Tag Archives: investigation

Undercover with Oxbridge Essays

Oxbridge Essays cropped

I went undercover for this Sunday Times investigation into the ‘essay mill’ Oxbridge Essays, posing as several students seeking to cheat in their undergraduate degree.

I spoke to employees who were willing to:

  •  provide a ghost-written exam answer for a student sitting a 24-hour take-home history exam at Bristol University, guaranteed to a guaranteed first level, and submit on her behalf directly to the university, for £630
  • provide an 8000-word social psychology dissertation ready to be turned in to Oxford University exam schools under a student’s name, at guaranteed upper-first level, for £2005

“So I’d just open up the word document and copy it into another one, stick my candidate number on it and submit it?”
“Exactly, yeah.”

As part of the sting I set the company my own dissertation title from my university days, then handed the first two-thirds of Oxbridge Essays’ offering to my former supervisor Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford University, to have it assessed. He said: “The whole thing has a bit of a cut and paste feel… the main complaint is that they have not included any work since 2010 — there’s no way you would get a first for that. There is some loose language too.

“Reading all this, I am inclined to say we should bring back viva voce exams, so that every student expects/fears that they might be viva’d on any aspect of their Finals. This might help to cut down this vile practice.”

Full text of the resulting article, plus an audio recording of my conversation with Paul Serrecchia, one of Oxbridge Essays ‘academic consultants’, is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the break.

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Scandal of school kitchen hygiene

Mice, ants and mouldy walls in school kitchens

I had an article in last weekend’s Sunday Times after I obtained hundreds of reports from school canteen hygiene inspections from local authorities around the council.

Hundreds of schools were given poor hygiene scores of 2 (“improvement required”) or less; two schools (Sennybridge County Primary School in Powys, and Erith School in Kent) scored the bottom score of 0 (“urgent improvement required”).

Many of the reports made for uncomfortable reading: black mould on walls, broken windows, raw meat stored alongside cooked food, mice infestations, ant infestations, and poor personal hygiene among staff all featured in the reports.

Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon chain of restaurants and the government’s new school food tsar, and Janette Wallis of the Good Schools Guide were kind enough to comment on my findings.

The Sunday Times data team created an interactive map for the online version of the story, so look for poor-scoring school canteens near you here. If you’d like to have a look at a report from your local school, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Full text of the article is also available after the fold. Continue reading

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JK Rowling’s secret crime novel

JK Rowling's secret book

I worked on the investigation in The Sunday Times last weekend that revealed JK Rowling to have secretly released a crime novel for adults, under a false identity.

She posed as Robert Galbraith, a former military policeman, when her latest novel was released in March. A Cuckoo’s Calling was warmly reviewed but sold fewer than 2000 hardback copies. Since our article was published, sales of the book on Amazon have leapt by 150,000%.

I’m not credited on the front page, but shared a byline with arts editor Richard Brooks on the inside write up. Full text can be found on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

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Westminster for sale: part 3

Puppetmaster lobbyists spread

 

Insight were back on the front page of the Sunday Times this weekend, with the latest addition to the ‘Westminster for Sale’ investigation. I worked on the reporting team.

Undercover reporters investigating lobbyists selling influence in Westminster were told how debates, speeches, and questions could be arranged in both houses of parliament. John Stevenson, of Freshwater Public Affairs, said he had engineered a whole Lords debate in April on behalf of a client paying him to lobby

Full text of the three resulting articles is available on the Sunday Times website, or after the fold.

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Westminster for sale: part two

Tim Yeo in Lobbygate row

I’m rather late in posting this, but I also worked on this Insight investigation into Tim Yeo, published last weekend on the front page of The Sunday Times.

Yeo, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the influential Energy and Climate Change select committee in the House of Commons, told undercover reporters posing as a firm trying to hire him that he could introduce them to “almost everyone you need to get hold of in this country”.

Although he could not speak publicly for them in the House without declaring his financial interests, he said that “what I say to people in private is another matter”.

He also revealed that he had coached a representative of GB Railfreight, a subsidiary of Groupe Eurotunnel where Yeo is a director and shareholder, on how to influence his committee.

