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McProvocateur
June 21, 2013 8:41 AM   Subscribe

In 1985, McDonalds sued left-wing activists in the UK for libel over a pamphlet accusing the multinational food giant of environmental destruction, abuses of workers' rights and selling junk food. The ensuing trial became the longest-running civil trial in English history, ending in 1997 in a Pyrrhic victory for McDonalds, who had lost millions of pounds in pursuing the case, and won £40,000 for their trouble. (The judgment was later overturned in the European Court of Human Rights.) Now, it has been revealed that the leaflet in question had been co-written by an undercover police officer assigned to infiltrate Greenpeace. The officer in question, Bob Lambert, had previously spent years infiltrating environmental groups, even fathering children with activists before disappearing.

Lambert, who has since left Special Branch and is working as an academic, has also been accused of planting a bomb at a branch of Debenhams in the course of infiltrating animal rights groups, which he has denied.
posted by acb (61 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
McProvocateur

We also would have accepted "A Hamburglar Darkly"...
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:48 AM on June 21, 2013 [64 favorites]


Your tax dollars at work (if you're in the UK).

Stories like this are what is ruining fiction.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


Your tax dollars at work (if you're in the UK).

I'm not in the UK, but I think that arguably I'd be okay with my tax dollars being used to expose the bad deeds done by McDonald's. If it requires cops to subversively infiltrate Greenpeace to do it, okay.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:03 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whenever I think "Nothing can surprise me anymore.", something else comes along to surprise me. WTF?
posted by SPUTNIK at 9:07 AM on June 21, 2013


I'm not in the UK, but I think that arguably I'd be okay with my tax dollars being used to expose the bad deeds done by McDonald's. If it requires cops to subversively infiltrate Greenpeace to do it, okay.

It's a somewhat inefficient way to go about it. Or, more precisely, the waste byproduct of an inefficient way of smashing the Left. (I bet Maggie wished from time to time here hands were as free as her good friend and fellow champion of freedom Augusto's; filling Lord's Cricket Ground with anarchists and Trotskyists and those awful holier-than-thou anti-nuclear Quaker grannies and machine-gunning them into a trench would have been far more cost-effective than all this rigmarole.)
posted by acb at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bob Lambert also masterminded the police infiltration of the movement for justice in the Stephen Lawrence murder case.

Police spies are the lowest of the low.
posted by colie at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


Sometimes Oftentimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
posted by spiderskull at 9:17 AM on June 21, 2013


Sometimes Oftentimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
posted by aught at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Police spies are the lowest of the low.

I'd qualify that. Police spies infiltrating groups is a lesser evil than an universal surveillance state, where anyone can fall under suspicion and be found guilty of something or other. And I'd rather have police spies infiltrating, say, neo-Nazi groups and such than leaving them to their own devices until they do something.

Having said that, the range of circumstances in which the use of police spies is justified is a very narrow one, and this overstepped the boundary by a huge distance, largely due to the Thatcher government's ideological crusade against the “enemy within” on the Left.
posted by acb at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Provacateurs are the lowest form of life. They make even prison guards look angelic by comparison.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:21 AM on June 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't think we had Hamburglar in the UK, Strange Interlude.
posted by scruss at 9:25 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or tax dollars, come to think of it. This whole thread is miiiighty fishy.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:34 AM on June 21, 2013


And I'd rather have police spies infiltrating, say, neo-Nazi groups and such than leaving them to their own devices until they do something.

Yes, of course it's always OK when police abuse their power against groups the majority disagrees with.
posted by j03 at 9:37 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, of course it's always OK when police abuse their power against groups the majority disagrees with.

Are you saying that undercover policing is never legitimate, or that there is no moral difference between Greenpeace and neo-Nazi militias?
posted by acb at 9:41 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm saying policing people over speech you disagree with is unconstitutional in the US and you don't get to control what the government decides to do whether it be your grandma's church group or neo-nazis.
posted by j03 at 9:44 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


OK, let's see if the KKK has limited their activities to angrily worded letters to the editor.
posted by mkb at 9:46 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Where does speech become action? If a group starts stockpiling bombs and planning attacks at whatever they consider legitimate targets, are they still off-limits until they actually go out and strike?
posted by acb at 9:47 AM on June 21, 2013


I'm also saying that the government will use and abuse whatever police tactics we give them to disrupt political movements for their own political gain.

