Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis: The best kind of argument for a free press

If these stories about undercover police weren't plucked from the pages of our newspapers, you'd think you were reading an airport thriller. This sort of classic, long-form investigative journalism is why we must retain a truly free press.

Undercover: the True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.99

The Guardian’s revelations about undercover police from the Special Demonstration Squad (and more recently the National Public Order Intelligence Unit) have unfolded rather like one of its other great exclusives, on phonehacking. The steady drip of unsavoury information has culminated in the allegation that the Met Police used undercover officers to smear the family of the murder victim Stephen Lawrence.

The issue of sex is most discomforting. Nearly every officer described in the book had passionate, long-term relationships with women from the groups they were investigating. At least one, Bob Lambert, went so far as to get a woman pregnant. Shortly afterwards, Lambert, with whom this woman had expected to live for the rest of her life, faked his emigration and left her a single parent, bereft of any kind of emotional or financial support.

Lambert, who was a special branch detective between 1980 and 2006, later became a tweedy academic (he is now a lecturer in terrorism studies at St Andrews University). In 2011, while he was giving a talk, Greenpeace campaigners burst into the lecture hall and demanded answers. Like many officers, Lambert was married with children while the affairs were taking place. Another had two relationship counsellors: one to see with his wife and one to see with the woman he was having an affair with.

Most readers will find clear evidence of exploitation in these descriptions – young, idealistic activists in their early twenties were fair game to the older undercover police officers, whatever the police may claim. Others might note just how deeply the men (and one woman) in this book had to embed themselves.

Yet it’s hardly the only morally questionable decision that these officers made. They took on the names of dead children to protect their identities. Some committed crimes and lied in court. Many seemed to be not only movers and shakers in the ecological and political circles in which they were embedded but instigators of direct action.

During the “McLibel” trial (a multi - million-pound libel suit filed by McDonald’s against the environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris, which this book alleges was at least in part instigated by Lambert), there were sometimes more spies among the activists’ group than there were activists, as a result of the combined efforts of McDonald’s and the police.

The process of infiltration, repeated for nearly 40 years, seems more often than not to have severely damaged both the police officers’ mental well-being and that of the friends and lovers they gained and discarded. Throughout this period, there was a pattern of officers who had infiltrated groups returning to desk duty and then threatening to go rogue – or doing so.

This is perhaps why Scotland Yard has not co-operated with Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Because of this, there’s another side to the story we don’t hear – could all this pain and suffering be worth it? At one of the most significant trials mentioned here that resulted from the actions of these officers (that of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station protesters who were arrested in 2009 because of the work of Mark Kennedy, a notorious undercover operator), the guilty were spared jail. The judge declared that the protesters had acted “with the highest possible motives”.

The phrase “domestic extremism” is, as the authors point out, “as meaningless as it [is] useful”. At various points here, the police apply it to the anti-roads movement, the Lawrence family, activists exposing allegations of police corruption and a 69-year-old retired physicist campaigning to protect a local beauty spot. The women with whom these officers had affairs hardly seem major threats to national security. Indeed, many seem to have done nothing illegal at all.

Were these stories not real, they would read like an airport thriller. More often than not, they end in tragedy for both their protagonists and the people who they deceived. Undercover compels the reader throughout, which is a testament to the investigative and writing skills of Evans and Lewis. The authors’ huge amount of research does not burden the narrative and is marshalled expertly.

The result is an example of the kind of classic, long-haul journalism that has, over recent years, produced scoops that have rattled the establishment, provoked multiple police inquiries and offered up an extraordinary series of revelations. The work of these authors is one of the best arguments in favour of a free press you’ll ever read.

Alan White writes for newstatesman.com and, as John Heale, is the author of “One Blood” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

Sleeper cell: Undercover cop Mark Kennedy. Photograph: Philipp Ebeling/Guardian News & Media LTD.

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.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories