The Use of Private Investigators or Third Parties for Investigative Purposes

Guidance in Full

In this article

  1. Editorial Guidelines Issues
  2. Introduction
  3. Guidance in Full

Editorial Guidelines Issues

This guidance note should be considered in conjunction with the following Editorial Guidelines:

See also Editorial Guidelines Section 11 War, Terror and Emergencies: Hostile Environments, High Risk Activities and Events.

In addition, the Editorial Policy Guidance Notes on Investigations, Secret Recording and Right of Reply may also be relevant.


This Guidance note aims to help BBC content producers undertaking investigations who need to use external companies or individuals with specialist skills not available in-house. It does not apply to freelance journalists or other production staff, whistleblowers or, for example, experts retained to advise on authenticity in drama, or to those parts of factual programmes which are not integral to the investigation.

Specialist private investigation companies may offer a range of services, from providing security during doorsteps, through surveillance and verifying information provided to a production team. They may also carry out research, and identify and locate individuals relevant to the investigation.

Guidance in Full

Most tasks of investigative journalism carried out by the BBC will be performed by BBC journalists. Private investigators, and on occasion other third parties, are used for individual items or programmes where they can offer specialist skills or contacts or, where it is more cost-effective to employ a specialist sub-contractor, e.g. for surveillance purposes to confirm an individual’s whereabouts. Any intention to use a private investigator to help carry out an investigation must be agreed with a senior editorial figure who must consult the Director Editorial Policy and Standards before going ahead.

It should be made clear to all private investigators, or any other third party used to aid investigations, that they must work to the standards in the Editorial Guidelines at all times, and it is the relevant senior editorial figure’s responsibility to ensure that they do. Any decision to breach editorial guidelines or, unusually, to break the law in pursuit of an investigation in the public interest must be agreed in advance with the production team, their senior editorial figure and the Director, Editorial Policy and Standards. Programme Legal advice must also be consulted. Any decision to do so will requires a strong public interest justification.

Investigators should normally have a written contract of engagement. It is essential that both the BBC and the investigator should understand what they are engaged to do. The BBC has a standard contract [link coming] which will be suitable in most circumstances. Investigators should usually submit itemised invoices for work carried out, though, where it is important to ensure that an investigator’s identity is not discovered by, for example, the target of the investigation, steps may be taken to ensure that such invoices and contracts do not contain identifying information

When private investigators are retained to carry out investigative work, a senior editorial figure must satisfy themselves that the investigators are conducting themselves in accordance with the provisions in the Editorial Guidelines and this and other relevant Editorial Policy Guidance, which includes operating within the law, unless given specific permission not to do so.

However, where investigators offer services which do not risk breaches of privacy, for example when providing security during doorsteps or verifying information which is already in the public domain, there should be a clear understanding between them and the production team about the parameters of their employment, which should allow investigators appropriate professional discretion, while ensuring they observe the standards in the Editorial Guidelines. This will normally require a brief before the event, and, if necessary, a debrief afterwards. Production staff should consider using email for these briefs, to ensure a proper record of the work expected.

Any intention to retain a private investigator for an investigation must be approved in advance by a senior editorial figure, who must record the decision and its purpose. These records should be retained by the department commissioning the activity.


For further advice and discussion, contact Editorial Policy

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