Encounters at the Crossroads of the Inquiry into Undercover Policing
The Inquiry Into Undercover Policing Strategic Review (SR) draws a distinction between “past events” connected with covert policing operations (SR, 2018: ii.) and the question of “how undercover policing should be conducted in future” (SR, 2018: 18). One important marker of the distinction is that whilst the Chair of the Inquiry alone will oversee evidence and draw conclusions in relation to the former, a “wider panel” will be “recruited...to make recommendations to the Home Secretary” (SR, 2018: vi.) in connection with the latter. I will not be the first to question the tenability of the distinction. Future possibilities cannot but be determined by narratives of the past. The scope of the Inquiry Panel’s work in relation to module three’s exploration of the future of undercover policing is already constrained by the Inquiry’s current stage in which the Chair is making decisions on anonymity applications. When decisions are made which enable former Special Demonstration Squad officers or National Public Order Intelligence Unit officers to give evidence to the Inquiry under a cypher, or to give that evidence partly in closed session, a structure for considering both the past and future of undercover policing is erected within which only certain types of narrative can be comfortably supported.
Two recent developments, brought about by non-state core participants, have the potential to destabilise the emerging narrative structure. The first is the meeting held on 17 May 2018 between the Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Mitting, and Sukhdev Reel, her family and her legal and other representatives (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 7). Certain undertakings were made as regards disclosure of documents held by the Inquiry in relation to the Reel’s campaign for justice (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 7/8). However, the wider significance of the meeting is that it appears to have influenced the Chair to reverse a position which had been settled with the first Inquiry Chair (Sir Christopher Pitchford), as far back as 2015, not to meet with state or non-state core participants in private (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 5/6). That the need to be “seen to be impartial” (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 5) has now been superseded in the mind of the current Inquiry Chair by the desirability to better “understand the views” (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 8) of core participants is a potentially transformative shift, which, to my mind, has not received the attention it deserves.
The second development is the entry into the field of the handmade cosmetics chain, LUSH-at the request of the organisation named Police Spies Out of Lives. LUSH’s ongoing, high-profile campaign is likely to encourage further revelations about undercover policing deployments. This cannot be seen other than in a positive light, since many non-state core participants and their legal representatives have felt that the anonymity applications process has frustrated attempts to identify political activists who may have valuable evidence to give to the Inquiry. In this regard it should be noted that there is no deadline by which new evidence is to be received. At the last open hearing of the Inquiry, the Chair dismissed as “not sensible” a request from counsel representing state core participants to set a time-limit for the admission of late evidence of “serious wrongdoing in relation to particular cover names” (Transcript: 18.5.2018: 69). In the view of the Chair, “it is inevitable in an inquiry of this kind, over many years and into many incidents, that late evidence will emerge, or if you prefer it, late allegations will emerge” (Transcript: 69).
So, the Reel campaign meeting of 17 May 2018 may be just the kind of intervention that serves the public interest by bringing about a position in which the Chair of the Inquiry increasingly feels he can reach to non-state core participants for “assistance” (Transcript, 18.5.2018: 8). On the other hand, it could simply lend countenance to what many have observed to be the Chair’s leanings toward private meetings and closed hearings. LUSH may well serve the public interest by facilitating the emergence of new evidence from non-state witnesses. On the other hand, it could just as easily be co-opted in the service of a narrative that seeks to reduce the entire problem of undercover policing to the misconduct of a relatively small number of sexual predators.
LUSH’s resources are vast compared to those of the Reel family justice campaign. Moreover, unlike the Reel family, its interests are not directly affected by undercover policing activities. LUSH has now placed itself in a position where the wider public is entitled to demand of it as much accountability as it demands of the Inquiry Chair. There is a single strategy that will allow LUSH at once to capitalise on the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls of its decision to include the undercover policing Inquiry in its list of ethical causes. Such a strategy will entail extending its powerful podcast of stories about “people who unknowingly developed intimate and long-term relationships with undercover police” (LUSH Podcasts), so that the engaged public can hear testimony from other victims of covert policing, including the testimonies of politicians who were targeted for surveillance; of black-listed trade unionists and of activists who witnessed police officers committing serious crimes. Above all, LUSH urgently needs to facilitate the wider public dissemination of testimonies of parents whose campaigns for the truth surrounding their child’s unexplained death or murder were infiltrated by undercover police – thereby demonstrating to the public its understanding that institutional racism as well as institutional sexism lies at the heart of the spycops scandal.
Inquiry into Undercover Policing Strategic Review, May 2018
Draft transcript of hearing held on 18.5. 2018.
LUSH website podcasts, Spycops Scandal: Why police spying on campaigning citizens should be exposed