Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 7
If anything, however, Lambert’s reputation has gone from bad to worse. Three months later, in January 2012, the Guardian revealed he had fathered a child while undercover, although the newspaper had been unable to locate Charlotte or her son. Amid speculation about the real purpose of Lambert’s Muslim Contact Unit, he was forced to deny it was a front for surveillance. ‘I did not recruit one Muslim Londoner as an informant nor did I spy on them,’ he said.
Six months later, the Green MP Caroline Lucas stood up in parliament to make a speech about Lambert’s infiltration of the ALF. She raised some awkward questions about those 1987 arson attacks against Debenhams. ‘[Geoff] Sheppard and [Andrew] Clarke were tried and found guilty – but the culprit who planted the incendiary device in the Harrow store was never caught,’ she said. ‘Bob Lambert’s exposure as an undercover police officer has prompted Geoff Sheppard to speak out about that Harrow attack. Sheppard alleges that Lambert was the one who planted the third device and was involved in the ALF’s co-ordinated campaign.’
The MP added: ‘There is no doubt in my mind that anyone planting an incendiary device in a department store is guilty of a very serious crime and should have charges brought against them. That means absolutely anyone – including, if the evidence is there, Bob Lambert or indeed the people who were supervising him.’
It was an explosive revelation. Lambert denied the accusation, but the story was carried by dozens of newspapers, including the Daily Mail, which ran the headline: ‘Undercover Officer “Set off Firebomb in Debenhams”’.
It was this story that Charlotte came across when reading the newspaper in her garden that Thursday in June. ‘I describe 14 June as the day of the earthquake and a big hole opened up,’ she says. ‘All my security, everything I took for granted fell down the hole.’ Stunned by the picture of Bob Robinson in the newspaper, Charlotte could barely move. She managed to stand up and walk inside her house to phone her parents.
‘My dad got the paper from their nearest shop and my mum got out the photos of Bob and our son, at the birth and when he was a toddler. They confirmed to me that by comparing photos, it was definitely Bob. I didn’t sleep all that night. My head was full of memories and questions. I was examining every memory again looking for clues that I should have seen that would have revealed his identity. I needed to know if I was just a part of Bob’s cover story, and if our son, who he’d abandoned, was also just a part of his cover story.’
The next morning, Charlotte spent the day frantically trying to track down Lambert. She knew he was now an academic at St Andrews. ‘I called the university and asked for Bob Lambert. I was put through to a woman in his office. She was understandably cagey but I burst into tears and told her that I was the mother of his son. She could hear that I was in a state and said to me she would call Bob, tell him I’d phoned and she would call me back if there was any message.’
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. ‘It was Bob,’ she says. ‘This was the first time I had heard his voice for 24 years but I recognised it. It was very emotional. I remember asking him: “Why me?”’ Charlotte recalls asking Lambert several other questions during that call. Was she chosen as his target by the SDS? Did he choose to abandon their son? Was their whole relationship the product of orders from a commander at Special Branch? She says Lambert sounded emotional but failed to help fill the gaps. ‘He could not answer my questions,’ she says. ‘I could no longer believe a word he said.’
That day would leave a deep emotional scar for Charlotte. The trauma of discovering Lambert was a police spy led to months of psychiatric treatment at the Priory Hospital in London. Friends say Charlotte has not been the same since. She is fragile and constantly on edge and has had suicidal thoughts.
Charlotte has not been helped by the behaviour of Lambert, who has met her a few times since their first telephone conversation. Friends say that during their first encounter, Lambert arrived with flowers. He told her that she was a special woman, a great mother to their son, and that during his undercover deployment he had tried his best to protect them.
‘I feel so confused and hurt by what has happened,’ Charlotte says. ‘I don’t understand what I am supposed to have done that I was chosen by the state to be treated like this. I was no threat to national security. And what was my child – collateral damage?’
