Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex with her husband, Prince Harry. File photo: DOMINIC LIPINSK/AP
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex with her husband, Prince Harry. File photo: DOMINIC LIPINSK/AP

Investigator says he gave tabloid unlawfully obtained personal details about Meghan Markle

By The Washington Post Time of article published Mar 19, 2021

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Karla Adam

London - Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, said that an investigation into how a British tabloid obtained personal details about the duchess shows that there are still "predatory practises" within the British news media.

Their statement follows an investigation by Byline Investigates into how the Sun tabloid hired an American private investigator, who says he unlawfully handed over personal details about the duchess when she first started dating Harry. Byline Investigates teamed up with the BBC and the New York Times to publish the investigative report Thursday night.

Daniel Hanks, 74, a veteran private investigator also known as "Danno," said he unlawfully accessed details about Meghan, including her social security number, as well as details on people in her life. He says he sold this information to the Sun.

In a statement, the Sun's publisher said it had made a "legitimate" request for information from Hanks, and stressed that he was not asked to do "anything illegal or breach any privacy laws."

A spokesman for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said that "today is an important moment of reflection for the media industry and society at large, as this investigative report shows that the predatory practices of days past are still ongoing, reaping irreversible damage for families and relationships."

Harry and Meghan have long had a fraught relationship with the British tabloids. Harry recently told talk show host James Corden that the British tabloids were "destroying my mental health."

"I was, like, this is toxic," he said. "So, I did what any husband and what any father would do. I need to get my family out of here."

Meghan once told ITV that she was warned, before her marriage, that "the British tabloids will destroy your life." The couple have taken legal action against tabloids on a number of occasions. Meghan recently won a privacy case against the Mail on Sunday, which published lengthy extracts of a handwritten letter she wrote her estranged father.

Hanks told The Washington Post in a phone interview that he wasn't aware who Meghan Markle was when he said the Sun's US editor James Beal commissioned the research.

On October 30, 2016, he was asked by the Sun to do searches on Meghan, her family members and associates, he said. He accessed a database that he's able to use for legitimate private investigator work.

He handed over information including Meghan's social security number, her cellphone number, address, details about her mom Doria Ragland, her estranged father Thomas Markle and her half brother, also named Thomas Markle, her ex-husband Trevor Engelson, and others.

"Social security numbers are key to the kingdom to get everything," he said.

On November 8, 2016, Harry released a remarkable statement, officially announcing that he was in a relationship with Meghan, and condemning the coverage of her in some parts of the media.

Hanks is a well-known private investigator who says he's worked for the British tabloids for years. He says he's worked for law enforcement agencies, the American tabloid television shows, "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy," and helped track down information on stories about Jeffrey Epstein. Hanks has also served a number of jail terms; most recently, in 2017, he was found guilty of extortion and spent 16 months in jail.

There was a time, he said, his biggest clients were British tabloids. Before the 2011 phone hacking scandal that rocked the British establishment and led to the closure of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid, Hanks said he was making about $120 000 a year from the British tabloids. Afterward, he said, the only British paper that would employ him was the Sun tabloid. Hanks said he was made to sign a letter saying he wouldn't do anything illegal.

"They protect higher-ups like the editor, they protect themselves," he said.

"They sent me a letter, the editors did, saying, 'you will no longer use anything illegal, blah blah blah, in doing your work,' but then the reporters that worked for them would say, 'look I got to make a living here, I need to get this stuff, don't worry about that disclaimer. We need to get these reports if you want to keep working'," Hanks said.

He said that he now regrets his actions and that watching the two-hour interview that Meghan and Harry did with Oprah Winfrey "really made me feel bad - I don't like to hurt anyone."

"There's more to me than doing tabloid journalism," he said. "I am not just some guy that worked for the tabloids, I did other things, I did good things, I did bad things, but I'm not a bad guy." He said he was speaking out to help clear his conscience.

Graham Johnson, the editor of Byline Investigates, an online publication that focuses on British media organizations, reached out to Hanks 18 months ago. In the spring, he flew to Los Angeles to meet Hanks, and together they went through his files and discovered he'd done checks and background searches for British newspapers on various high-profile people, including Meghan. "They didn't mean anything to me at the time," said Hanks.

Johnson told The Post that he did "a test" with Hanks to see what "permitted" and "not permitted" searches would reveal.

"We did a test, whereby we did a 'permitted search' for information that would be used for a newspaper story and that came back, when you type in 'Meghan Markle,' you get nine pages," Johnson said. "Then we did a 'not permitted search', it wasn't permitted because we were tricking the database by pretending it was for official public interest. It came back as 90 pages."

In an affidavit he signed for Byline Investigates, Hanks writes: "Over the years, I have sold personal data obtained from a range of 'one-stop databases' to British newspapers." He continues: "It is unlawful under Federal laws to obtain this information with permission for an authorized use, and then to sell it to a British newspaper. Such sale is, obviously, a non-permitted use."

Johnson said this case "shows this stuff was still going on five years after the Leveson Inquiry," referring to the public inquiry into the practices of the British media. "And crucially, it took place on US soil," he said.

News Group Newspapers, the publishers of the Sun newspaper, said in an emailed statement: "In 2016, The Sun made a legitimate request of Mr Hanks to research contact details and addresses for Meghan Markle and possible relatives using legal databases which he had a license to use. He was paid $250.

"Mr Hanks was not tasked to do anything illegal or breach any privacy laws - indeed he was instructed clearly in writing to act lawfully and he signed a legal undertaking that he would do so.

"The information he provided could not and did not raise any concerns that he had used illegal practices to obtain the information.

"At no time did The Sun request the social security number of Meghan Markle, nor use the information he provided for any unlawful practice."

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