Deep deception

There was a blue notice on the desk. It said: “All police officers wearing plain clothes and all civil staff are required to display identification whilst in this building.” I guessed it was a salvaged official sign from a police building somewhere. But its presence on the welcome desk at this conference hall in central London was a symbol of defiance by a group of women and their supporters making a stand against inhumane state surveillance. Their slogan is “Police spies out of our lives”.

The event was the book launch for Deep Deception. It’s authored by five women, Helen Steel (the only one to use her real name), Belinda, Alison, Lisa and Naomi – all of whom gradually found out the men they thought were their partners were in fact undercover police officers.

It’s been more than 20 years since these left-wing activists discovered and exposed how undercover police officers had been infiltrating their groups and having sexual relationships with many women for years. Though the practice goes back to 1968, these women were being spied on from the 1990s to the 2010s. Their boyfriends suddenly disappeared, sometimes leaving a note, often after having or possibly staging breakdowns, leaving their distraught partners worried for their wellbeing. In some cases they had fathered children and abandoned them too.

Yet only now can we appreciate how much we don’t yet know about the scale of these operations, as the police have continued to withhold the names and numbers involved.

Deep Deception, told in chronological order, reads like a kind of overlapping thriller, as each woman is trapped by a man following a system of training that had clearly developed over years. They often had a van, so they could take you home and meet your friends. They often got themselves quite senior within the organisation, giving them access to membership lists. In some cases they were involved in the planning and carrying out of crimes. Then there were the clues that only in hindsight read like red flags: on first seeing their place, the women noticed their new boyfriends had very few possessions. The officers usually moved in with them.

Media coverage has too often been only interested in the salacious details of the sexual relationships. As Lisa observed, it was like the fascination with serial killers. What motivates them? Before Deep Deception, Helen, Alison and their solicitor Harriet Wistrich had met the creative team planning a BBC drama inspired by the spycops story, but were deeply unimpressed by what emerged: Peter Moffat’s Undercover (2016), starring Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo, ended up being a love story about a black undercover officer who was still married to the radical lawyer he’d targeted.

Alison spoke out at the time: “To give the impression that the undercover relationships that inspired this drama were based on reciprocal love – where no other woman is being cheated on and lied to – is to misrepresent the deceitful individuals involved, and to misunderstand the power dynamics and sexual politics that underpinned them.” In fact, by 1996, officers working in the SDS unit – the Special Demonstration Squad – were required to be married before deployment, to ensure they had an external life to return to. The undercover cops called the women activists they slept with “wearies”, as in wearisome. In February 2022, a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct into the misogynist and sexist culture at Charing Cross police station in central London found that male officers used the same term to describe female officers.

As a journalist, reading Deep Deception was like having a veil lifted from my eyes. So many of the stories I’d covered over my career turned out to have had a covert police operation involved in manipulating and entrapping activists: the McLibel case, for example, where a leaflet opposing McDonalds was later found to have been co-written by an undercover police officer, or the mass arrests of green activists at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station before their protest had even begun.

As Lisa said at the book launch, there is real sadness for the lost decade or more when climate change activism was derailed by these operations, given the warnings now being issued by the UN’s IPCC. The ongoing public inquiry into covert policing is only expected to complete taking evidence in 2025. These women are determined not to let this scandal disappear under the weight of time. There is still a reckoning due, with those officers yet to retire, and a wider awakening for a nation that has been too complacent about the very British idea of policing by consent.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.