Nothing personal, it’s a political right to know #spycops’ names

Eveline Lubbers, Undercover Research Group, 10 February 2018.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry will reveal the real name of ‘Rick Gibson’, the undercover police officer who infiltrated the Troops Out Campaign and socialist group Big Flame 1974 – 1976. Gibson’s anonymity order was one of seven discussed at the Inquiry’s hearing last Monday at the Royal Court of Justice in London.

The worrying thing is that the Chair of the Inquiry, John Mitting, will only disclose it to ‘Mary’ – a woman the officer deceived into a relationship whilst undercover. Last month she came forward and issued a powerful statement asking for him to be named.

In doing so, Mitting creates a special category of ‘deserving victims’, and makes it a personal, rather than political right to know the real names of the spies.

This is not good, as there are – even within the Inquiry’s limited reasoning – plenty of reasons why Gibson’s name should be disclosed and his misconduct acknowledged in public. Even more disturbing is the fact that Mitting’s decision stems from an utterly conservative disposition, which makes you wonder whether he is the right man to chair an inquiry into institutional sexism within the police. 

‘Rick Gibson’ was an early spycop, his deployment from 1974 – 1976 was only a few years after the Special Demonstration Squad was founded in 1968. When we told the Inquiry at their November 2017 hearing that we knew Gibson had been in several relationships, Mitting immediately understood what was at stake:

‘This was probably the period where the practices started to be adopted routinely and things may have started to go wrong. And whether this individual officer was going off piste or whether it is a practice is one of the things I have to try to get to the bottom of.’

After we tracked down ”Mary’ in mid-January, she submitted a statement to the Inquiry about her involvement with Rick within a week. Mitting accepted it, and granted her anonymity as she had requested.

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In the public interest

In her statement, ‘Mary’ asked for the real name of ‘Rick Gibson’ in unmistakable terms:

‘In the public interest, I think we are entitled to know who he was and to what extent he was operating on instruction from senior figures in the police of the government of the time. Was he acting on his own initiative? If so, what steps will be taken to hold to account his senior police officers who sanctioned this activity? If senior civil servants of previous government ministers sanctioned this, or knew about these activities they also need to be held accountable.’

Since Mitting had plainly said he feels a ‘moral obligation’ to disclose real names of undercover officers to women they deceived into relationships – there was little doubt on what he was going to decide.

However, before discussing Gibson, Mitting wanted to address a ‘slight misunderstanding’, stating that a refusal to grant anonymity does not automatically mean that the Inquiry would publish the real name:

‘The absence of a restriction order means that when a document comes up which is part of the Inquiry’s record, the real name will not be deleted from it.’ (Draft transcripts Feb 2018  p.98)

A bit later it became clear what this means. Mitting wants to communicate the real name of Gibson to ‘Mary’ personally. ‘As a piece of private information, it would then be
for her to decide what she wished to do with it.’ (Draft transcripts Feb 2018 p.106-107)

The personal is political

In every possible way, this decision is making the issue personal rather than political. It puts the weight of disclosure on the shoulders of a private individual, rather than acknowledging the political urgency to publish the names of undercover officers who have violated human rights while on the job.

In doing so, Mitting does not only create a category of ‘deserving victims’, small and distinct from the others whose rights and privacy were violated, but in describing his reasoning he completely misrepresents ‘Mary”s motives, and totally ignores what she said in her statement:

‘I have in mind also Mary’s position. She has not expressed a wish to participate actively in the Inquiry. It may be that she simply wishes to be informed about an aspect of her private life a long time ago.’ (Draft transcripts Feb 2018, p.103-104)

There is nothing private about the questions in Mary’s statement. She is very clear about why the real name of Rick Gibson should be revealed – as the quote above shows. Moreover, for Mary it was never about the sex – which in her statement she described ‘as a rather half-hearted effort from his side’, with Gibson coming ‘across as sexually dysfunctional’. She wishes to emphasise:

It has always been about the abuse of hospitality, friendship, comradeship and political intimidation.

The way Mitting is treating ‘Mary’ seems to fit what he himself calls his ‘naive and old-fashioned’ views on women and relationships. This became apparent when, discussing another spycop at the hearing, Mitting stated that he thought an officer who was married some time before his deployment and was still married to that same person now, was unlikely to have committed “wrongdoing” (Inquiry code for sexual relationships with activists).

‘Mary’ is very wary to be framed in a male chauvistist context, she said after the hearing on Monday:

Indeed Gibson is an example of early misbehaviour of undercover officers. But it does not mean we were all traumatised on the same level. That would be to devalue the hell other women who had long-term intimate relationships went through.

Mitting seeing himself as our chivalrous knight, defending our honour as women wronged, is a big mistake.

Which brings up a crucial question about Mitting. As Alison, one of eight women who successfully took legal action against the Metropolitan police over the conduct of undercover officers, wrote in The Guardian afterwards,

‘[H]ow can someone who confesses to be so naive with regards to sexual politics be trusted as chair of a public inquiry tasked with exposing the truth about the deployment of professionally trained liars into the lives of female activists?’

Publish the real names now!

The only solution to this, is to move away from decisions based on ‘moral obligations’ and its sexist implications altogether, and instead focus on the remits of the Inquiry and the public interest.

There are no reasons to refrain from publishing Gibson’s real name. On the contrary:

  • The risk of infringing the right of privacy of Gibson’s widow turned out to be a misleading if not fraudulent claim. At the hearing in November it became clear that the Inquiry had never spoken to her; and had just made assumptions based what the Metropolitan Police put in Gibson’s Risk Assessment. (Draft transcripts Nov 2017, p.148-149)
  • Mitting tends to disclose the real names of officers who, after their deployment as an undercover, took on a managerial role with the SDS. The Risk Assessment states that Gibson ‘returned to the SDS later in his career in a non-undercover role.’ At the November hearing the Counsel for the Metropolitan Police, Mr Hall QC, claimed that they had still not worked out whether Gibson had been a manager: ‘Our current view is that he was not a manager, although there are indications the other way.’
  • Releasing the real name to allow others to come forward, such as possible former colleagues who might know more about Gibson’s career.
  • The deployment of Gibson was probably the period things may have started to go wrong and – as mentioned above – Mitting wants to go to the bottom of this, adding that in that case ‘the public interest in publishing becomes much more compelling’.

The Inquiry has recently set up a page listing the officers exposed thus far, why not add a category to that list and publish the real names there? Gibson’s to start with.

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