Something spectacular happened at the hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry last week that slipped past unnoticed outside the court room. The Undercover Research Group delivered a bombshell proving that, far from going astray later, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) sexually targeted women almost from the start.
The Inquiry was looking at a batch of undercover officers from soon after the SDS was set up in 1968. The rushed routine – discussing the officers’ applications for anonymity in order to dispose the cases as too old and thus insignificant for the Inquiry – came to an unexpected halt when a piece of our research was revealed. The Chair and the legal team for the police were stunned to hear that one of the early spycops had been involved in at least two deceitful relationships.
To date, the earliest officer known to have had relationships, including fathering a child, was Bob Lambert who started in 1984. As he continued to be a supervisor and later the manager of the SDS, it was assumed he had set an example for others following him. The Gibson case proves Lambert was not the first one and shows women were sexually targeted almost from the start.
This is the story of how we got there, at the occassion of presenting:
Our profile of the undercover in question, Rick Gibson.
– Undercover Research Group, Is Mitting just paying lip service to the legacy of Pitchford? What the latest #spycops files say, 16 November 2017
Deployment cut short
‘Rick Gibson’ was the name used by the undercover SDS officer who, between 1974 and 1976, infiltrated the campaign against the British presence in Ireland, the Troops Out Movement and revolutionary socialist group Big Flame. His deployment was cut short after he was investigated by his comrades; his lack of political background had given rise to suspicions. When references given for his history and family did not check out, Big Flame discovered Gibson was using the identity of a dead child. After being confronted, the spycop disappeared.
Though the group decided not to go public with their findings, Gibson was not forgotten about. People he befriended back in the day thought they recognised him in the 2002 BBC documentary series True Spies. One of them, Richard Chessum, wrote a long letter to producer Peter Taylor asking if the spycop interviewed in disguise as ‘Brian’ was indeed the man they knew as ‘Rick Gibson’. Taylor denied it, but we know he had promised to protect the identity of his interviewees. The series was made in close cooperation with the Met, had the blessing of the Commissioner, and ended up being a nice piece of PR for the secret state.
Amidst the contemporary groundswell of interest in spycops, some of Gibson’s old friends got in touch with the Undercover Research Group earlier this year, and we started digging. The Inquiry releasing his cover name in August as part of a string of early spycops active in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided an official confirmation of what we already knew.
Piecing together Gibson’s history over the past couple of months, we discovered a lot. Chessum’s six-page letter to the BBC conveys numerous details that made a perfect match with what we know of the SDS and their tradecraft so far. The letter provided a strong base for our profile of Gibson, expanded with additional interviews with his former friends in the Troops Out Movement and Big Flame. Their memories were remarkably clear, and they have archives to back up their stories. Moreover, it felt special to find out that investigating suspicions in a thoughful way has such a long history. Some of our research was revealed to the Inquiry during the hearings last week.
Rick Gibson at the Inquiry hearings last week
Last week the new Chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, John Mitting, was set to deal with the applications for anonymity from the first batch of undercover officers. As we expected from reading the files, he tried to rush through the very first batch of spycops, the ones from soon after the SDS was established in 1968.
By half way through the second day there was a push to get through the restriction order applications so that hearings would not run into a third day. To his credit, Mitting was honest about his impatience. Just before we got to Gibson, or HN297 as he is called in the ciphers used by the Inquiry, referring to ‘the ancient history of all of this’, Mitting said:
I really do wonder why so much effort is being expended upon these very early cases because I simply can’t see they are going to tell us much about what happened in the Special Demonstration Squad, what went wrong in the Special Demonstration Squad. (Draft transcripts p.143)
The answer came almost straight after. Introducing Gibson as another officer who is deceased and whose cover name has already been released, Philippa Kaufman QC, the barrister representing the people spied upon, delivered a surprise for the Inquiry. She revealed that ‘this officer did in fact engage in at least two intimate relationships’ (N.B. altogether we’ve heard of four). This was a jaw-dropping moment for both the Chair and the extensive legal team representing the police.
