“We don’t want to stop you doing what you are doing. We’re just asking you to consider a proposal… almost a business proposal…At least you’re thinking logically. If you’re going back to school you’re going to have loans to pay off. […] wouldn’t it be nice to have tax-free money you’d be getting?” and “UK plc can afford more than 20 quid.”
These not too subtle attempts at seducing an indebted student were part of the overtures made by undercover Strathclyde police officers to Plane Stupid activist Tilly Gifford in an attempt to recruit her as a paid informant. But the anti-airport expansion group turned the tables on the covert coppers seeking to set Tilly against her comrades.
When she realised what police were trying to do, she used her mobile phone to record them. Then she fitted a recording device into her waistcoat which transmitted live feeds into a computer set up nearby. Her fellow campaigners were able to tape almost three hours of conversations with two men.
The recordings reveal the carrot-and-stick tactics used by the secret police to compromise and entrap activists so that they can monitor their activities as well as plant provocateurs in their midst. It’s not just the state that are at it either. An article in the New Statesman last year by Stephen Armstrong claimed that roughly 25% of all those attending activist camps and protests, particularly those concerned with the environment, are corporate spooks. The estimate came from the so-called “private espionage industry” itself.
Plane Stupid’s revelations have emerged on the eve of today’s publication of a government consultation document called the Interception Modernisation Programme. If implemented, the police and security services will have the power to monitor every communication we make and to store it in a vast national database. This means that all our telephone calls, text messaging, emails and internet browsing would be tracked.
The justification? Not too surprisingly, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claims the extra surveillance is needed to fight terrorism and crime. The new powers would be so sweeping that even the official data watchdog, Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said that the keeping of such records could be “highly intrusive”.
Intrusive? New Labour’s efforts to create a monster Big Brother state through a combination of informants and electronic surveillance bring to mind the tactics of some of the most repressive regimes in history. Doesn’t the following sound familiar?
“We can make use of revolutionaries living in poverty, who without renouncing their convictions agree out of necessity to hand over information.” You could be forgiven for thinking that this last sentence is drawn from the Strathclyde police guidelines for recruiting informants like their attempts with Tilly. In fact it is from the Tsarist secret police’s Directive on the Secret Service.
Over the weekend, The Guardian gave major coverage to Plane Stupid’s recordings. It described the intelligence officers’ conduct as “sinister”. But to moan that “British policing is losing its way” as its leader writer does, is to play down the evidence so courageously uncovered by Plane Stupid.
Tilly Gifford and her fellow campaigners deserve the thanks, not only of their fellow eco-activists, but all those who struggle for the right to organise and campaign politically. They have laid down a serious challenge which needs to be continued and widened.
There is indeed an urgent need for “a new settlement of Britain’s policing system”. But this must be part of the deconstruction of the entire apparatus of the unaccountable and undemocratic “state within the state” which pulls the strings in Britain. Ways in which this could be achieved are outlined in A World to Win’s book, Unmasking the State.