UK should regulate private eyes after hacking, lawmakers say

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The UK government should act urgently to regulate private investigators guilty of "brokering black-market information" and invading privacy as they did during the phone-hacking scandal, lawmakers said.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said today that the government should set up a "robust" licensing and registration system, establish a new code of conduct for investigators and strengthen penalties for breaching data privacy rules. It also recommended in a report published in London that dealings between the police and private eyes should be recorded.

"Recent high-profile events, such as the phone-hacking scandal, have thrown light on the sometimes shady world of private investigators," the Labour lawmaker who heads the panel, Keith Vaz, said in an e-mailed statement. "We have found that rogue private investigators are the brokers in a black market in information. They illegally snoop on our data, cash in on our private lives and only get away with a paltry fine."

The phone-hacking scandal at News Corp.'s News of the World tabloid focused attention on the use of private investigators in the British media. The judicial inquiry into media ethics set up last year heard testimony that many publications and broadcasters used private eyes to obtain stories.

Hacking of celebrities, members of the royal family and crime victims first hit the headlines in 2006 with the arrest of the News of the World's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, and the tabloid's private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Both were jailed the following year.

Milly Dowler

News Corp.'s UK unit, News International, suppressed the full extent of hacking until last year when the Guardian newspaper reported that the News of the World intercepted the mobile-phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch closed the 168-year-old tabloid and dropped his New York-based company's bid for the rest of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, the UK's biggest pay-television provider.

The scandal triggered three police probes, scores of lawsuits, as well as parliamentary and judicial inquiries. A judge's report on the state of media ethics that may be released later this year also may contain damaging findings on Murdoch and his company.

The UK Supreme Court ruled on July 4 that Mulcaire must reveal detailed evidence about the information he gleaned from hacking, rejecting his argument that he would be incriminating himself in a possible new criminal case.

The committee also said today it is time for the link between private investigators and police forces to be broken. Officers should be compelled to declare any dealings with private investigators and be subject to a cooling-off period before they can move from the police service to the private investigation industry.

The Home Office said in a statement it would await the findings of the media-ethics probe before taking any action.

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