Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 22
From the outset, there were reservations among some Leeds activists about the newcomer. Watson said she was 35 and from an upmarket town in Hampshire, although her parents were Scottish and she often joked around in an authentic Glaswegian accent. She looked a little different to other activists; she sported big hoop earrings and a baseball cap and always wore a lot of make-up. For a little while, behind her back, some people in the Common Place started calling her ‘Lynn the cop’, but it was not a nickname that stuck.
The Common Place was attracting a broad range of people interested in effecting social change. It hosted meals for homeless people and English classes for asylum seekers. At the weekends, there were free bicycle maintenance workshops. The premises had an entertainment licence from the council, and campaigners quickly discovered that hosting musical events could provide a much-needed source of revenue. Local police, however, started clamping down on the parties. During one of several raids on the premises, police burst in to find a handful of people listening to 1920s piano and watching a Czech surrealist cartoon being projected on the wall.
Despite the money these events brought in, Watson made it clear she disapproved of using the space for anything other than activism. ‘She was arguing for keeping the focus far more political,’ says a co-founder of the Common Place. ‘She felt that music was side-tracking us into becoming more of a performance venue.’
Another activist wonders whether Watson had ulterior motives. ‘We had a licence, and I imagine that would have been quite a problem for her professionally,’ he says. ‘She would need to be investigating something at least vaguely dodgy.’
The main purpose of the Common Place did however remain overtly political. It was used to mobilise support for a huge demonstration against the G8 summit in Scotland in 2005. The protests around Gleneagles, where Tony Blair, George Bush and other world leaders were holding their meeting, were among the largest of their kind in a decade. Watson attached herself to a group of first-aiders who volunteered to look after injured protesters. The Action Medics Collective was a fringe group and not the best of roles for an undercover police officer who wanted to be at the centre of action. Certainly, it was not the kind of position an SDS operative would have chosen. But it gave Watson the opportunity to meet a wider group of protesters in and around Leeds.
‘We met over the Guardian crossword,’ says Catriona, one of the city’s most radical activists. ‘I instantly liked her because she was cynical and sharp.’ She and others who got to know Watson recall how dismissive she could be about the more farcical aspects of protesting. Disparaging the stereotype of activism would become something of a trait for NPOIU spies. Counter-intuitively, it often worked, with many activists finding the dose of realism refreshing. ‘Those remarks can be lacking sometimes in the sort of dreary, hippy end of the activist scene,’ Catriona explains.
John, a part-time bouncer who also became a close friend of the undercover police officer, says he was also attracted to her ‘irreverence and sarcasm’. He often visited Watson in her two-bedroom terraced house in the Hyde Park area of the city. ‘She kept quite a neat, tidy and well-ordered house,’ he says. ‘It was fairly plain, vaguely tasteful, cheaply done up.’
John, like almost everyone else who visited Watson at home, was struck by two things that were odd about her house. The first was the fact that she always kept one upstairs room locked, never allowing anyone to peek inside. The second was the artwork on her wall. Beside a photograph of Watson in clown costume there were two clip-framed 1980s posters from the anarchist collective, Class War. One glorified police being attacked on the street, and the other advocated the death of the Queen Mother, who was shown with a punk haircut.
The posters seemed incongruous. Watson was a straight, matter-of-fact person with a dry sense of humour. She would not hesitate to tell friends to ‘fuck off’ if they were getting on her nerves. She also liked to tell heartless jokes about the elderly patients she was supposedly looking after at care homes. The outdated protest art on the wall did not seem to fit her image. ‘It felt a bit like something a teenager would put on the wall to represent who they are,’ says Catriona. ‘People did comment on the pictures quite a lot because it all felt a little naïve for Lynn. Everyone took the piss out of her about it. She was quite defensive.’
