Dave Vincent reviews 'Deep deception: the story of the spycop network, by the women who uncovered the shocking truth' by Helen Steel (Ebury Press, 2022, pp400, £20)
Those of us on the left who are very involved in our trade unions and/or active in protests and campaigning groups are usually aware of the dangers of police infiltration and informers. We take our chances and just get on with our activities. Few are surprised at the existence of undercover cops and will see it as the protective actions of a capitalist state fearing a revolution - and, of course, as is publicly stated by the police, ‘the need to protect the public from terrorism from the far right, extremist Islamists’ (or the far left).
But to ‘protect the public’ or even the state, are undercover cops entitled to actually engage in sexual relationships with women in order to infiltrate a campaigning group without disclosing they are policemen? Is that legitimate in a supposedly democratic free society?
This book poses the question - who protects us from undercover police? What rights do we have from their infiltration? What redress is there for the impact of their deceptions? The book details the shocking realisation that these intimate, often long running relationships were all based on a lie and it details the efforts it took to prove the men were undercover police, to get the Metropolitan Police to admit this, and to obtain legal redress.
The book explains that in 1968 a shadowy police unit was established in Britain - the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) - to spy on protestors in mainly leftwing and progressive groups. This unit, along with its successor - the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, formed in 1999 - targeted those who took protest action against the status quo.
The main author is Helen Steel and what drove her on, despite constant obstacles and brick walls, was the need to expose this practice and, more importantly, ensure it never happens again. What a battle this proved to be. Readers may recognise Helen as one of the ‘McLibel Two’ - the environment activists targeted by McDonald’s Corporation in a libel case in 1997. The legal steps of that campaign are outlined here, as is her long relationship with an undercover cop, during this battle and after. Helen certainly is Steel by name, steel by nature, but she was left traumatised to this day by what happened to her.
Many more women have been affected by this style of infiltration - a “deep deception” indeed - than those who tell their stories in this book. As well as Helen Steel, the other four prepared to pursue action against the police are identified only by their first names: Alison, Belinda, Lisa and Naomi.
Each of these five women tells her story - in chronological order, but alternating paragraphs; not separate chapters for each. Some of the experiences overlap, so it is interesting to see the perspectives of each, where they are affected by the same cops and events. They certainly needed each other in view of what they all went through.
What all the spycops had in common were cover jobs that conveniently, allowed them to be away from what, in reality, was their second home for days or a week at a time - without incurring too much suspicion, so long as they wrote regularly or phoned. They all had sad (made-up) stories to inculcate sympathy from the women - and to avoid them meeting up with their family, etc. As Helen explains, a man joining a campaign group who was clearly in a relationship with a key woman activist was quickly accepted.
As Lisa states regarding undercover officer Mark Stone in her report of the Gleneagles G8 protest in July 2005,
Mark had played a crucial role in the demonstration at the G8 summit. He hired and organised a fleet of minibuses: he was logistics manager for the protestors and had earned himself a new nickname - ‘Transport Mark’ (p185).
At the Calderdale TUC public meeting to launch Helen’s book, which I attended, she explained that undercover officers frequently offered to give people lifts home in their van, soon getting to know everyone’s name (and where they lived). They also seemed to drop off the woman they were interested in last, so they could get talking.
In the book Helen pondered why she fell so readily for undercover officer John Barker and later realised it was because he, like the others, behaved like ‘perfect men’ - very attentive and complimentary, ready to share social as well as political activities and holidays together, ready to commit to moving in with their new partner. This was a common method, as all the women recognised when they compared experiences later.
The book explains the suspicions that developed and were eventually confirmed (in one case it was discovered that an undercover officer was using the name of a boy who had died at the age of 8, in order to get a copy of his birth certificate to back up his lies.)
Imagine the horror of realising that what has seemed like an intimate, loving relationship had been a sham. They would never have entered into such sexual relationships, had they known who he was, so was this really consensual sex? No wonder that, after discovering this appalling deception (some even had children as a result), the women began to wonder if anyone around them could be trusted. This affected their lives for years to come. As Alison comments regarding undercover officer Mark Cassidy,
By now I’d had to reframe everything I’d believed about my supposedly monogamous relationship with Mark. I’d learnt he’d been married with three young children throughout our five years together (p321).