The epic legal battle ‘McLibel’ is a remarkable tale about how a group of powerless protesters challenged and embarrassed a mighty corporation. It is an incredible story, worthy of a movie script. Indeed, the story was made into a film and has already been the subject of a book and thousands of column inches in newspapers. The plot involved a tiny environmental group that produced a roughly typed leaflet castigating the world’s biggest hamburger chain, McDonald’s. The activists had so little money that they could only afford to distribute a few hundred photocopied versions.
Instead of ignoring what was little more than a pinprick in the reputation of a restaurant chain whose commercial empire spanned most of the world, McDonald’s executives decided to crush the criticism by exploiting England’s notorious defamation laws and suing the activists for libel. They presumed the impecunious campaigners would bow to their demands, withdraw the leaflet and say sorry. Fifty media outlets, ranging from national newspapers to student magazines, had already decided it was too expensive to fight a full-blown libel case through the courts and had apologised for criticisms they had made about the fast-food chain.
Against all expectations, two of the campaigners stood their ground and took on the corporate power in what turned out to be England’s longest-ever civil court case. The two – an unemployed postman and a part-time bartender – could not afford solicitors or barristers, so they had to defend themselves. By contrast, the multinational corporation, flushed with profits from selling Big Macs and fries to 35 million customers a day around the world, spent up to £10 million on the most expensive lawyers money could buy, including a £2,000-a-day barrister. The gruelling court battle, spread over 313 days between 1994 and 1996, was a David and Goliath contest.
In legal terms, McDonald’s largely won the case, but in the court of public opinion, they lost badly. For years, they had spent billions to make their Golden Arches one of the most recognisable brands in the world. Yet the court case exposed the company to searing scrutiny, revealing embarrassing stories about the quality of its food and business practices. Millions of copies of the infamous leaflet were reprinted around the world, and McDonald’s heavy-handed use of the law was seen by many as a disaster for its image. It prompted one expert to call it ‘one of the most extended own-goals in the recent history of public relations’.
McLibel is now celebrated as a triumph for the activists who inflicted great damage on a corporate behemoth. But there is an untold story at the heart of the McLibel tale, and it involves the SDS. The group behind the McLibel leaflet was London Greenpeace. It rarely numbered more than around 20 anti-capitalists. Yet it was one of the most spied-upon political groups in modern history.
London Greenpeace was unconnected to the better-known (and much larger) campaign sharing a similar name. It comprised a mixture of environmentalists, anarchists and libertarians, who believed in a do-it-yourself philosophy.
For those who heeded the call, becoming part of London Greenpeace was simply a matter of turning up to informal, open meetings that were held each week near Euston station. Founded in 1971, the group concentrated mainly on campaigning against nuclear power, the arms trade and capitalism. By the mid-1980s it was turning its attentions to McDonald’s.
The first protest was held in January 1985 when activists handed out a leaflet excoriating the multinational outside one of their restaurants in the Strand. Among the first campaigners pressing the leaflet into the hands of passing shoppers was Bob Lambert, who was then midway through his SDS deployment. Lambert was already making inroads in the network of animal rights groups at the time he i
On that cold winter’s day, campaigners felt buoyed by the reaction to their message from passers-by. They decided to plough on and soon afterwards produced the now infamous six-page leaflet, railing against the burger chain and all it stood for. Headlined ‘What’s Wrong with McDonald’s – Everything They Don’t Want You to Know’, it featured a cartoon American capitalist hiding behind a mask of the chain’s mascot, Ronald McDonald. The corporation’s golden arches were rebranded with insults such as ‘McTorture’, ‘McGreedy’ and ‘McMurder’. The leaflet castigated McDonald’s for promoting animal cruelty, paying low wages to its workers and exploiting children in advertising campaigns.
During the seemingly interminable libel case that followed, years later, in the mid-1990s, the judge, Mr Justice Rodger Bell, was not required to establish who exactly had written the leaflet. The proceedings revolved around who had distributed it. But if the judge had been interested in the question of who exactly penned the notorious leaflet he might have stumbled across an alarming discovery.