The focus of Watson’s deployment was the infiltration of the first two protest gatherings called Climate Camp. This was around the time concern about global warming was gaining traction across the country. The Conservative party leader, David Cameron, travelled to Svalbard in Norway to be towed by huskies and witness first-hand the effects of glacial ice melt. Nicholas Stern, the economist, was in the process of writing his landmark report into the economic consequences of climate change. It was fast becoming a mainstream cause.
Climate Camp was an attempt by radical activists to exploit the shift in sentiment with a peaceful, open demonstration that might appeal to the wider public. Overnight, activists would occupy a patch of land near a major carbon emitter and construct a completely self-sustaining village with tents and marquees. There were five major Climate Camp protests in total; they defined an era in environmental protest and presented a new challenge for police. The first camp was held beside Drax power station, the UK’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The second was based near Heathrow airport, in protest at plans to build a third runway. These were large gatherings, attracting hundreds and even thousands of people, many of them curious locals who came to attend workshops about sustainability and climate science. There was always at least one collective attempt of civil disobedience – such as entering the grounds of the power station – but they tended to be largely symbolic gestures.
Because the camps were at the peaceful end of the protest spectrum, organisers felt they could be open about their plans, although there was some need for security, particularly around the reconnaissance visits to select a suitable site and, on the eve of the protest, the carefully planned swoops on the land under the cover of darkness. Anyone could join the organisation but the more secretive tasks were restricted to cells of trusted activists. Watson managed to get onto these groups during both of the first camps, providing a fruitful source of intelligence for her NPOIU handlers.
During the first gathering, and when camping near the huge cooling towers of Drax power station, Watson had her first and only sexual encounter with an activist. It was a one-night stand and instigated, according to the man who slept with Watson, at the insistence of the undercover police officer. He says the pair had been flirting for some time but their dalliance in a tent was ‘nothing meaningful’.
That night was also an aberration for Watson, who abstained from intimate relationships for the rest of her deployment. On the whole, her behaviour was less morally dubious than that of her male counterparts in both the NPOIU and SDS. Indeed, her infiltration in Leeds provides a useful example of exactly how undercover police can thrive without the need to sleep with the people they are spying on.
For her first 18 months in the city, Watson used the excuse of her recent break-up, saying she was not ready for any new relationships. One day at the start of 2007, she surprised her friends by announcing that she had a new man in her life. He was not a political campaigner. Instead she said she had met him randomly during the 40th birthday party of an old friend.
His name was Sean and he was supposedly a locksmith from Northampton. He immediately raised eyebrows. A dishevelled and socially awkward man, Sean seemed a strange match for Watson. He instantly acquired the nickname ‘Frank Gallagher’, after the fictional drunk on the British TV show Shameless. ‘Lynn also called him Frank,’ Catriona says. ‘She was quite disparaging about him.’
Sean was almost certainly another undercover police officer seconded to the NPOIU. It is not unusual for undercover operatives to work in pairs and sometimes that means pretending to be sexual partners or spouses, although it was never a technique used by the SDS, which always preferred its spies to have i
The fake boyfriend deception was actually a rather clever ploy. Watson could spend days or even weeks away and claim to have been staying with Sean. But for whatever reason, the NPOIU decided to terminate the relationship after less than a year.
Watson’s second fictional boyfriend played a decisive role in her disappearance from Leeds. Toward the end of 2007, Watson had begun to tell some close friends she was depressed. They had known her as someone who was prone to mood swings, but she seemed to be deteriorating. She had always been a big drinker and now claimed she felt she had a problem with alcohol. She was also increasingly worried about a skin condition that, she said, resulted in blotchy markings on her face whenever she was exposed to sunlight. ‘I was being there for her as a friend, listening to her cry,’ says one close friend. ‘Being someone’s emotional support and then realising later it was all made up doesn’t feel very nice.’
At the time Watson seemed to be drifting away. She pulled out of a six-week cycle trip around Spain, despite having already bought her ferry ticket. She also spent less time socialising, choosing instead to meet friends at their home.
