The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.

Contact

Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton

Email: r.schlembach@brighton.ac.uk

Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author

Primodos: The next steps towards Justice

Primodos: Sharon Hartles critically examines the journey so far towards the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations set out in the landmark publication of the Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review First Do No Harm report in July 2020.

Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from the Open University in December 2019 and is a member of the British Society of Criminology (BSC). She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime. Sharon draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the ways in which crime and harm are produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.

Wednesday 8th July 2020, marked the publication of the final report by the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, which was commissioned to examine the harmful effects of three treatments: Primodos, an oral hormone pregnancy test that caused birth defects;  sodium valproate , an epilepsy drug that also causes birth defects, and surgical mesh, a treatment for incontinence that causes chronic debilitating pain. Primodos was the most widely prescribed ‘hormone pregnancy test’ in the UK (and around the world) in the 1960s and 1970s until it was taken off the market in 1978.  First Do No Harm found that avoidable harm was caused because the UK Government and the Healthcare system failed in their duty to protect patients and regulate Primodos.

For the Primodos-affected members of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, a lobby group, the findings and recommendations offered recognition ‘that hundreds of families have been wronged.’ Recommendation 1 of First Do No Harm was fulfilled when Matt Hancock apologised for the avoidable harm caused to those who suffered. However, after this welcomed and prompt first step towards justice, the next steps – the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations – have been fraught with resistance. 

Baroness Julia Cumberlege, a life peer who chaired the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, explicitly championed the need for the recommendations set out in First Do No Harm to be implemented with determination and urgency. Despite this, it has now been more than three months since the report was published, which may not seem like much time within the political agenda, and given the preoccupations with Covid and Brexit, but England is lagging behind Scotland. At a 9th July 2020, press conference, Julia Cumberlege raised concerns about the importance of implementing the report’s recommendations and the significance of not leaving it to “sit on a shelf and gather dust”. 

Yet, two months later, amid rumours the report was going to be buried, during a Parliamentary debate which took place on 2nd September 2020, the Baroness requested assurances from Ministers that the recommendations would be implemented. On the same date, MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests, Yasmin Qureshi, took a different approach. Namely, she accused Government Ministers of hiding behind irrelevant “legal action, which has no bearing on this reports findings” to ignore their duty to implement First Do No Harm recommendations a point which she had previously voiced in a letter to Matt Hancock on 15th July 2020.

To its credit the Scottish Government has led the way; and on 1st September 2020, First Scottish Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that Holyrood had accepted, in full, the recommendations of Baroness Cumberlege and would be appointing a Scottish Patient Safety Commissioner, “the emphasis of this new role is on the patient voice within the safety system.”  Moreover, on 13th September 2020, Andrew Davies, Shadow Minister for Health announced that a Welsh Conservative-led government would appoint ‘an independent patient safety commissioner in Wales.’ Currently, First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Labour-led government Mark Drakeford has not made any announcements regarding intentions towards the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner.  

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings have had wider reaching ramifications. Primodos, a drug marketed by the West German pharmaceutical company Schering AG, was marketed in West Germany until 1981 as Duogynon. On 16th September 2020 the German Federal Ministry of Health announced it would be launching a review into whether or not the relationship between the regulator then the Federal Health Office today known as the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices  and the manufacturer then Schering AG, now Bayer AG led to ‘the drug remaining on the market despite concerns about its safety.’ 

In an article by Jason Farrell, Home Editor at Sky News, published on 19th September 2020, he noted ‘The German government has been reluctant to look into the issue and campaigners in Germany were relying on a breakthrough in the UK. That came after an independent review in Britain found in July that government health regulators had failed patients and that Primodos was responsible for “avoidable harm”.’ Although Jens Spahn German Federal Minster for Health, confirmed a research project into possible collusions between the German regulatory authority and the manufacturer; he also made it clear that “all the known findings and the scientific evidence do not currently support a causal link” between the hormone pregnancy test and birth defects.

Marie Lyon, chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, met with the German Health Committee and MPs in March 2019 to present analyses from Oxford University scientists Carl Heneghan and Jeffrey Aronson. Based on the research conclusions she discussed a possible review of Primodos and Duogynon and its association with ‘increased risks of congenital malformations.’ The subsequent pressure from German politicians calling for a review, together with First Do No Harm findings played an instrumental part in sparking the German investigation into the Duogynon scandal. For Marie Lyon, who has been working with the Duogynon Network, an association for members affected by Duogynon, since 2012, the announcement came as “a huge step forward for the German campaign group and one we thought we would never see happen”.

Back in the UK, in a bid to ensure that First Do No Harm is not ignored, six leaders of political parties: Sir Ed Davey, Ian Blackford, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Caroline Lucas, Liz Saville-Roberts and Colum Eastwood signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 16th October 2020 urging him to ‘instruct the Department of Health to implement the findings of the Cumberlege Review’. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests on 28th October 2020, Sir Keir Starmer added his signature of support, a notable action, because all seven opposition party leaders have presented a united front in calling on Boris Johnson to implement the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review recommendations “in full and without delay.”

The UK government failed in its duty to regulate Primodos. The health care system failed in its duty to protect patients.  These failures resulted in avoidable harms spanning decades. For Primodos survivors these alleged life changing harms include: cardiac malformations, musculoskeletal, neurological, neurogenetical malformations, miscarriage and stillbirth. However, it was not the role of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review to determine whether or not there was ‘a causal association between HPT use and physical malformations’. Therefore the review findings have not laid to rest scientific debate around the contested harmful nature of this synthetic sex hormone. And so there are still open questions regarding claims about the effects caused.

What is significant, is that Recommendation 4 of First Do No Harm states ‘The state and manufacturers have a moral responsibility to provide ex gratia payments to those who have experienced avoidable damage from the interventions we have reviewed.’  First Do No Harm may not have determined a causal association but recommendation 4 suggests that the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings are a long way from establishing harmlessness.

Now is not the time for the Government to unnecessarily prolong further suffering. It is time for these survivors of Primodos (and of sodium valproate and surgical mesh) to get the recognition and justice they so rightly deserve. In line with Recommendation 2, the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner who will champion the patients’ voices and perspectives is long overdue. Furthermore, in accordance with Recommendation 9, action must be taken immediately to set up a task force in order to schedule a timetable for the implementation of the remaining recommendations as set out on 8th July 2020 by First Do No Harm.

To find out more about the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests (ACDHPT) campaign and keep up to date with news, visit primodos.org. In addition, there are a number of ways you can support the campaign:

This article was originally published by the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative on November 10, 2020 at:

http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/blog/primodos-next-steps-towards-justice

Contact

Sharon Hartles   

Email: sh28739@ou.ac.uk

Twitter: @shartles1

Images: Courtesy of author and CC BY-SA 3.0 Attribution: Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/

Crime Fiction or Criminological Fiction?

Explaining the aetiological value of crime fiction for criminology across cinematic, literary, and hybrid modes of representation.

R McGregor

Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University, specialising in the intersection of critical criminology with philosophical aesthetics.   A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is due for publication by Bristol University Press in January 2021.

 

According to OfCom, average television viewing time increased by a third during the COVID-19 lockdown (from March to June, 2020), with almost a fifth of the UK’s population signing up for a streaming service for the first time, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ being the most popular choices.  Similarly, the Guardian reports that almost everyone who was reading before lockdown read more during lockdown, with many doubling their reading hours.  The most popular books in the UK were from the crime fiction genre (mysteries and thrillers) and four of the five most popular Netflix shows followed suit: Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, and Killing Eve (the other was Game of Thrones, in third place).

Did we learn anything about crime from all that fiction?  My answer, which goes against the grain of both received wisdom and social scientific practice, is ‘yes’.  What I find particularly interesting about this question is that it would not even have been asked until relatively recently.  For more than two millennia European audiences accepted that fiction – most commonly theatre and poetry – communicated knowledge in a pleasurable way, but the combination of the rise of positivism and the differentiation of fiction into its literary and popular forms in the nineteenth century changed perceptions of the purpose of fiction (as well as art more generally), severing the representation from the reality.  Contemporary fiction is for fun, for the reasons cited by those who read more during lockdown: enjoyment, entertainment, and escapism.  I wrote A Criminology of Narrative Fiction as a reminder that fiction is not just for pleasure, but an important source of insight and data that readers, audiences, and academics often ignore.

My claim in the book is that complex narrative fictions – feature films, television series, novels, and graphic novels – communicate criminological knowledge and by criminological knowledge I mean knowledge about the causes of crime and social harm.  While fiction often misleads and misinforms, documentaries and reports can also be unreliable and all source material should be subject to verification and corroboration prior to its inclusion in a research project.  If we select our fictions carefully, then there are at least three types of criminological knowledge we can gain from them: phenomenological, counterfactual, and mimetic.

Phenomenological knowledge is knowledge of what a specific lived experience is like.  Fictions are especially good at communicating this type of knowledge because of the way narrative form and narrative content are combined to represent actions from a particular point of view and to create patterns of meaning.  Counterfactual knowledge is knowledge of reality that is provided by the exploration of alternatives to that reality.  Fictions are essentially (rather than accidentally) counterfactual, adapting and adjusting historical and contemporary reality to produce test cases.  Mimetic knowledge is knowledge of everyday reality that is detailed and accurate.  This type of knowledge is usually associated with documentary rather than fiction, but fictions can provide access to people, places, and events that cannot be documented for safety, legal, or ethical reasons.

So how does it actually work?  How do stories about fictional characters, settings, and actions provide knowledge about real people, places, and events?  The core idea, which originated in Ancient Greece, is that where documentaries represent particular people, places, and events fictions represent types of people, places, and events (called universals).  The best way of explaining this is an actual example and my final fictional analysis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is Martin Scorsese’s 2006 feature film, The Departed.  The protagonist is Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fictional particular that instantiates the universal of ‘an undercover Massachusetts police officer’ or just ‘an undercover police officer’.  The late Nicole Rafter wrote a great blog post on the film from a cultural criminological perspective, exploring the knowledge its production and reception provided about post-9/11 America.  My interest is more direct, in the knowledge the narrative fiction itself provides about the causes of crime and social harm.

First, The Departed provides mimetic knowledge of how necessary levels of secrecy and unnecessary levels of interdepartmental rivalry create chaos in undercover operations.  I use a historical example from my previous research to show that fact is often more fantastic than fiction, the unsolved murder of Anton Lubowski during the last-ditch defence of apartheid by the Civil Cooperation Bureau in Namibia in 1989.  Second, the film provides phenomenological knowledge of the lived experience of working as an undercover police officer.  Third, it provides counterfactual knowledge of the threat posed by agents of organised crime in and to policing, a theme that is also explored in Line of Duty.  As such, The Departed has aetiological value in virtue of the mimetic, phenomenological, and counterfactual knowledge it provides.  This criminological knowledge consists of data that explains the problems with undercover policing and the vulnerability of the police to organised criminal enterprises.  Like that from more conventional sources, this data could be used to improve police policy, procedure, and practice.

The process is of course much more complicated than I have described, but it should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in crime and social harm.  Understanding that there is truth in fiction would allow readers and audiences to realise that they have in many cases gained genuine insight from spending time with their favourite fictions.  For academics, narrative fictions are useful in at least two ways: as the pedagogical or methodological tools that Jon Frauley, Michelle Brown, and others have suggested; and as overlooked sources of data of the perpetration, collaboration in, and facilitation of crime and social harm, which is my thesis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction.

I am not suggesting that the knowledge conveyed by fictional narratives is more – or even as – valuable as the knowledge conveyed by non-fictional narratives or discursive texts.  Such a claim would be both obviously false and highly irresponsible.  What I am suggesting is that some fictional narratives can provide sources of data for criminological research and that the practice of fiction is thus deserving of more attention than it currently receives within the discipline.  In other words, one could characterise my argument as an attempt to show that Frauley, Brown, and others have not gone far enough in their criminological engagements with fiction and that fictions have criminological value beyond their pedagogic and methodological values.

Contact

Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University

Email: mcgregor@edgehill.ac.uk

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rafe_Mcgregor

 

Images: courtesy of the author