If you say it's OK for the government to spy on a white power group, you're saying it's OK for the government to infiltrate and spy on the Green Party political headquarters.
posted by j03 at 9:48 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


The hazards of posting during US daylight hours.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:49 AM on June 21, 2013 [22 favorites]


If you have evidence a group is stockpiling bombs and planning attacks, by all means investigate and arrest. But you must have the evidence first, not "I don't like what these people stand for so we're going to spy on them and disrupt their activities."
posted by j03 at 9:49 AM on June 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


acb, at that point they would already be guilty of breaching an actual law rather than just holding unusual views:

Section 3(1)(b) of the 1883 Act makes it an offence to make, possess or control an explosive substance with intent to cause an explosion likely to endanger life.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:49 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm saying policing people over speech you disagree with is unconstitutional in the US

Now, this is going to sounds kind of crazy, so bear with me, but maybe this once we could try to have a discussion about something happening elsewhere in the world without just using it as a prompt to discuss our opinions about US law and politics? Maybe we could just try it this one time and see how it goes?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:02 AM on June 21, 2013 [32 favorites]


If you have evidence a group is stockpiling bombs and planning attacks, by all means investigate and arrest. But you must have the evidence first, not "I don't like what these people stand for so we're going to spy on them and disrupt their activities."

How do you get that evidence without keeping the group or its members under surveillance?
posted by acb at 10:03 AM on June 21, 2013


I read the article about the McDonald's case (which I remember following at the time) this morning. I started out with my mouth hanging open and by the time I was done with the article, I was nodding in the of course kind of way. This kind of thing is why folks have less and less trouble believing conspiracy theories; the government of your choice behaves in ways that make them seem not at all outrageous.
posted by immlass at 10:07 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


How do you get that evidence without keeping the group or its members under surveillance?

Tracking the sale of explosives and explosive components, requiring registration for buying certain quantities of certain substances, and quickly and thoroughly investigating any and all reports or tips that might indicate someone testing improvised explosive devices.
posted by kewb at 10:17 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


You're right, acb, I'll just keep my controversial opinions to myself, after all.. you never know who could be listening. I'll be a good citizen. I won't step out of line. Oh, the government is giving my tax dollars to billionaire bankers while people are starving in the streets? OK, well, better not talk about that, someone might think I'm a radical and put me under surveillance. Better not get involved with any minor political parties.. just tow the party line for the rich and powerful. I wouldn't want to talk about or suggest any protests or marches or anything, that might get me in trouble... since it's legal for the police to secretly infiltrate my life based on no evidence of wrongdoing.

Police/government infiltration and surveillance of groups based on nothing more than that groups rhetoric or perceived power is a threat to a free democracy.
posted by j03 at 10:19 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is a novel that writes itself.

acb: Are you saying that undercover policing is never legitimate,

Not when the "threats" are ideological, political or speech related.

Where does speech become action?

Aside from direct incitement, never, and it's trivially easy to tell the difference. This isn't a gray zone where police have to be given latitude. There is a place for undercover operations and stings, and it's not hard to know when it's proper or not.
posted by spaltavian at 10:20 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're right, acb, I'll just keep my controversial opinions to myself, after all.. you never know who could be listening. I'll be a good citizen. I won't step out of line. Oh, the government is giving my tax dollars to billionaire bankers while people are starving in the streets? OK, well, better not talk about that, someone might think I'm a radical and put me under surveillance. Better not get involved with any minor political parties.. just tow the party line for the rich and powerful. I wouldn't want to talk about or suggest any protests or marches or anything, that might get me in trouble... since it's legal for the police to secretly infiltrate my life based on no evidence of wrongdoing.

Nice strawman there.
posted by acb at 10:22 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


mkb: OK, let's see if the KKK has limited their activities to angrily worded letters to the editor.

This is an example that argues against your point strongly. The KKK is a perfect case of where authorities could easily determine they weren't limiting themselves to just speech and had every justification to use undercover operations if they chose. Linking up violent acts to groups is, you know, basic police work, so the arugment that we just have to spy on unpopular groups because "how else would we know?" is absurd.
posted by spaltavian at 10:23 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


He's now a Professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, in which position he's become a hate figure on the Right for his outspoken support for Islamic activists and communities in the UK.

But who's to say he's really left Special Branch? Could his BA (Open) and MA and PhD (Exeter) be yet another ruse? Is he now pursuing an even more dangerous mission, going undercover in modern British academia? I bet he's filing a secret report on his department's REF submission, lunch budget, and external engagement and impact strategy right this minute.
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:24 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is awesome!

I can't see an ethical problem with some infiltration of dangerous groups. Undercover police working to stop human trafficking, for example.