It was around this time that Watson introduced her new boyfriend, a man who appeared to improve her outlook on life. His name was Paul and he claimed to be a former bouncer at nightclubs from Coventry who had now become a photographer. Watson said she met him during a hen party in another part of the country.
If Sean had seemed a strange partner, Paul left her friends totally dumbstruck. The general consensus was that her new lover was boring, uncouth and prone to bouts of misogyny.
‘He looked absolutely like a cop, by which I mean a beefy white male, about six foot tall, with a shaved head and a slightly intimidatory attitude,’ says one friend, Matilda. ‘He clearly had not had too many feminists in his life. Lynn told me that she had tried to introduce her friends to Paul in Leeds and no one seemed to like him.’
Catriona is even more forthright in her judgment. ‘He was a meathead and not attractive. Lynn could have done better, even for a pretend relationship. The first time I met him he managed to really fuck me off. He made a comment about my tits: “I like your eyes and I like your rack.” At the time I thought, what a dickhead!’
The introduction of a controversial boyfriend into the equation may have been a deliberate strategy by the NPOIU, driving a wedge between Watson and her friends. But it is perhaps more likely that Paul was just not particularly suited to undercover work in protest circles. Despite the reservations of her friends, Watson gave every impression of being enamoured by the photographer from Coventry. It was a whirlwind romance. He bought her a Staffordshire bull terrier puppy. She named the dog Bridget. They had only been seeing each other for a few months when Watson told her friends that her new love was helping her overcome her depression. In January 2008, Watson announced she was moving to Coventry to live with Paul and start a bookkeeping course.
It all seemed rather sudden. Watson emailed friends the details of her leaving party: ‘I am moving to Coventry for the beautiful scenery and its highly regarded ring road,’ she wrote. ‘It’s not the back arse of nowhere (just strongly resembles it) and of course I will be back in Leeds lots and lots.’
The leaving party – a curry followed by a night in a rough pub – reinforced the opinion some friends had formed of Paul. Toward the end of the night when everyone was drunk, he started persuading Watson to kiss her female friends in front of him.
Watson and Catriona snogged a little, between giggles. But after a few seconds Catriona stopped. She felt uncomfortable about the ‘creepy’ way Paul was goading the situation. ‘It seemed like a controlling man thing to do – kind of like he was extending her lead,’ she says. ‘It was not a respectful polyamorous thing.’
Two days later, Watson’s friend John helped drive a removal van to her house in Leeds to pick up her things. The pair drove down to Coventry. When they were at Paul’s apartment he cooked them a fry-up breakfast and suggested they head over to the nearest pub.
The couple visited Leeds a few times after that to meet Watson’s old friends. Each visit left the impression that something was not quite right. The couple always insisted on staying in Travelodge hotels. It struck Watson’s friends as an extremely odd thing for them to do. Why shell out money for a hotel in the city when any number of friends had spare rooms? Perhaps the two undercover police officers wanted to avoid a situation in which they were forced to sleep in the same bed. But by insisting on sleeping elsewhere they were raising suspicions. During one trip to Leeds, Watson and Paul were spotted drinking tea in a branch of McDonald’s. ‘Pretty much no one else I know in that scene would ever buy something from McDonald’s,’ John says. ‘It is just alien.’
It was as though Paul was pulling Watson away from radical politics. That much was confirmed when, a few months later, she phoned friends to say Paul was taking her to Lithuania, where he had found work. She emailed a few times, claiming to be in eastern Europe. Not long after, the contact dried up.
Activists in Leeds were now suspicious. ‘She seemed to have gone off the radar,’ says John. He and two friends formed a committee to start investigating Watson and her background. They explored every possible trail, beginning with her family, who Watson had always said lived in Farnborough. They telephoned every Watson household in the area but there was no trace of any Lynn Watson. Then they began looking into her boyfriends. They called every locksmith in Northampton and asked if somebody called Sean worked there. They did the same for photography agencies in and around Coventry, where Paul said he worked. ‘Basically, everything came back blank,’ says John. ‘My take on it was that something had to be wrong. People don’t just disappear like that.’
