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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.

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

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)