up by these few folk is ludicrous.

Indeed, along with the expressions of delight at not being cited there will be what can only be described as one almighty collective belly laugh. There cannot be a decent-sized company in the land or a wealthy person that has not at some stage called upon a private eye.

If we think that these spooks stop at going through public records and sitting in parked cars watching lights go on and off, we're deluding ourselves. Why would anyone pay for information they can easily find themselves in seconds on Google? Why retain a private investigator to sit in the street when a hard-up student would do it for a fraction of the price? What do we imagine these slick “intelligence” firms actually do for their money?

Some of these diggers are now more prosperous than the businesses that use them. They will say that they employ reams of super-bright, experienced analysts to put together dossiers that the Ordinary Joe could not begin to compile. That's true, but most large law firms also have people capable of doing the same. No, what they do but will not admit, is the black arts. But so they do not get caught, they will create cut-offs, leaving the really dirty stuff to sub-contractors who know not to ask questions and know, too, that if they're caught, not to expect any assistance. They specialise in discovering details that someone else would prefer to remain hidden. How do they do that, except by improper methods? That means bribing, faking, stealing, doing whatever it takes to get the material that the client wants.

Banks have tightened up their security in recent years but there is not a major bank that does not employ someone who, for a bit extra, will not provide something. And if the sub-contractor does not have that person in their pocket they will know another private investigator that does. One trick, that when I first heard about I thought owed more to film scripts than real life, is “cleaning”. They will find out which outside cleaning company cleans the target offices. Another sub-contractor will then join the cleaning company, end up in the offices and clean them – except not in the sense that you and I understand it, but “cleaned” of files, documents, what is on the client's wish-list. Computers will be accessed, cabinets opened, photocopies taken, and everything left as it was.

I've been on the receiving end of their craft. Once, British Airways was concerned there was a mole in its higher echelons supplying the press – myself, my then boss and others – with stories. They consulted the corporate sleuths, who went to work. I was among those targeted. How do I know this? Because the man who was arrested in the act of stealing my then boss's household rubbish, told the police he'd been given a list of names and mine was next. The gumshoe had already checked out my house and noted the bin was behind a high side-gate, which was true. BA later admitted to me, via one of its then advisers, what it had been up to. What they wanted, amid the garbage, was a scrap of paper, a note – anything that would lead them to the leaker.

On another occasion, I'd written an article that had upset a well-off businessman. Again, how do I know? Because one of his associates left a message on my answerphone at home, warning me to stay well clear. As he pointed out: “You know that I know where you live.” I was ex-directory. This is not new; it's been going on for years, all over Britain, in many guises. To pretend it's confined to those on the Soca list is ludicrous. The press has been forever branded by Leveson and the hacking investigations, and it's right that journalistic malpractice should be exposed. But if others have committed offences it's only correct they should be pursued as well.

They might not be the worst offenders but it could be justified pour encourager les autres. That is only right and fair. It's also something that the anti-hacking campaigners must surely agree with – they would not want invaders of privacy to get away scot-free, would they?


The island getaway of white-collar crime

This afternoon, I will be speaking at the 31st International Symposium on Economic Crime, held at Jesus College, Cambridge. That's right, for more than three decades, every September, officials, lawyers, and academics from around the world have gathered to discuss greater cooperation in combating fraud and white-collar crime. Held under the aegis of The Centre for International Documentation on Organised and Economic Crime in Cambridge, the conference attracts over 1,000 delegates, many of them at the very top of their respective fields. Each year, they share horror stories of duped businesses and members of the public, and sophisticated drug and crime syndicates, and governments often powerless to act.

Sometimes, as in the case of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, there are encouraging signs. Sadly, though, for every two steps forward there is often one back.

So it is this year. In the Cayman Islands, a judge has ruled that a “major British bank” must not comply with a British money laundering investigation. The bank's branch in Cayman was told not to aid the Metropolitan Police in its inquiries because to do so would violate Cayman's secrecy law. Scotland Yard had obtained a London court order against the bank, which was not named. It wanted to help and told the judge it was fearful of “reputational damage” if it resisted and was identified. Justice Foster in Cayman said he “accepted the desirability of international cooperation and assistance” but Cayman law was the law.

In 2011, Tax Justice Network's Financial Secrecy Index placed the Cayman Islands second in the world, behind Switzerland, in terms of its significance as a tax haven. Its government would claim the offshore financial centre is not on the OECD “black list” of uncooperative territories and it is doing all it can to improve transparency. Other tax havens make similar noises. Then I look at how they continue to sit on bank deposits and trusts running into billions and I read Justice Foster's judgment.

This charming man and big band memories

Unsung in the tributes to the late David Jacobs was his work as founding chairman of the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames. By then he was well into his eighties but still hosting his Radio 2 music show. I had the pleasure of serving on the theatre board with him and I've never met anyone more charming.

But so gentlemanly was he that it could occasionally cause problems. He liked to remind us that he'd chaired Any Questions? on Radio 4. Fine, except on that particular programme every one speaks on every issue for a few minutes and then no resolution is reached – hardly the ideal blueprint for board meetings.

I had to phone him one day at his house in Sussex. His wife, Lindsay, answered and said she would fetch him. In the background, big band music was playing loudly. Try as I might, I could not get out of my head an image of the pair of them dancing the afternoon away.