A free press is essential to expose the revolving door between public and private surveillance

The line between those paid by the state to protect us, and those paid by corporations to protect themselves is increasingly blurred. We need proper public interest journalism to make sure stories like this can be told.

I wanted to write about press reform this week, but I got distracted by something I read on the internet. It was a story from last month’s Guardian, and it was about the energy company E.ON. You may have heard this tale , but it didn’t get the reaction it deserved, so it bears repeating. It was about a 2010 meeting between Dr Paul Golby, who was then the company’s CEO, and Ed Miliband, who was then the energy secretary. You’d think such meetings would be about infrastructure and investment, incentives for customers - that sort of thing. But Golby wanted to talk about something else.

He was there to talk about the sentences handed down to environmental protesters at the company’s power plants (protesters involved in direct action at Kingsnorth had been acquitted; another group were due to be sentenced for aggravated trespass at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar site). He wanted them to be given stiffer sentences. It transpired he’d raised this issue on several occasions prior to this, even writing to the department to "express his concern and highlight the impact upon the attractiveness of the UK's energy market for global investors". Letters had previously been sent to the business secretary, home secretary and justice secretary.

We’re not supposed to know about any of this: the details of the meeting were apparently released by accident due to a botched redaction by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in response to a Freedom of Information request. Ed Miliband has made no statement on the meetings, so we don’t know know whether, as a result of this, the department got in touch with the CPS or took any other action. You might be fine with all this. You might think that it’s a company’s right to protect its assets, right up to attempting to influence the justice system. But then you have to ask yourself, how far is it prepared to go beyond that? Which brings us back to Ratcliffe-on-Soar. In April 2009, police carried out the biggest pre-emptive raid on the environmental movement in history, arresting 114 people who were planning a protest at the station.

It would later transpire that they were acting on a tip-off from Mark Kennedy, the undercover policeman who infiltrated the environmental movement for seven years. Twenty-six protesters were charged. At the court of appeal, three judges would rule Kennedy unlawfully spied on them and arguably acted as an "agent provocateur". They would also say they shared the "great deal of justifiable public disquiet" about the case. But Kennedy was just a cop, doing his job on our behalf, right? Yet how close the ties between the company and the state seem around this time. Only that month, we would learn that officials from the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) handed confidential police intelligence about a planned demonstration at a proposed site for a coal power station to E.ON. How did it come by the information? David Howarth MP would say. "It is as though BERR was treating the police as an extension of E.ON's private security operation.”

And once you go down this rabbit hole and start to draw connections, you don’t half start to find some uncomfortable links between the private and public sector, in particular the revolving door between those paid by the state to protect us, and those paid by corporations to protect themselves. For instance, you go back to Kennedy. Kennedy was a public sector employee. But having left the police he set up a company at the work address of a former director of Global Open, a private security firm set up by Rod Leeming, a former investigator from special branch. Leeming would later tell the press that he had infiltrated operatives into protest groups while in the police, but that his company only advised others on security. Nevertheless, one of its clients was...E.ON.

And Global Open wasn’t the only private security firm engaged by E.ON. It also hired a company called Vericola, which in 2011 was found to have snooped on environmentalists’ emails. Vericola was also hired by Scottish Power, whose head of security, Gordon Irving, worked at Strathclyde Police for 30 years before taking the job. Vericola’s head, Rebecca Todd, was alleged by the press to have previously been an employee of C2i International, another private security firm, which prior to this had one of its operatives unmasked in the most calamitous manner imaginable (n.b - do click this link and read a staggering little story). This company was run by a former army officer, who now has a new company, Lynceus. Then you start digging around, and you discover in an old issue of Private Eye that one of its advisers is John Dearlove. The firm says Dearlove was “a member of the Cabinet Office Security and Intelligence Secretariat during the premiership of Mr Blair” but doesn’t mention that he is also the brother of Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6. So by now you've realised the revolving door from public to private surveillance is not only commonplace - it involves some very powerful people. By this point not only are you jibbering like Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown; you're wondering how impartial those who spy for the state can be.

And then you start to contemplate wider questions about surveillance in our society. This month alone, you hear two more stories. One, that an 88-year-old campaigner has won a lawsuit against the police for labeling him a “domestic extremist” and logging his records on a secret database, and you’re not remotely surprised to find it was done by the same unit for which Mark Kennedy worked. Two, that more than £3.9m has been spent by public bodies including the Department for Transport for surveillance work - including snooping on their own staff. And you think to yourself: I’m glad someone’s watching the watchmen.

Because someone is: journalists. Everything in this blog has been publicly reported, though not in the same place and not at the same time. The papers who reported on this are taking huge risks by covering the deeds of corporations that will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests - right up to the litigious lunacy of taking out of a £5m civil lawsuit against protesters who occupied a power plant.

I’d planned to write about the the staggeringly naive, snowballing incompetence of our political class’s attempts to reform the press this week, but I realised we've heard too much wailing from hacks. Moreover, the very fact I could construct this narrative simply by looking at publicly available works of journalism was as good a defence as any of why we do what we do, and why powerful people don't like it. Politicians pay lip service to dissent, but in practice it's part of their job description to silence it. If you want a great illustration, how many of you noticed what Chris Grayling has been up to this week?

Better journalists than I have explained why this week may very well make it harder for me - let alone you, until a last-minute panic - to hold power to account. The act of spying on the public - whether by private security firms working for the energy sector or by News International - needed to be exposed. We shouldn’t forget it required a more positive form of espionage to uncover both.

The crimes that lead to the Leveson Inquiry were horrific - but they were just that: crimes. Their victims won't be protected by a system reliant on a powerful libel system that generally operates only for the wealthy backers of the pro-regulation lobby. A free arbitration service is a better idea, but without safeguards the voices of genuine victims risk being lost once more. Many of the noises you'll have heard from journalists have been hysterical. I don't fear the prospect of a tougher code - indeed, I welcome it. But the Royal Charter's implementation has been a mess from day one. I seriously fear not for the sudden death of free speech, but for its gradual erosion.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.