It was the autumn of 2016, and The Sun, Britain’s most popular daily tabloid paper, was on to a juicy story: Prince Harry, the rakish younger son of Prince Charles, was dating an American actress named Meghan Markle. Royal news was dull at the time — Harry’s older brother, Prince William, was already married — so any development in Harry’s love life qualified as a major scoop.
But what was there to learn about Ms. Markle, and which of the bare-knuckled British tabloids would get there first?
The Sun’s New York-based U.S. editor turned to a trusted source for quick help: Daniel Portley-Hanks, a veteran Los Angeles private investigator known as Danno, whose résumé includes several stints in prison and decades of clandestine work for a range of clients, including several British tabloids.
Mr. Portley-Hanks logged in to TLOxp, a service with a vast database of restricted information about individuals and businesses, and pulled up a trove of details — home addresses, cellphone numbers, Social Security numbers and more — about Ms. Markle, her parents, her siblings and her ex-husband. He then sold it to the U.S. editor, James Beal, for $2,055, according to an invoice reviewed by The New York Times.
Armed with this information, The Sun jumped into high gear, producing a stream of gossipy, thinly sourced “exclusives” over the next week. One discussed how Harry, desperate to go out with Meghan after first meeting her earlier that year, “pursued her and besieged her with texts until she agreed to a date.” Another featured an unflattering interview with Ms. Markle’s half sister, Samantha, who described Ms. Markle as an ambitious, callous social climber who all but ditched her family when she became famous.
Mr. Portley-Hanks, now 74 and retired, said his data also put the Sun onto the trail of Ms. Markle’s father, Thomas Markle, a former Hollywood lighting director, who fell out with his daughter in a bitter exchange of letters and interviews that would continue to play out in the tabloids even after Ms. Markle married Prince Harry, in 2018.
Licensed private investigators like Mr. Portley-Hanks have the right to access such information on behalf of clients to use, for example, in civil and criminal cases. But it is a violation of U.S. privacy statutes for people to pass these reports on to news organizations. (U.S. news outlets can research some information on TLOxp and similar services, but only have access to a limited set of data.)
“There’s lots of things you can use these reports for — but not this,” said Paul M. Schwartz, an expert in privacy law and professor at Berkeley Law School.
A statement from TransUnion, which owns the TLOxp service, said: “Safeguarding information is TransUnion’s top priority. This individual was not permitted to share information obtained from TLOxp with any third party.”
Mr. Portley-Hanks’s role in providing information to The Sun was first uncovered by Graham Johnson, a former British tabloid reporter who now writes for Byline Investigates, an online publication financed by donations and focused on malfeasance in the British tabloids.
After the phone hacking scandal of 2011, which began with the hacking of the cellphone of a murdered 13-year-old girl and ultimately revealed the underhanded and illegal ways that British tabloids obtain their juiciest scoops, much of the British news media stopped covering the issue; Byline Reports has stayed with the topic.
The scandal and ensuing legal penalties were supposed to put an end to such practices. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who wields vast influence in Britain through his ownership of The Sun and The Times of London, a more respectable broadsheet newspaper, promised that his papers would no longer use private investigators — except under extraordinary circumstances and then only with permission from the top editors.
But according to Mr. Portley-Hanks, some journalists didn’t take it seriously.
At one point, The Sun “sent me a letter I had to sign that said I wouldn’t use any illegal methods to locate people or do background checks,” he said in an interview. “Then the reporters came back to me and said, ‘But if you want to get work, keep doing what you’ve been doing,’ with a nod and a wink.”
In the case of Ms. Markle, “I strongly believe that James Beal knew that what I was providing him was obtained illegally,” Mr. Portley-Hanks said in an affidavit that he provided to lawyers for Harry, who is suing the Sun and another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, on unrelated charges of phone hacking.
News Group Newspapers, which publishes The Sun, said it had made a “legitimate request” of Mr. Portley-Hanks to research details on Ms. Markle and her relatives, using databases for which he had a license. “He was instructed clearly in writing to act lawfully and he signed a legal undertaking that he would do so,” it said in a statement. The company said that it was also speaking on behalf of Mr. Beal.