But this case clearly shows it is a challenge to manage effectively and with respect for human rights of assembly and privacy. The "Thatcher machine-gunning people at Lords" comment above shows how easily personal sentiment can lead to othering and demonising individuals and groups. It's a series of easy short steps from "those are the kind of people who support X" to "those of the kind of people who do X" to "those people do X". And then our tax money is spent playing around with anti-capitalist activists rather than scary international crime syndicates.
posted by alasdair at 10:24 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I recall from reading the McLibel book that there were a couple of private detectives hired by McDonald's who infiltrated the group to find out who wrote the pamflet. Now it turns out another member was police. Was there anybody beside Steel and Morris in that group who were real?

Little more to add but that this is an amazing story. Everybody guessed police spies infiltrate such groups--and there has been a number stories confirming it recently--but the connection with such an important landmark in protest is...wow.
posted by Jehan at 10:26 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Police spies infiltrating groups is a lesser evil than an universal surveillance state, where anyone can fall under suspicion and be found guilty of something or other.

Well, thank god you have both! No need to decide! :D

The hazards of posting during US daylight hours.

Aww, you don't get to feel superior about yourself in the privacy of your own internet. What a shame, England, what a shame...
posted by sexyrobot at 10:30 AM on June 21, 2013


Like in Northern Ireland, one of the signs of MI5/police plants is that they turn up reliably and actually get things done because they have to maintain their place in the group.
posted by jaduncan at 10:42 AM on June 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


Also, you have to feel for Steel. Her medium to long term relationship was with an undercover officer lying to her; I'd imagine she has considerable trust issues as a result (and, indeed, a civil claim or two that I'm surprised she appears not to be pursuing).
posted by jaduncan at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's what is so bizarre -- I mean, he basically accomplished... nothing?

I'm less concerned with the leaflet than I am with the bomb he might have set of in their name. My impression is that the leaflet wasn't designed to set off a libel suit -- but it would be interesting to find out if mickey-d's did have a hand in it (it certainly backfired).

Also, he's now an progressive academic arguing that the covernment should work with various marginalized political groups -- it seems to me that whether there were infiltrators in potentially radical group (surprise! welcome to the 20th century folks!) is less interesting than *this* particular infiltrator and his story.
posted by smidgen at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2013



Police spies infiltrating groups is a lesser evil than an universal surveillance state, where anyone can fall under suspicion and be found guilty of something or other.

Well, thank god you have both! No need to decide!


What I meant is that I'd rather have a system where the police have to do hard legwork to spy on the citizenry, by prioritising whom to keep an eye on, sending agents out into the field and being limited by finite resources to only spy on a few select targets, rather than by being able to tap into anyone's phone, mailbox or mobile phone location records at will and go drift-net fishing for potential troublemakers. (I'd, of course, rather have a system where there's no need for undercover police because everyone just gets along, but we're still a long way from that.)

Of course, the big questions are who decides the priorities (i.e., if it's someone like Thatcher or Cheney, they're going to spy on a lot of pacifists, atheists, lesbians and hippies, and leave the far-right alone because they're, whilst not entirely “Our Kind of People”, closer to being “Our Kinds of People” than some godless punk who smokes dope), and what procedural safeguards there are in place (in this case, even if one were to grant the (AFAIK unwarranted) assumption that Greenpeace of the 1980s was a hotbed of terrorist activity, the activities of Lambert and his ilk would have still crossed the line by a huge distance).
posted by acb at 10:56 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The hazards of posting during US daylight hours.

Aww, you don't get to feel superior about yourself in the privacy of your own internet. What a shame, England, what a shame..."

posted by sexyrobot

We are English; we don't need Americans around to feel superior, it comes naturally to us.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The problem is the infiltration of any UK groups by, for e.g. MI5 or the CIA, which has been going on for decades. The Unions, CND, Communist Party, NF, Greenham Common, Environmental Activists, the Miners. It is one of the powerful people's favourite tools.
posted by marienbad at 11:31 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Was there anybody beside Steel and Morris in that group who were real?

This reminds me of the Wobblies in Paranoia, which is a secret society whose only members are spies from other secret societies.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:36 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


A civil claim or two that I'm surprised she appears not to be pursuing

It's just possible Steel might be a bit tired of court cases by now. She's spent, what, the best part of a decade in them.
posted by ambrosen at 11:38 AM on June 21, 2013



nice strawman there

It's not a strawman. You're saying you support the ability of police to infiltrate and groups based on their unpopular views even without any prior evidence of wrongdoing. Correct?

My reply was meant to demonstrate how that can have a chilling effect on civic action and democracy and how laws that allow police surveillance without evidence only support the powerful and status quo.

So, you don't believe there is any chilling effect on political activism when laws support the government's ability to infiltrate and disrupt activist groups?
posted by j03 at 11:42 AM on June 21, 2013


confidential legal advice given to Steel and her co-defendant that was written by Keir Starmer, then a barrister known for championing radical causes.

Well, I never knew that about Keir Starmer. Just one interesting aspect of the whole mind-boggling story.
posted by penguin pie at 11:50 AM on June 21, 2013


It's McTurtles all the way down.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:00 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just wondering if there's really a problem with "anti-racist" groups in the UK. Are they really so militant that they need infiltrating? Tell me more...
posted by sunshinesky at 12:18 PM on June 21, 2013


A little bit more infiltration:
British spy agency collects and stores vast quantities of global email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls, and shares them with NSA, latest documents from Edward Snowden reveal
posted by adamvasco at 12:21 PM on June 21, 2013


It's just possible Steel might be a bit tired of court cases by now. She's spent, what, the best part of a decade in them.

Get representation then settle.
posted by jaduncan at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2013


I recall from reading the McLibel book that there were a couple of private detectives hired by McDonald's who infiltrated the group to find out who wrote the pamflet. Now it turns out another member was police. Was there anybody beside Steel and Morris in that group who were real?

I want to see this movie!
posted by Area Man at 1:31 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just wondering if there's really a problem with "anti-racist" groups in the UK. Are they really so militant that they need infiltrating? Tell me more...

They are affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party, who are about all that remains of the far left. The Anti-Nazi League have had a few street fights with the NF/BNP/EDL/new-we-aren't-racists-really name du jour, but it's no bloods and crips situation. You have to think it's more about the links on the right to football hooliganism, and on the left with teh commies.
posted by jaduncan at 2:21 PM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Was there anybody beside Steel and Morris in that group who were real?

I want to see this movie!


It would have to be called "The Man Who Was Green Day" or "The Mac Who Was Thursday".
posted by comealongpole at 2:33 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Undercover policing can be legitimate: every so often you need to distinguish between political extremism and criminality. There's a chilling effect, but what can you do? Wait for a crime to be planned in privacy, then react once it's been successfully committed? Only spy on openly suspicious groups?

You can take that attitude - every person has the right to form a group to promote their political opinion, no matter what, without overt or covert surveillance from the state, until they break the law. But I'm not convinced. It seems like better theory than practice.

This case is super horrible and wrong, BTW, and I'd love to see a very big house cleaning/head rolling. But the chilling effect might be worth it if it proves annoying and harassing to environmentalists, but fatal to criminal groups.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:35 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I imagine McDonald's laughs about this now as they rake in the billions.

I have pretty low standards when I chose to subject myself to fast food, but I steadfastly refuse to eat at Mickey D's again because the food is garbage.
posted by telstar at 3:16 PM on June 21, 2013


It's not a strawman. You're saying you support the ability of police to infiltrate and groups based on their unpopular views even without any prior evidence of wrongdoing. Correct?

No, I'm saying I support the ability of police to investigate groups on suspicion that their members may be involved in criminal conspiracies, with limits and safeguards in place.

This is no different than the police investigating, say, a perfectly ordinary-looking dry-cleaning shop on a tip-off that one of the clerks is using it as a drop-off point for drugs/guns. It does not extend to spying on everybody who has ever expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo/everybody who has ever attended a protest/everybody who has ever had contact with an anarchist.
posted by acb at 3:43 PM on June 21, 2013


every person has the right to form a group to promote their political opinion, no matter what, without overt or covert surveillance from the state, until they break the law. But I'm not convinced.

It seems to me the alternative is that some people don't have the right to promote their political opinion without state surveillance

Who do you say gets to decide which people don't have that right?

posted by layceepee at 3:53 PM on June 21, 2013



Where does speech become action? If a group starts stockpiling bombs and planning attacks at whatever they consider legitimate targets, are they still off-limits until they actually go out and strike?


