Revealed: journalist behind Michelle Mone film also worked as private investigator on her behalf

For two consecutive Sundays, the PPE scandal involving the Conservative peer Michelle Mone has made waves. First came the release of a YouTube documentary on 10 December about Mone, her husband, Douglas Barrowman, and PPE Medpro, a company they helped to win more than £200m in government contracts.

Then came the BBC’s heavily promoted interview with the couple, in which Mone admitted lying repeatedly to the public over her involvement in PPE Medpro and conceded she and her family were beneficiaries of an offshore trust that received a portion of its profits.

The carefully managed media rollout is part of what Mone has called “our fightback”. It is a battle that has been aided by Mark Williams-Thomas, who investigated, produced and presented the YouTube documentary, which was funded by PPE Medpro, and was sitting behind the couple when they were interviewed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

Williams-Thomas is a former police officer turned award-winning journalist who has a string of successful documentaries for ITV and Netflix. Amid questions last week over his independence in relation to the YouTube documentary, he said he had been “commissioned by PPE Medpro” to produce the film but retained “full editorial control”.

He said: “We have been totally upfront about who funded the programme and as to why we went down that route, putting in place safeguards to ensure editorial control and as much independence as possible.”

What Williams-Thomas did not reveal publicly, however, is that, alongside his journalistic role, he has also been working as a private investigator on behalf of Mone, Barrowman and PPE Medpro.

In addition to trying to orchestrate a reputational comeback for the couple, Williams-Thomas has been assisting his clients in their efforts to hunt for the suspected source of years of Guardian articles revealing that Mone and Barrowman had been lying to the public.

Details of this side job have not been revealed by Williams-Thomas, perhaps because he has signed a non-disclosure agreement with his clients.

News of the dual role raises questions about conflicts of interest and the ethics of combining journalism with work as a private investigator.

It could also prove awkward for the BBC, which may face questions about Williams-Thomas’s involvement in Mone’s big set-piece interview with Kuenssberg.

Williams-Thomas told colleagues as far back as July that he was involved behind the scenes in a planned Kuenssberg interview. At that time, his business partner, Martin Kayes, another private investigator, told a reporter: “She’s going to be doing an interview with them, which, I think, Mark [Williams-Thomas] has got some kind of control over what’s going on.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “As with all BBC News interviews, the BBC had full editorial control at all times.”

However, the Guardian understands that Williams-Thomas was involved in the Kuenssberg interview process, liaising between the couple and the production team. The BBC declined to say what role Williams-Thomas had in relation to the interview and why he was present when it was filmed in Portugal.

Mark Williams-Thomas in the background at the Laura Kuenssberg interview
Mark Williams-Thomas in the background at the Laura Kuenssberg interview. Photograph: BBC news

For Mone and Barrowman, the revelations come at a difficult juncture. Their admission that for three years they lied to the media about their links to PPE MedPro has reignited concern over the peer’s conduct. There is growing unrest in the parliamentary Conservative party over the scandal. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he was treating the matter “extremely seriously”.

Meanwhile, the couple’s public relations blitz appears directed at responding to battles they are fighting on two legal fronts: a civil dispute with the UK government over whether the PPE that was supplied was fit for purpose, and a criminal investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) into allegations of conspiracy to defraud, fraud by false representation, and bribery.

They deny wrongdoing on both fronts, and appear to have contracted Williams-Thomas to help fight their corner. Responding to the Guardian, Williams-Thomas did not dispute that he had been working as a private investigator for the very same people he claimed to be covering as a reporter.

He denied he had done anything wrong. “To suggest that I lack journalistic integrity is wrong and totally unfair and is to ignore, with your own agenda, the clear statements I have made about funding and independence,” he said.

Mone, Barrowman, PPE Medpro and Kayes did not respond to requests for comment.

Suite of services

Mark Williams-Thomas wears two hats. One is that of a police detective turned independent, multi-award-winning journalist who works for reputable mainstream broadcasters producing investigative journalism through his production company, WT Associates. The second, less well-known aspect of his work is done through his company Specialist Investigations Limited.

Its website advertises a suite of services for companies and individuals, from covert surveillance to bug sweeps, drones and GPS tracking of cars and “catch a cheating partner”. Under the heading “media response”, Williams-Thomas offers to help clients who find themselves “at the centre of a media story”.

“This could be in relation to a personal or a company situation. Any response needs to be carefully considered, both in regard to what is said and how it is said. We have considerable experience of handling critical situations where people have found themselves at the centre of a media storm,” the site says.

The company also offers to support those accused in criminal investigations, saying it takes a proactive approach, seeking to “identify and obtain evidence that positively undermines” the case against its clients.