As with most London Greenpeace literature, the McLibel leaflet was a collective effort, pulled together by a few of the more enthusiastic writers. The tasks were shared, with activists creating different parts of the leaflet. Fittingly for a group where there were no leaders and decisions were taken by consensus, the work of pulling together the material for the leaflet was shared by about five people and took several months.
Remarkably, one of those responsible for writing the offending leaflet was the SDS spy, Bob Lambert. The police officer was not the sole author of the leaflet, but, according to several key members of the group at the time, Lambert co-wrote it. ‘He was really proud of it,’ recalls one of Lambert’s friends. ‘It was like his baby – he carried it around with him.’ Paul Gravett, an activist in the group, says that while several people had input into the leaflet, Lambert was ‘one of the most prominent people in the group at the time’. Lambert even confided in his then girlfriend – Karen – that he was behind the leaflet, although he appeared more reluctant to admit as much around others. ‘He did not want people to know he had co-written it,’ she said. ‘He did not want to draw attention to himself.’
Put at its lightest, it means a police spy helped compose a leaflet that defamed a multinational corporation, costing it millions in legal expenses and causing severe damage to its reputation.
Lambert was not the only SDS spy to infiltrate London Greenpeace. As his deployment came to an end, senior officers at the SDS decided to send a second operative into the tiny group. The spy they chose was John Dines, a rugged sergeant, who went undercover with the alias John Barker.
In the early part of his mission, he lived in at least two squats in Hackney, north London for months on end. It was considered by the SDS to be evidence of his commitment to the job. It meant that day and night, he had to be constantly on guard among politically minded squatters. The slightest wrong comment or reaction and he could have fallen under suspicion. Even the most committed members of the SDS would normally retreat to their own flats. Dines plunged into an alien world of radicals, and in the parlance of the SDS, became another ‘deep swimmer’.
Another sign of Dines’s commitment was his physical transformation. He grew his hair long and had it cut in a harsh version of a mullet: the sides of his head were shaved completely, leaving a shaggy tail flowing down the back of his head. His dark eyes and thick jaw gave him an imposing, even sinister look.
Despite appearances, campaigners within London Greenpeace thought he was a likeable and rather chatty fellow. One activist recalls Dines as ‘easy to get along with’, although he did not exude the same ‘air of confidence’ as Lambert. Dines told his friends in the political group that he had moved to New Zealand as a teenager. He said that when he was there, he had campaigned against apartheid. He told them he had once been jailed for assaulting a policeman during a protest against a tour by the South African rugby team. Since his return to London, he claimed to have been living in a campervan near Waterloo station. He quickly became known among activists as ‘New Zealand John’.
In the SDS, Dines had a different nickname: ‘Sergeant Yob’. Dines tried to nurture an undercover reputation as a tough activist who would not shy away from a bit of rough and tumble on the streets. He was well built and extremely fit; his thigh muscles were so big that he was unable to cross his legs. In some ways he was the polar opposite of the suave and calculating Lambert, who was as thin as a rake. Handing out leaflets criticising a right-wing Christian preacher in Wembley Stadium, he once punched a random punter who was uttering racist insults. The victim crashed to the ground and Dines told his fellow activists that he ‘hated fascists’.
It was useful for Dines to follow Lambert around 1987. The older officer could give the new spy a detailed briefing of all the personalities and dynamics within London Greenpeace. But Lambert did not introduce the newcomer to the group or make it appear that he already knew him. If one of the spies was rumbled, the SDS did not want suspicion being thrown onto the other spy.