Labour has said that he faces “serious” questions about his conduct after allegations that he had “used his position to further the interests of his clients”.

Since the article was published, Yeo has stepped aside as chair of the select committee  and referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. An investigation is ongoing.

Full text of the investigation can be found on the Sunday Times websites (here, here) or PDF versions of the articles can be found after the fold.  Continue reading

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Westminster for sale: update

Job swap coterie

Two peers were suspended from their party and a third has quit after our Sunday Times investigation caught them offering to ask parliamentary questions, lobby ministers and host receptions in the House of Lords in return for cash.

Lord Cunningham, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Laird offered to become paid advocates for a firm pushing for new laws to benefit its business. They also said they could set up an all-party parliamentary group as a lobbying vehicle.

Full details are in this Sunday Times article by Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake of the Insight investigations team.

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Westminster for sale

Cash for access - Lords exposed

I’ve been working with the Insight investigations team at The Sunday Times for the last couple of weeks on an investigation into lobbying in the Houses of Parliament.

We made the splash on 2 June with this sting, in which three peers offered to become paid advocates for a firm pushing for new laws to benefit its business. They also offered to set up an all party parliamentary group as a lobbying vehicle.

Full text of the front page, and the inside read can be found on the Sunday Times website:

Cash for access: Lords exposed

‘Make that £12,000 a month and I think we’ve got a deal’

‘Getting to see ministers is part of the package’

Three peers have been filmed revealing how they can pull strings for lobbyists in return for cash payments. Insight reports

Job swap ‘coterie’ to beat rules

In undercover meetings the peers reveal how they dodge the ban on pushing private business in parliament.

PDF versions can be found after the fold.

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Marked ‘private and confidential’

Internet cafes serve up secrets

Last week I worked on a Sunday Times investigation into data breaches at internet cafes. Three reporters checked internet cafe computers around the country to see whether confidential data had been left in the computer memories.

And how. Simply by checking the desktop, documents and ‘my pictures’ folder, we stumbled across a treasure trove of private information: scanned copies of passports, visa applications, birth certificates, legal documents; a report from the editor-in-chief of a well-known property magazine detailing its legal struggles with a “confessed reformed cocaine addict”; a fax to a resident at the Dorchester referring to ‘the hostage situation in Cameroon’ and several databases of names, addresses and private details of vulnerable individuals left by care workers or civil servants.

The chain Mailbox Etc were the worst offenders, with no log-in/out process and irregular wiping of computer memories. I found documents dating back to mid 2012 on some machines. Many small independent cafes were among the best, such as the L2K Internet Gaming Centre in Manchester, which restricted users’ access to the computer memory.

The Information Commissioner announced that it would be investigating a number of bodies for a breach of confidentiality as a result of our investigation.

Full text is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Police abandon 850,000 inquiries a year

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An article I worked on with Peter Newlands and Jon Ungoed-Thomas made the front page of the Sunday Times this weekend.

Freedom of information requests revealed more than half of police forces that responded to use a ‘screening out’ process, in which crimes are not investigated because police feel they are unlikely to be solved.

The Metropolitan Police alone abandoned more than 350,000 inquiries in 2011-12.

Among the victims affected was Marc Cutler, a public relations executive from north London, who had his Charge Plug bike stolen from railings near a flower market last year.

He said: “I spoke to the police, but they said there was not a lot they could do. They’d give me a crime report number, but they were not hopeful I’d get it back.

Cutler tracked down the stolen bike himself by scanning for advertisements on websites. He contacted the seller, a Russian man, and took two friends for the rendezovous.

At the meeting, Cutler clutched his stolen bike as his friends phone the police. Cutler said: “When the police got there, they checked the serial number and told the man he could leave the bike with me, or be arrested – he finally left. It’s a shame that they don’t take crimes like this seriously.”

Philippa Brady, an events manager who lives in London, had her bank card, camera and cash stolen during a night out at a cinema. There was CCTV footage that could have been examined, but police said a detailed investigation was not appropriate. She says she was told by an officer “There wasn’t a thing they could do.”

Full text is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

Two websites helped me speak to a number of affected cyclists whose stolen bikes were not investigated – www.stolen-bikes.co.uk and www.londoncyclist.co.uk.

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