The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Private investigator says he skirted laws to get info on Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sell it to the Sun tabloid

Front pages of British newspapers in London on March 10.
Front pages of British newspapers in London on March 10. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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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" practices 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,” told The Washington Post in a phone interview that he improperly accessed details about Meghan, including her ­Social Security number, and sold that information to the Sun.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, spoke with Oprah Winfrey about turning away from life as senior royals in a wide-ranging interview that aired on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

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 said in an emailed statement that “today is an important moment of reflection for the media industry and society at large, as this investigative report shows that the predatory practises of days past are still ongoing, reaping irreversible damage for families and relationships.”

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

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 to her estranged father.

In late autumn of 2016, Hanks was asked by the Sun to do searches on Meghan, her family members and associates, he said. He accessed a database that he is able to use for legitimate private investigator work.

He handed over information including Meghan’s Social Security number, her cellphone number, her address, and details about her mother, estranged father, siblings, ex-husband and others.

A week later, on Nov. 8, 2016, Prince Harry issued a remarkable statement, condemning the media “storm” around his new girlfriend, as well as her mother, ex-boyfriend, friends and colleagues.

Hanks is a well-known private investigator who says he has worked for law enforcement agencies and American tabloid television shows, as well as helped track down information on stories about sex offender ­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.

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There was a time, he said, when his biggest clients were British tabloids. Before the 2011 phone-hacking scandal, 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. Hanks said he was made to sign a letter saying he wouldn’t do anything illegal.

“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 Meghan and Harry did this month 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.”

Graham Johnson, the editor of Byline Investigates, an online publication that focuses on British media organizations, reached out to Hanks 18 months ago and discovered he had done checks and background searches for British tabloids on various ­high-profile people, including Meghan.

Johnson told The Post 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.”

News Group Newspapers, the publishers of the Sun, 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,” the statement continued, “nor use the information he provided for any unlawful practice.”

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