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.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.