Yes, unless there is evidence that they are stockpiling weapons, obtained without targeting them for surveillance. More precisely, if they are openly stockpiling weapons, then have at them, State, but if they're doing so clandestinely, then state surveillance is not justified in the absence of evidence that weapons are being stockpiled. The evidence has to be stronger than "These folks are neo-Nazis." There is no moral difference between infiltrating/surveilling neo-Nazi groups and infiltrating Greenpeace, absent compelling evidence that, in addition to being neo-Nazis, the neo-Nazis are possessors of illegal weapons. If this raises the bar too high, tough shit. The fuzz's job is to bust past and present criminals, not harass potential future criminals or enforce the state's ideological favouritism. No amount of (claimed) benefit to public safety (and certainly no amount of public order) is worth the risk of treating people like criminals, or harassing them, solely on the basis of their stated beliefs, however abhorrent, or their legal activities. This is one of few positions that I take where I am literally unable to comprehend opposing positions; they all seem either spineless or predicated on hysteria rooted in shitty risk-assessment.

with limits and safeguards in place.

Impossible. Before-the-fact surveillance of potential criminals with adequate safeguards to avoid ideological repression is impossible.

Wait for a crime to be planned in privacy, then react once it's been successfully committed? Only spy on openly suspicious groups?

Yes and yes.

(I say this as a person who really fucking hates fascists and gives money to Greenpeace routinely. I was also probably wrong on this issue in a recent thread about the IRS and the Tea Party.)
posted by kengraham at 4:48 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This is no different than the police investigating, say, a perfectly ordinary-looking dry-cleaning shop on a tip-off that one of the clerks is using it as a drop-off point for drugs/guns"

This is not what happened here at all.
posted by marienbad at 12:18 AM on June 22, 2013


This is a truly extraordinary story. Not the least extraordinary part of it is that Bob Lambert, in his new role as an academic, is now warning against 'a counter-subversion strategy every bit as clandestine and ruthless as the alleged threat it sought to undermine'. Well, I guess it takes one to know one.

The whole bizarre episode has to be seen in the context of the power struggle that was going on at the time between MI5 and the Metropolitan Police. When the McLibel case first started, the Met had the lead role for counter-terrorism on the British mainland, but in 1992 this was taken away from them and given to MI5. Stella Rimington, in her autobiography, makes it clear that MI5 regarded the police as a bunch of incompetent amateurs:

Frankly, in my opinion, neither the intelligence-gathering techniques nor the assessment skills of the police were, in those days, up to scratch. But this was an extremely delicate issue to address without causing a furore. The Metropolitan Police .. would inevitably regard any attempt to change the status quo as treachery .. Negotiations were long drawn-out and uncomfortable for everyone involved and left relations with parts of the police quite rocky for some time. Many senior police officers chose to see it all as a trial of strength, which ultimately they lost ..

It now appears that the Met's spying activities had got completely out of hand. The Met seems to have decided that in order to assert itself against MI5, it had to build up a network of undercover officers gathering intelligence on domestic subversion. Conspiracy theorists take note: this wasn't the action of a monolithic state apparatus, but a competition between rival state agencies.
posted by verstegan at 2:10 AM on June 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is not what happened here at all.

No it isn't. If you go back and read my comments, you will notice that I am not arguing that what happened here is within the bounds of acceptability. I am just stating an example other than the (naïve, IMHO) view that covert police surveillance is an absolute wrong which should be absolutely prohibited in all circumstances.
posted by acb at 4:53 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


On my phone, but I read somewhere that most of the funding for e American communist party came from CIA plants: they were the only ones who could pay the dues....
posted by Freen at 11:04 AM on June 22, 2013


I recall from reading the McLibel book that there were a couple of private detectives hired by McDonald's who infiltrated the group to find out who wrote the pamflet. Now it turns out another member was police. Was there anybody beside Steel and Morris in that group who were real?

More than a couple of private detectives - McDonalds hired a couple of detective firms, each of which had several agents working on the case.

Add in the police, and the fact that London Greenpeace (not to be confused with the big Greenpeace) was quite a small organisation and its meetings apparently weren't always well attended, and it becomes entirely possible that at some meetings over half the activists were undercover spies...and not aware of each other.

After finding that out, satire took a walk outside and shot itself.
posted by reynir at 3:41 PM on June 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


acb: I am just stating an example other than the (naïve, IMHO) view that covert police surveillance is an absolute wrong which should be absolutely prohibited in all circumstances.

I think that's a strawman; I don't think anyone expressed that view.
posted by spaltavian at 7:04 AM on June 24, 2013


Yes, there's some distance between absolutely prohibited and 'spies are the majority of a peaceful protest group'.

I'm a lot more sympathetic about that level of infiltration when we are doing it to nationalist and unionist terrorists in NI, or to organised crime in general.
posted by jaduncan at 7:07 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


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