Is it possible to hold secret policing to account?

Will McMahon
Friday, 27 October 2017

For decades, one of the most powerful organisations in our society, the London Metropolitan Police, carried out secret policing operations against a wide range of political and trade union activists.

Hundreds of police officers assumed fake identities, some by adopting the names of dead children, and built relationships with political campaigners to infiltrate social justice movements and report back to senior officers what they discovered.

After these operations came to light largely due the efforts of activists themselves, the government acceded to a judge-led investigation it titled the ‘Undercover Policing Inquiry’. The title itself is misleading. It is not a public inquiry into undercover policing in the round but one focused on the secret policing of political protest movements.

Many would not challenge the necessity of undercover policing operations targeting those trafficking human beings or child sexual abuse rings, but few would think the secret policing of someone writing a leaflet opposing the McDonald’s burger chain necessary. The confusion of undercover policing in general, with secret policing of political campaigning in particular, serves only to strengthen the impression those under observation may have been, in some way, a threat to the country and its citizens. It serves to legitimise the very operations which are supposed to be under investigation.

The Centre's latest briefing, published earlier this week, foregrounds the voices of those subject to secret political policing. It left me with a profoundly uncomfortable feeling about the nature of the country I grew up in and the contemporary democracy we all inhabit.

The operations took place across four decades without anyone in a position of power or authority taking the view that there was something seriously wrong about such practices, and if they did, not thinking it appropriate to bring it to public attention. That task was left to activists themselves.

Despite being otherwise instructed, police officers shredded records in what has been described as a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence pertaining to the secret policing of Jenny Jones, an elected member of the Greater London Assembly. It stretches credibility to believe that the files of other elected officials have not met a similar fate. Many files on activists that have been released have only a few pages present or are so heavily redacted as to reveal almost nothing.

At the same time, the cloak of legality has been utilised to ensure that which had been done in secret remains a secret. Settlements have been made out of court with gagging clauses, trials have been abandoned where detail of secret operations may have emerged and there have been threats of legal action against whistleblowers.

This state of affairs also presents the disturbing possibility that non-state core participants could still be subject to undercover operations. The inequality of arms is self-evident.

Are we just seeing the tips of two icebergs?  The first, the sheer size and scope of the undercover operations that have taken place in the past and are currently in operation. With hundreds of police officers involved over almost half a century, the 180 activists thus far recognised by the inquiry can only represent a small percentage of those subject to surveillance.

Second, the tip of an organised resistance by the police bureaucracy to the forms of transparency required for the inquiry to fulfil its proper purpose. Once the possibility of a judge-led inquiry came into view, there have been attempts to delay, disrupt and ultimately prevent the emergence of evidence that might contribute to the process of drawing meaningful conclusions.  As a result, the first witnesses will be now heard in 2019, more than five years after the inquiry was announced and a year after the inquiry was originally scheduled to complete.

In such circumstances, some, who argue there is a genuine rationale for such operations, may begin to wonder whether it will prove possible to hold the secret policing of political campaigners to account. For others, this will demonstrate secret policing of political campaigners fundamentally compromises the democracy we share and as such should not take place at all.