Williams-Thomas operates the private-eye shop with his partner, Kayes, who is described as a “cyber specialist”. Kayes told a reporter that Williams-Thomas was first introduced to Mone and Barrowman, who reside in a mansion in the Isle of Man, by their personal security specialist and bodyguard.

Kayes said he had been working for PPE Medpro since 24 May and Williams-Thomas had been involved prior to that.

By that time, the Guardian had published a series of stories revealing how the couple were secretly involved in PPE Medpro, contrary to years of denials. Barrowman had received at least £65m in profits from the company and transferred £29m to an offshore trust of which Mone and their children were beneficiaries.

Doug Barrowman and Michelle Mone during the BBC interview
Doug Barrowman and Michelle Mone during the BBC interview. Photograph: BBC news

Explaining how he and his business partner came to work on behalf of PPE Medpro and the couple, Kayes told the reporter: “All the information in the Guardian newspaper about Medpro was leaked and it appears to have come from [an employee].”

It was, in other words, an effort to find a suspected whistleblower. Kayes added that after Williams-Thomas started working for his clients in relation to suspected leaks about PPE Medpro, the job then evolved into media work. “Mark got chatting to them [Mone and Barrowman] and it turns out they are very bad at looking after themselves, they’d got no idea about PR. So Mark … got more and more involved.”Kayes said he and Williams-Thomas were limited in what they could say about their private investigative work, but said that in addition to the operation to identify a suspected leaker, their work related to the civil and criminal cases that Mone and Barrowman were facing.

‘Public and upfront’

In his YouTube film, Williams-Thomas did disclose that the documentary had been funded by PPE Medpro, but he has insisted that this did not compromise its independence. In his response to questions from the Guardian, Williams-Thomas maintained he had been “very public and upfront”, before and after the film, that his role “was as investigator, presenter and producer”.

“These are the same three roles that I perform all the time and have done so for many years with all my investigations that become documentaries.”

However, he does not appear to have mentioned that he was a contracted private investigator when he initially approached organisations and individuals in recent months asking if they would collaborate in his film.

In April, Williams-Thomas phoned the Good Law Project, a non-profit that has exposed numerous PPE scandals. He told them he was making a documentary about the government’s “VIP lane”, which prioritised companies such as PPE Mepdro that had been recommended by people with political connections. He said he had received expressions of interest from ITV, Channel 4 and Netflix.

Williams-Thomas said he wanted to feature the Good Law Project in the film. Later, Kayes raised the prospect of a two-way information-sharing arrangement with the non-profit. Kayes continued discussions with an in-house reporter for the Good Law Project for several months, keeping him abreast of developments.

Mark Williams-Thomas in the documentary about Michelle Mone
Mark Williams-Thomas in the documentary about Michelle Mone. Photograph: Youtube

When the reporter contacted Kayes in July, after reading a PPE Medpro press release saying the company had an “investigative team” looking into PPE procurement, Williams-Thomas’s business partner opened up.

Kayes told the reporter that Williams-Thomas had first been brought in to investigate an employee whom Barrowman suspected of being the source of leaks to the Guardian. From there, Kayes said, “Mark was able to build a relationship with Baroness Mone and Douglas Barrowman” and moved on to helping with their PR.

He continued: “There is now both an investigation and documentary running side by side – we had some concerns about how it would be perceived, but feel that we covered that with them by having an agreement we are going to run with whatever we find, whether it is in their favour or not.

“The documentary is independent and we still have several other PPE suppliers to approach yet regarding that. But on the investigation side of things, we are being paid by them to look into the [civil and criminal] cases brought against them.”

After discussions revealed their roles as private investigators, the Good Law Project became suspicious of Williams-Thomas and Kayes and decided not to take matters further.

In recent days, Kayes told the reporter that Williams-Thomas was still working for PPE Medpro. It is not entirely clear in what capacity, or precisely which hat he was wearing when he turned up in Portugal last week when Mone and Barrowman were interviewed by the BBC.

In an opening sequence on the programme, Williams-Thomas can be seen entering the room with Mone and Barrowman and sitting directly behind them. In his response to question from the Guardian, Williams-Thomas said the couple had a longstanding relationship with the BBC. He added that he advised them to do “a straight sit-down interview” after his YouTube documentary “because they are both very different”.

Recently, the ex-police officer turned private investigator and journalist contacted the Guardian for comment. Williams-Thomas claimed to have seen an “NCA report” that he said cast light on the source of leaks to the Guardian and requested a formal response. He said: “I am making the enquiry out of my own interest as a journalist.”

Russell Scott, a co-author of this article, was the Good Law Project reporter who spoke to Martin Kayes.

Do you have information about this story? Email, or use Signal or WhatsApp to message (UK) +44 7721 857 348