The friends drew up a list of scenarios that could explain her disappearance. The possibilities included that she had suffered some kind of mental breakdown or been in an abusive relationship with Paul. They even speculated about whether he might have killed her. In the end, however, the more plausible explanation was that their friend of four years had been a mole.
Around that time, there were some anarchists 200 miles away having similar doubts about a member of their group. The Cardiff Anarchist Network (CAN, for short) was a small collective of campaigners at the forefront of radical activism in Wales. There were around a dozen of them: lecturers, musicians, a social worker and a trade unionist. They would meet weekly in pubs around the city, campaign on a range of issues, from the Iraq war to the inequities of capitalism, and build links with networks of anarchists elsewhere in the UK and Europe. A number of them had been arrested for criminal damage after travelling to London and forcing their way into a Coca-Cola factory. On Saturday afternoons they stood outside branches of Starbucks distributing coffee produced by revolutionary co-operatives in Mexico. Anyone could attend their meetings, receive their weekly email update or read the minutes of their meetings online. ‘New people were coming all the time,’ says Janine, one CAN member. ‘We were not a closed activist group that treated everyone with suspicion.’
In the summer of 2005, one of the more eccentric people to join the group was a man in his 40s calling himself Marco Jacobs, who claimed to be a truck driver. He was in fact a police officer seconded to the NPOIU, working alongside Lynn Watson and Mark Kennedy. Extremely hairy and weighing around 15 stone, Jacobs had a notorious ability to drink huge quantities of alcohol without becoming drunk and liked to adopt the persona of a Northern comedian. ‘Big, burly, brash and blokey,’ says Janine.
Jacobs originally surfaced in Brighton a year earlier. It is not uncommon for undercover police officers to first appear hundreds of miles from the place they are being sent to. However, in this case, it appears that Brighton was Jacobs’ first mission. It did not go to plan. Soon after he turned up at the Cowley Club – a social centre like the Common Place in Leeds – activists in Brighton say they became suspicious. Jacobs told people he worked as a landscape artist and als
‘The word was, that man is a copper, everyone knows he is a copper,’ recalls Terry, one of the spy’s few friends in Brighton. ‘It was something about his deportment that just screamed “pig” to some people.’ A meat-eating truck driver who boasted about getting into pub brawls was perhaps not the best alias to have used in Brighton, which has reputation for a bohemian, cliquey activist scene. ‘I was telling people that we cannot say, “Oh, he isn’t a student with pink dreadlocks, therefore he must be dodgy,”’ says Terry.
Despite the apparent reservations, Jacobs was allowed into some groups, and even convinced activists to hold meetings in his house, which he assured them would be free of surveillance. One weekend, he drove a group of Brightonians to Shepton Mallet in Somerset, the site of a dispute over proposals to build a Tesco store. In the end, though, he sensed that he was being frozen out. Less than a year into his deployment he turned to his friend Terry and said: ‘Everyone thinks I’m a copper, don’t they?’
A firm rule in the SDS was that undercover officers could never be given a second chance. If an SDS spy could not win the trust of the group of activists they were infiltrating after a short while, they were pulled out and their undercover tour terminated. The NPOIU, however, had a different view. It chose to send Jacobs to Cardiff.
Life in Cardiff seems to have been smoother for the undercover police officer. The South Wales anarchists were a more diverse, welcoming crowd. Now on his second attempted infiltration, Jacobs had the chance to learn from mistakes in Brighton. He became a vegan and changed his appearance, growing his hair to his shoulders and dying it purple. He also put more effort into explaining his back-story. He told friends that he had once been on remand in prison, but suddenly went cold whenever they asked what for. ‘He was making out that he used to be a bit of a fighter and he had moved away to start a new life,’ says a friend. ‘I just thought he was a bit of a sad character, who had no family or had some sort of dodgy past.’