Mitting agreed that this ‘puts a very different complexion on matters.’ He was quick to realise the importance of this revelation, stating that since Gibson’s deployment was so early in the life of the SDS’s activities:
HN297 is 1974 to 1976, that is probably in the period when practices started to be adopted routinely and things may have started to go wrong. (Draft transcripts p.144-145)
The new situation brings up the question of publishing Gibson’s real name. The hearings show that Mitting is currently struggling with the issue of publishing the real names of officers who had manager roles in the SDS in order to hold them to account. Added to the mix is the necessity of handling the desires of ageing officers and their family members. In the Gibson case, the basic facts to enable discussion on resolving these mutually exclusive positions had not been established yet – as it became clear.
Barrister for the Metropolitan police, Jonathan Hall QC, agreed that the new situation ‘raises quite a tricky and new area that I have not done the thinking on.’ It turned out the police had not been able to verify whether HN297 had continued his career within the SDS. Hall: ‘Our current view is that he was not a manager, although there are indications the other way.’ (Draft transcripts p.149)
Mitting, having written in his Minded To note that Gibson’s widow was an elderly lady probably best left in peace, had to admit that this was just an assumption on his behalf. The Chair revealed there is no statement from the widow at all, which makes one wonder how many other decisions are based on just his personally dreamt-up scenarios rather than facts.
‘Moral right to know’
Earlier in the hearing, the Chair made it clear that he feels an obligation to disclose real names to any women who were deceived into relationships by officers. In other words, real names should be released where ‘the conduct of an undercover officer has given rise to a moral right to know the true identity’ (draft transcripts p.6).
In the context of the Gibson case, Mitting talked about extending this ‘moral obligation’ to include ‘the public right to know’. (Draft transcripts p.147) In response to the police saying that the real issue here is the moral right to know, Mitting said it’s even more than that, namely:
It is actually understanding what happened as well, [what] caused a practice […] of forming deceitful relationships with women […]. [W]hether this is individual officers going off piste or whether it is actually a practice – is one of the things I have to try to get to the bottom of. (Draft transcripts p.149)
This might be one of the rare occasions where we totally agree with the Chair, though probably not for quite the same reasons. As we see it, all women affected have a right to know and each case should be exposed as it helps understand to what extent this was SDS strategy.
As has been argued over and over, those targeted need to know both the cover names used by the undercover officers and their real names. Not just because the women abused by spycops have a right to know, but also because the sexual abuse of citizens is part of a pattern of unaccountable cavalier behaviour that undermines legitimate political campaigns. As Kate Wilson – deceived into a relationship by undercover officer Mark Kennedy, said last week;
It is not OK for the Inquiry to create ‘deserving’ victims like abused women or the Lawrence family. The public and all those spied upon deserve the truth. Spycops’ political policing is an abuse of democracy.
The revelations about Gibson’s deceitful relationships show that the operations of the SDS went astray from the early days onwards. Furthermore, this case makes clear how important the early batch of spycops is (according to Mitting there are 19 officers from the first three years still alive. Draft transcripts p.141); while the Gibson story indicates that even the dead ones matter. Who knows what further secrets they keep?
And then this. With all of the police investigations, hundreds of officers swallowing up millions of pounds and the Inquiry following suit, it was still the Undercover Research Group operating on a shoe-string budget who delivered the vital information. Just as all of the revelations about the undercover operations have come from the diligent persistence of the people affected, one whistleblower and the help of several journalists.
What this demonstrates is that the people targeted and spied upon (the non-state core participants) need to be far more centred in the Inquiry process than they currently are. We will not get the truth, and the Inquiry will not be able to do its job, until they release the names and open the files.
Richard Chessum, who thought he recognised Gibson on the BBC documentary and who was our key source, is currently finishing his application to become a core participant at the public inquiry.
We will continue our search for the women involved.
If you think you can help us, for instance with a photo of Rick Gibson, or with the reaching out to the two female students at Goldsmith College in the early 1970s who were active in the Troops Out Movement in South East London, and two others in Big Flame in West London, please do get in touch.
- Rob Evans, How a Met police spy’s fake identity was rumbled, The Guardian, 28 November 2017