The man activists knew as John Barker seemed to be made for the group’s particular brand of politics: he was a friendly, practical, hands-on kind of a man, and he claimed to loathe capitalism. However, he was not the only new recruit to London Greenpeace at this time; in fact, by 1989 the ranks of the group were beginning to swell. There was a host of newcomers and they all seemed surprisingly willing to muck in and do the kind of boring jobs that some other campaigners showed little interest in. They helped run street stalls and crèches at gatherings, handed out leaflets on the high street and laboriously answered letters from school children asking for more information about their anti-Big Macs campaign. There was even a romantic liaison involving one of the new recruits. Old hands in the group sensed that there was something not quite right about the new arrivals. Some did not appear to have very strong political views. Others just seemed too keen.
Dines would probably have recognised these new recruits to London Greenpeace as rival infiltrators. However, these new spies were not working for the SDS, security services or any other state body. They were private eyes, working for McDonald’s.
The corporation had a reason to spy on the small campaign group it was about to sue for defamation. It wanted to identify who the key players were within London Greenpeace and serve writs on them. McDonald’s security department hired two private detective agencies to plant spies in the group. Executives at McDonald’s stressed to both of the firms that the surveillance had to be conducted with absolute discretion. However, the multinational corporation did not tell these private detectives that it had hired two agencies.
As a result, London Greenpeace became saturated with spies, who ended up snooping on each other. It was a farcical situation, resembling something out of GK Chesterton’s classic novel, The Man Who Would be Thursday, in which all the members of an underground anarchist network turn out to be undercover police officers. Only in this case, just one of the spies was a cop – the rest were corporate infiltrators. The restaurant chain was forced to admit at the McLibel trial that the two detective agencies embedded at least seven spies in the group between October 1989 and spring 1991.
On at least two occasions, there were as many corporate spies at meetings of the small group as genuine activists. The number of real activists in the meetings had by then dwindled to between five and ten, and sometimes fewer. The spies had an incentive to put more effort into building their credibility in the group and so often attended more meetings than bona fide campaigners. Remarkably, agents working for McDonald’s were effectively helping to hold its arch enemy London Greenpeace together.
In January 1990, activists were pondering whether to close down the group because attendance at meetings was so poor. The influx of what they thought were genuine activists encouraged them to keep going, believing that new life was being breathed into their radical campaign. One activist felt that London Greenpeace was
Dines was one of the London Greenpeace activists who raised suspicions about these new activists and helped to work out if they were moles. Dines told another regular London Greenpeace member, Helen Steel, who would later become his girlfriend, that he had noticed he had been followed home after a meeting. The two of them decided to leave the next gathering together and keep their eyes peeled. As they travelled on an underground train, they realised they were indeed being tailed by a man. After leaving the Tube, Steel says: ‘We walked to this estate and he was still following us. We ran up an external flight of stairs to the top and we hid up there, and we could hear him looking for us, opening doors and looking around. Then it went quiet and so we came down and he was standing there.’
Dines and Steel continued walking and were stunned when the man continued to pursue them. ‘You would have thought he would have twigged that we obviously knew that he was following us,’ she says. They then walked around a corner and hid behind a stairwell. As the corporate spy walked past, Steel and Dines jumped out and started taking photographs of the imposter. Unsure how to react, the man pretended to be inebriated, placing his hands over his face and saying, ‘Leave me alone, I’m drunk.’
By the autumn of 1990, McDonald’s had selected five London Greenpeace activists as the targets of their legal suit and served writs on them. The rest of the campaigners escaped and were left wondering why the corporation chose to sue some and not others. Dines for example was not part of the quintet subject to the legal action, even though he was as involved in the campaign as everyone else.
The chosen five activists found themselves facing the daunting prospect of taking on the legal might of McDonald’s lawyers in the high court. Under England’s notoriously restrictive libel laws, the onus was on the defendant to establish the truth, meaning London Greenpeace had to prove every allegation made in its leaflet. Their largest obstacle was money. They had hardly any, while McDonald’s had lots. The activists had to defend themselves in their long and complicated legal battle without training or specialist expertise. They did so in the knowledge that if they lost, they could expect to pay the eye-popping costs incurred by McDonald’s in hiring the best lawyers in the land.