Lies, Spies and Custard Pies
WELL-KNOWN comic Mark Thomas is among a group of journalists who are taking the Metropolitan Police to court for spying on them in the name of national "security". This makes a change from the things we heard about police officers allegedly turning a blind eye to illegal activities by hacks working for the Murdoch press with whom they swapped information. It also contrasts with the way intelligence services have used some newspapers with whom they could plant stories for public disimformation.
But the six who say they were spied on by police are independent, or relatively independent, journos, who dedicated themselves to uncovering wrongdoing by the rich and powerful, rather than doing their dirty work.
Mark Thomas made his name and his Channel 4 show The Mark Thomas Comedy Product changed its name to simply The Mark Thomas Product, after he investigated the practice of avoiding inheritance tax by declaring art, furniture, homes and land available for public viewing. He went after Tory politician Nicholas Soames, who eventually paid the tax, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown changed the law. But Channel Four decided Thomas was going too far when he wanted to take up corporate accountability and corporate manslaughter law.
We might see a connection here with industrial snooping and blacklisting. Many building workers, for instance, found their names had been added to blacklists after they protested over risky conditions at work or became safety reps. Recently the Blacklist Support Campaign (BSC) has been asking how much information on workers was passed on by police, and why its own activities, rather than those of unscrupulous employers or blacklisters, have been monitored by the police.
Ironically, much of the police snooping on journalists and campaigners like Mark Thomas, as well as the BSC, appears to have been carried out by the Metropolitan Police 'National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit' (NDEDIU), whose supposed purpose is to monitor and police so called 'domestic extremism'. The background used to step up such surveillance has been fear of violence and terrorism.
Far from engaging in such activities, those targeted can honestly claim to have exposed the forces behind them. Mark Thomas adopted various guises to visit arms fairs and show how dealers in torture and death were not too fussy about their customers. The parliamentary committee which oversees weapons exports, the House of Commons Quadripartite Select Committee, commended him for his undercover work, which led to official warning letters being issued to a number of companies. His work in this area is covered in As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade, a book chronicling his experiences undercover, his political activism and his projects designed to find and report loopholes in arms trading laws, which culminated in a controversial un-broadcast Newsnight report about the Hinduja brothers.
Just as environmental and other campaigns were infiltrated by spies and provocateurs, including policemen who befriended and slept with women activists, so the campaign against the arms trade was infiltrated. Mark Thomas made this the material for his Edinburgh fringe show this year
For years, Martin appeared to work tirelessly for Campaign Against Arms Trade. He was warm, funny and apparently loyal. He was a good friend, turning up at the police station after Thomas's first arrest for activism. He was so loved that he was asked to be godparent to one activist's child. But he was being paid to spy on the group by BAE Systems, Britain's largest arms manufacturer. Who could ever have imagined it? This was a man who put a custard pie in the face of the former BAE head honcho, Richard Evans. A spy wouldn't do that, would he?
In a statement released last week the National Union of Journalists says six of its members have discovered that their lawful journalistic and union activities are being monitored and recorded by the Metropolitan Police. They are now taking legal action against the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Home Secretary to challenge this ongoing police surveillance.
The NUJ members involved in the legal challenge include Jules Mattsson, Mark Thomas, Jason Parkinson, Jess Hurd, David Hoffman and Adrian Arbib.
All of them have worked on media reports that have exposed corporate and state misconduct and they have each also previously pursued litigation or complaints arising from police misconduct. In many of those cases, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has been forced to pay damages, apologise and admit liability to them after their journalistic rights were curtailed by his officers at public events.
The surveillance was revealed as part of an ongoing campaign, which began in 2008, during which NUJ members have been encouraged to obtain data held about them by the authorities including the Metropolitan Police 'National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit' (NDEDIU).
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
"It is outrageous that the police are using their resources and wide-ranging powers to put journalists under surveillance and to compile information about their movements and work on secret databases. There is no justification for treating journalists as criminals or enemies of the state, and it raises serious questions for our democracy when the NUJ is forced to launch a legal challenge to compel the police to reveal the secret evidence they have collected about media workers.
"The union will continue to give its full support to the members involved in the case and we are committed to putting a stop to this unacceptable state interference and monitoring that labels our members as domestic extremists."
Mark Thomas said:
"In my view, the police surveillance and the collation of data on journalists point to a police spying culture that is out of control and without proper oversight.
"The fact that none of the journalists are suspected of criminality but all of them cover stories of police and corporate wrong doing hints at something more sinister, that the police seem to be spying on those who seek to hold them to account.
"The inclusion of journalists on the domestic extremist data base seems to be a part of a disturbing police spying network, from the Stephen Lawrence family campaign to Hillsborough families, from undercover officers' relationships with women to the role of the police in the construction blacklist.
"Personally my entries relate to a network of collaborations, the police appear to be in contact with private security firms to collect data on myself, as well as (bizarrely) an employee at the Open University.
"This legal action is part of a process to try and hold the police to account."
Freelance photographer Jess Hurd, some of whose moving human interest work was exhibited at a gallery near me, said:
"I have faced intimidation, surveillance and on occasion violence, from the police all my professional life. It should not be the case that I sometimes fear going to work. The very creation of a 'domestic extremist' database which stores details on innocent people feels like state intimidation.Jason N. Parkinson, freelance video journalist, said:
"Either the police do not like the journalistic work that we do or the trade union and press freedom campaigns we have been involved in, either way this is no justification for targeted state surveillance and squandered tax payers money."
"My file is 12 pages long and holds around 140 separate surveillance logs spanning nearly a decade. The files make it very clear they have been monitoring my movements, with whom I associate and even what clothing I wear, in order for police intelligence units to build up a profile of me and my network of associates and contacts.
"The files also show signs that my social media and internet activities have been monitored. They also logged that I was asked to give a speech at a conference in 2011, which ironically was about police surveillance.
"Some of the most worrying logs have been of my activities away from work. In July 2008, an officer spotted me, 'on Forty Lane Wembley NW9 on his bicycle'. For no reason at all, there appears to have been a search of voter registration records and the CRIS database, where information on witnesses and victims of crime are held.
"This pulled up my previous address, my current address and the name of my ex-partner, who, it appears, was then checked for a criminal record on the Police National Computer. Another log noted my visit to a supermarket and recorded my vehicle registration number.
"The disclosure of my domestic extremist files seem to show what I had suspected for the last eight years, the police have been keeping journalists that cover political protest under surveillance and it is not merely an intimidation tactic that should be ignored, as some have suggested in the past.
Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary, said:
"There is growing concern that the authorities are using surveillance against union members, journalists and campaigners. Political policing has no place in a democratic society, it threatens press freedom and any unjustified conduct must stop.
"I fully support the NUJ members in their campaign to know what information is being held about them in secret. We must expose and challenge wrongdoing wherever it exists and act against those who undermine the rights of journalists, union members and everyone who supports an open, transparent and democratic society."