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Episode 3

Poison into medicine

Poison into medicine


Rob Moore says he can justify going undercover among anti-asbestos campaigners because he was following a Buddhist principle, turning poison into medicine. To this day he believes that if the people he infiltrated would really listen to his story they’d understand him differently. But does his story really stand up to scrutiny?

How we got here

At its heart, Into The Dirt is a story about one man’s motivation. When Rob Moore came into the newsroom at Tortoise over three years ago his great claim was that he’d been misunderstood and misrepresented. Yes, he’d been paid by a private intelligence agency to go undercover among anti-asbestos campaigners but there was more to it than that. He’d jumped sides, he said, and become a double agent. He’d intended to help the campaigners. He’d intended to do good.

Motivation is hard pounding for journalism. We had access to a certain amount of evidence – some documents that were made public through legal action that was taken against Rob Moore, and some recordings made at the time – but, in the end, the only way to understand what moved someone to do what they did is by talking to them. So that’s what we’ve done: hours – days – of sometimes difficult conversations spread out over more than three years, and a tale that says a lot about the world of private intelligence and perhaps even more about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the choices we’ve made.  

Why this story?

Once in a while a scandal breaks which opens up the world of private intelligence agencies, those largely-unseen outfits in Mayfair, the City of London or Manhattan which do background checks for large corporations, information-gathering if they’re going to court, and sometimes something much grubbier. 

In recent times, Exhibit A on the charge sheet against the agencies has been the Harvey Weinstein case. Weinstein deployed Black Cube, a company that sprang out of the Israeli intelligence services, to run a terrifying range of black ops against the women who accused him of sexual assault. Cue a short-lived scandal about the hidden influence and extraordinary reach of this multi-million dollar industry but no concrete measures to rein it in.

So when a man called Rob Moore walked into the Tortoise newsroom with a story to tell about his time working undercover for the corporate intelligence agency, K2, he brought with him an opportunity to understand not just the reach and influence of a company like K2 but the moral framework in which that entire industry operates. 

The case is muddy. Rob Moore has a record he wants to set straight – about being a misunderstood whistleblower who quickly came to realise that his work for K2 targeting anti-asbestos campaigners was unethical so that he became a ‘double agent’ – but it’s illuminating. The moral and ethical constraints on corporate intelligence seem almost non-existent, and Rob Moore’s claims to have tried, single-handedly, to impose some are patchy at best. 

His story is a small window onto a big world: a bigger one than we usually imagine it to be, and a more serious challenge than we often realise to how power and influence are exercised by vested interests without any real prospect of being held to account.

Illustration by Steven Gregor