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The BBC and private investigators

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David Jordan David Jordan | 18:00 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

There's a lot of fuss in a couple of newspapers this morning over whether the BBC ever uses private detectives in any of its journalism. It stems from a suggestion from one private detective that he may have done some work for Panorama almost 20 years ago.

The BBC's response to that suggestion has been to reveal that we do use private detectives occasionally and exceptionally to help with programmes. To some that has conjured up pictures of dozens of gumshoes beavering away for the BBC, busily hacking into private voicemails or other people's e-mail accounts, or accessing deeply personal and private information illegally. All practices which have allegedly been happening frequently in some newspapers, as Panorama chronicled on Monday.

It is worth stressing that we are not aware of any BBC programme ever having commissioned a private detective to carry out this sort of illegal activity at any time in the past. It would be totally unacceptable and a serious breach of our editorial standards.

But engaging private detectives to do things of this sort is very different from asking them to undertake lawful activity as part of an investigation in the public interest. For example, consumer investigation programmes, where we have already established prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, may sometimes have difficulty in establishing the whereabouts of rogues, whose misdemeanours they have uncovered, so that they can confront them with allegations of that wrongdoing. We might employ third parties to carry out the necessary surveillance to find out where they are and where they might be approached and, on occasion, to obtain a photograph of them. Usually we track down individuals we want to speak to ourselves. But in very hard cases we might employ the specialist skills of a private detective to help us find someone. That may not be for suspected wrongdoing but could be to locate a witness to events which happened some time ago and who we are hoping will contribute to the programme.

So we could use third parties in a number of entirely lawful ways to help investigations and other programmes. But even if we did, their conduct would be governed not just by the law but by our own Editorial Guidelines. Undercover operatives, who are usually "clean skins" for obvious reasons, have to conduct themselves in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines and, often, a detailed protocol governing what they can and can't do. Any activity commissioned from a private detective would be managed in the same way if it involved breaches of privacy. The editorial guidelines are clear: intrusions into privacy need a strong public interest justification. And that does not include a prurient interest in the private lives of celebrities.

So suggestions that the BBC might use private investigators for political stories are wide of the mark and those who are "genuinely surprised the BBC used private investigators to stand up stories" should remain surprised. The BBC validates and stands up its own journalism wherever facts and information come from.

David Jordan is the BBC's Director of Editorial Policy and Standards

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