In fact these officers also lied to their real wives and children about their double lives and undercover sexual behaviour. They are all victims too.
It took years to get the evidence and then legal backing to challenge the police. The women wanted it proved that these relationships constituted sexual abuse and were examples of institutionalised sexism. They wanted to establish that such abuse was officially approved and was not, as the police initially maintained, all down to a few bad apples acting without their superiors’ knowledge. The police were totally obstructive throughout: they wanted an inquiry instead of a court case; then they wanted hearings in private, not open court.
Sir Keir Starmer gets a few mentions. In September 1990 he stated that he was based at Doughty Street Chambers - a recently established group of radical lawyers. He offered to help the McLibel Two draft their defence in 1997. But by December 2011 he was defending the Crown Prosecution Service - he is quoted defending a report suggesting there was no institutional problem (the CPS had been accused of suppressing evidence).
As the Weekly Worker has often shown, there are numerous examples of those with a radical past becoming pillars of the establishment - 10 more years later, he is leader of the Labour Party!
We are informed following a hearing in June 2014:
Inside the courtroom the police refused to even say whether they considered undercover officers deceiving women into intimate relationships to be a legitimate tactic or not. The judge lost patience with their evasion (p324).
However, the police eventually sought a settlement with three of the women. This was an attempt to undermine the more determined efforts of Helen and Alison to establish a public finding of police wrongdoing.
The book helped explain to me why the media portray cases settled out of court in a way that suggests the claimants are only after the money and have been bribed to settle and shut up evermore. The truth is that, if a defendant offers a settlement likely to be the same as or more generous than what will be obtained through court proceedings, you are strongly pushed by the lawyers to take it or risk losing the case altogether, thus facing huge court costs. Read the book on how the women faced all this.
The police eventually made a fulsome public apology using the words Helen demanded.
But (not covered in this book) infiltration also happens in trade unions: they join the dominant faction, stand on its slate for election to its national executive committee. Such a person is in an ideal position to see and note who the leading militants are on the leadership, see inside reports ‘restricted to NEC members’ on matters such as branch turnouts in industrial action ballots and local membership levels - in order to assess which branches are the particular union’s strongest and weakest. Such positions also allow maximum notice of industrial action plans and dates, and where action is targeted.
Most of us know that the National Union of Mineworkers was infiltrated in the 1980s, which provided very useful information to the police about flying pickets and so on during the 1984-85 strike. And don’t forget all that phone tapping, of course.
Reading the book, it can be seen what a colossal amount of time was expended by these undercover spycops in various campaigning groups. They did not seem to be trying openly to stop particular actions - some were even at the centre of organising actions. Perhaps their mission was to get names, advanced details, so planned disruption could be minimised.
The book explains that the undercover officers even engaged in acts of minor criminality in order to retain credibility with the campaigning group! Sometimes they would get arrested during an action, then get released without charge. However, going to the length of forming long-term sexual relationships with women to get inside information, hiding the fact some are already married with kids - all this will be seen as completely unacceptable to most people. But the women feared not being believed when they considered what to do about this “deep deception”.
Has past court action and media coverage stopped the tactic of undercover officers sleeping with women in a campaign to get inside information from a group? Will this book help in that process? Well, how will we know? Few people have the drive and steel of a Helen to get to the truth and then force it to be admitted publicly.
The answer, I think, is not to defund the police: it is to make them far more accountable. Having ‘citizen police’ will raise the same questions of who is to be monitored and how - and what would be the consequences of no monitoring, the next time a terrorist bomb explodes? Who will check who is suitable to be a citizen police officer or volunteer? What powers and equipment will they have? What will constitute a crime and which will be a priority?
As a citizen I want the freedom of speech and action to protest against government actions. Were I in the police in a socialist state, I would want to know what various groups are about and what they are up to (and we all know that the so-called ‘communist states’ - even Russia in 1917 - had secret police and armies of informers.)
Helen herself should have the last word on all this. Despite the trauma she had gone through, she urged us at the Calderdale meeting not to be put off campaigning activity - nor to become paranoid. The answer to spycops is for people to join movements in such numbers that the police cannot stop us!