Follow the money. The eternal phrase whispered by Hal Holbrook's 'Deep Throat' in All The President's Men is the basis for investigations the world over.
Learning to use Companies House, where every company in the UK must register their details by law, is "as essential today as shorthand or knowing how to work your iPhone in the field", said Robert Miller of The Times at the recent summer conference from the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
He and veteran investigative journalist Martin Tomkinson have used Companies House in stories for most of their careers, and as the civil service slowly opens up the database for free, Tomkinson gave a guide to how journalists should approach the information available.
There are three online ways to search for information at Companies House: the WebCHeck service, which can be accessed for free but usually involves a per-document download charge; the subscription-based Direct service; or the free detailed search, which is currently in beta.You can use Companies House to build up a picture of an individual's business historyMartin Tomkinson, investigative financial journalist
The search option does almost everything WebCHeck provides in a simpler format and entirely for free – featuring basic company information, past and previous officers of the board, any charges or mortgage data on the company and an extensive filing history including accounts, annual returns and statements of capital.
So how is this useful?
For one, all companies are required to submit their annual accounts on the same date each year, chosen when the company is registered with Companies House.
Obviously being one of the first to know when company accounts are filed can mean a head start on a story, but knowing if they have not been filed could be even more newsworthy.
"A day or so overdue is unimportant," said Tomkinson, "but if they are overdue by a longish period that can – and often does – mean there's a problem with the company."
Despite a high-profile TV career and empire of millions, Gordon Ramsay has incurred fines and threats of court from Companies House on more than one occasion for the late filing of accounts from his Gordon Ramsay Holdings Ltd, and the press have reported the facts accordingly.
Companies House has a monitoring service for keeping an eye on selected companies, pinging users with email notifications whenever chosen documents are filed. This is still only available through the WebCHeck service, however, as is the ability to search for dissolved companies.
One of the most useful functions is looking at the people involved in particular businesses – the officers of the company or companies in question.
"You can use Companies House to build up a picture of an individual's business history," Tomkinson said, "and nearly always, in my experience, the further back it goes the more interesting it becomes..."
When Alexandre Gaydamak invested £15 million in Portsmouth Football Club in 2006, Tomkinson and Miller decided to do some digging. Knowing he was the son of a Russian business magnate, they found the then-29-year-old had some substantial outstanding debts on previous companies registered in the UK – one of which he became a director of at the age of 21.
This led to a string of scoops on the subject, but Tomkinson was keen to impress that the stories came in the digging and were not presented easily by the data.
Signing up for the Companies House Direct service is a worthwhile expense at only £4 per month allowing users to search by officer – how Tomkinson got the Gaydamak story – and get detailed mortgage information on company debts.
Granted, these features will be rolled out to the free service eventually, but at present Companies House has no timetable for the expansion beyond monthly reviews and updates.
Screenshot from CompaniesHouse.gov.uk showing the free features currently available
All documents on the open service are available for free, but if you can’t find something it is worth searching on WebCHeck to see if it's available there. Documents on WebCHeck and Direct cost £1 to download, no matter their size, and the Direct service holds all the digitised documents available through Companies House.
A word of warning, however: the digital nature of the new system means there is a "significant fraud risk" in terms of fake names on documents, said Tomkinson. Unlike when company registration would be done in person by hand, people can now register online, and the more free and open system is also more open to abuse, particularly when it comes to registered names of officers.
It is rare that information from Companies House will make a full story though, said Miller. The data amounts to "little nuggets of information" that are like pieces in the puzzle. They won't be all the pieces, but they just might be enough to help understand what else is missing, and create a trail to the heart of the story.
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