None of the information supplied by Mr. Portley-Hanks raised concerns about illegal practices, the company said, adding that it did not request Ms. Markle’s Social Security number — which is more restricted information — and did not use it for any purpose.
In Britain, legal experts said, the tabloids have moved carefully since the 2011 scandal, which forced Mr. Murdoch to shut down another of his tabloids, The News of the World, and torpedoed his takeover of a satellite broadcaster, BSkyB.
“There is, at present, no evidence that has come to light that they continued any illegal activities since 2011,” said Daniel Taylor, an expert in privacy law.
But Mr. Taylor added, speaking of the tabloids, “There would have been enormous interest in Harry and Meghan, and there is no doubt they would have turned over every stone to make sure they got a competitive edge on their rivals.”
Even as The Sun was printing its early articles about the Harry and Meghan romance, the Sunday Express and other competitors were getting scoops of their own, fanning out across America to talk to anyone remotely connected to Ms. Markle. They staked out houses; they bombarded distant relatives with phone calls; they talked to neighbors; they quoted unnamed “friends” and “pals” of the couple.
Typical of the coverage was an article in The Daily Mail that, loaded with racist innuendo, said that the biracial Ms. Markle was “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton,” and described the L.A. neighborhood where her Black mother lived as full of “tatty one-story homes” and riddled with drugs, guns, gangs and violence.
The Mail article, and the various articles in The Sun, appeared in the first week of November, 2016. Days later, Prince Harry’s office issued an extraordinary statement declaring that Ms. Markle had been “subject to a wave of abuse and harassment” and that “nearly every friend, co-worker and loved one in her life” had been pursued, and in some cases offered money for interviews, by members of the British news media.
The couple have been at war with the tabloids ever since. In addition to Harry’s lawsuit, Meghan filed her own suit against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, accusing it of violating her privacy by publishing an anguished letter she sent to her estranged father. In February, a High Court in London ruled in her favor.
On Thursday, Harry and Meghan, who are also known as the duke and duchess of Sussex, said in a statement that Mr. Portley-Hanks’ claims showed “that the predatory practices of days past are still ongoing, reaping irreversible damage for families and relationships.”
Harry has often blamed the tabloids for the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 after a high-speed pursuit by paparazzi. He even attributed his and Meghan’s decision to withdraw from royal duties and leave Britain in part to the unrelenting scrutiny of the news media.
“We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health,” Harry said to the British talk-show host, James Corden, last month. “I was, like, this is toxic. So, I did what any husband and what any father would do — I need to get my family out of here.”
He and Meghan made similar claims in their explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this month. Mr. Portley-Hanks, who said he had already come to regret his actions, said those comments deepened his sense of remorse for his role in helping to steer the tabloids to Ms. Markle and members of her family.
“I just realized what I was doing was wrong,” he said in an interview from California. “My income was based on other people’s tragedy.”
Mr. Portley-Hanks’ misgivings coincided with his own legal troubles. In July 2017, he was convicted of extortion, and sentenced to 16 months in prison, for his involvement in an illegal gambling organization. Initially hired to run background checks, Mr. Portley-Hanks was paid $7,000 to deface a family grave site in Pennsylvania to intimidate a person who owed money to the gambling ring.
Now out of jail and stripped of his private investigator’s license, Mr. Portley-Hanks is eager to explain the tricks of his trade — honed over two decades when he worked for two American tabloid TV shows, “A Current Affair” and “Hard Copy,” as well as a contractor for numerous British tabloid papers.
Mr. Portley-Hanks claims to have been involved in unearthing or spreading many of the tabloid era’s most sensational stories, from Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam” whose high-end prostitution ring had a prominent clientele, to Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita,” who shot and wounded the wife of her lover, Joey Buttafuoco.
He insists he thought little about the people whose privacy he was invading and did not even read the stories that emerged from his tips. His employers gave him names to run through his databases, and he ran them.
“My relationship with tabloid media was purely about my pocketbook,” he said, adding that “Meghan Markle’s name didn’t mean anything to me. I had no idea she was connected to the royal family.”
Anna Joyce contributed research from London and Alain Delaqueriere from New York.