Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Dan Murrell
Show Hide image

The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

A successful thief sets his own rules and the best ones live by them. These were some of Jimmy McNulty’s: target luxury stores only, dress as smartly as the wealthiest customer, engage and charm the salespeople if approached. Never rush, never panic, and always trust in your powers of sleight of hand.

Here he is at 12.59pm on 28 September 2013, ringing the bell of the Leica Store in Mayfair, where cameras sell for thousands of pounds. He is 40 years old, with short, dark hair and of athletic build – McNulty is the name given to him by a Metropolitan Police detective who saw a resemblance to Dominic West’s character in the television series The Wire. He wears a pink dress shirt, a dark cardigan and jacket, smart shoes. Under his arm is a wad of papers. McNulty picks up a camera, and then a pair of binoculars, carefully appraising them. Two store assistants stand a few metres away. When they turn their backs, he slips the camera inside his jacket. He asks to be let out and casually strolls away.

This is McNulty again at 4.39pm on 18 October 2014, sitting at a table in Buy Fine Diamonds, a retailer in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. A salesman lays out a selection of bracelets. McNulty uses a jeweller’s loupe to examine several items. When the salesman stands up to retrieve a piece from a window display, McNulty strikes, pincering a bracelet and dropping it into his pocket. The salesman returns and from under his nose McNulty lifts another bracelet into his palm and closes his fist.

Now here he is at 6.27pm on 13 May 2015 at the Hackett clothing store on Regent Street, Piccadilly. After slipping a few leather accessories into his sleeveless jacket, McNulty picks up a pair of shoes from a display, walks to an empty sales counter and stuffs them down the front of his trousers.

That was his favourite place to hide stolen goods: merino wool jumpers, cashmere scarves, fancy shirts and wallets disappeared below his belt. He hit Salvatore Ferragamo on Sloane Street, Smythson on New Bond Street, Aquascutum on the Brompton Road, Alfred Dunhill on Jermyn Street, Ede & Ravenscroft – the oldest tailor in London – on Chancery Lane. Boutiques in Islington, galleries on the Portobello Road, the Space NK and Jo Malone cosmetics shops. At Linda Farrow, an eyewear shop in Mayfair, he slipped a pair of sunglasses into his jacket and then, as if it were a game, asked the assistant for a business card.

McNulty had a rule for closed-circuit ­television cameras, too: ignore them. More than 400,000 CCTV cameras watch over London and most upmarket shops have them. But McNulty knew they were used mostly as deterrents. Even if the footage was sent to the police, at best he’d be fingered for a single crime, he thought. Unless, of course, they recognised him as a serial ­offender and found out his real name. What were the chances of that?

***

Since the 19th century, doctors have known that some patients who suffer brain trauma lose the ability to recognise faces, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, “face”, and agnosia, “not knowing”). In the 1970s scientists discovered that a congenital form of the disorder affects a much wider segment of the population – ordinary functioning people who have never experienced head injuries and have perfect vision.

Studies suggest that two out of every 100  people have developmental prosopagnosia, meaning they have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own in the mirror. To identify someone familiar, a face-blind person relies on clues such as voice, gait, posture or unusual facial characteristics.

Among the best-known prosopagnosics was the late doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who became aware of his bewildering predicament as a schoolboy in London. He learned to pick out his best friends, Eric Korn and Jonathan Miller, by their ­specific features. “Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair,” Sacks wrote in the New Yorker. When he looked at old photographs a decade after leaving school, Sacks could not identify a single classmate. Stephen Fry and Jane Goodall are other well-known sufferers of the disorder, which is associated with lesions in a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.

In 2009 a trio of researchers led by Richard Russell published the results of their study, which aimed to determine if there was a third group of people when it came to face recognition, whose problem (or rather talent) was that they struggled to forget a face. Russell, a psychologist who was then based at Harvard, tested four people claiming to have superior face recognition abilities, including a 26-year-old female student who told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass. If I’ve seen your face before, I will be able to recall it.” Russell set his subjects and a larger control group two tasks, involving famous faces and unfamiliar faces. In both, the test group performed “far above average”, leading Russell to coin the term “super-recognisers”. “In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognisers are about as good as many dev­elopmental prosopagnosics are bad,” he and his colleagues wrote.

Around the same time, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the London Metropolitan Police was reaching his own conclusions about people with an exceptional ability to recognise faces. In 2007, Neville had set up a unit to collate and circulate images of unidentified criminals captured on CCTV. Officers were asked to check the Met’s “Caught on Camera” notices to see if they knew any of the suspects. “It became apparent that some officers were much better than others,” Neville told me. “For example, if I received 100 names, some officers would have submitted ten or 15, while in the main they were one-off identifications.”

At first, Neville assumed that the prolific officers simply knew more criminals than the rest. Then he realised that it had more to do with their ability to remember faces: the best identifiers could spot a suspect they had never met merely after viewing a photograph of them.

In early 2011, he discussed his findings at a conference attended by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich. For his PhD, Davis had studied the use of CCTV identification in court proceedings. “Most of my research had shown that people were not very good at face-matching,” Davis told me one recent morning when we met at a cafeteria on campus. “So I was suspicious of the police claims.”

He agreed to test the facial recognition skills of 20 officers who excelled at Caught on Camera identifications. To Davis’s surprise, most of them scored much better than the norm, and a few were exceptional.

That August, the London riots broke out. Met officers trawled through tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, ­identifying 609 suspects responsible for looting, arson and other criminal acts. One officer, PC Gary Collins, made 180 identifications, including that of one of the most high-profile suspects, who had thrown petrol bombs at police and set cars on fire. During the riots, the man covered his mouth and nose with a bandana and pulled a beanie low over his forehead. Collins recognised him as a criminal whom he had last seen several years earlier. The man was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Now convinced of the super-recogniser theory, Neville assembled a standby team of 150 officers who excelled at identification. Over the next few years, as McNulty was slipping jewels into his pockets and stuffing luxury shoes into his trousers, the officers were deployed in high-profile investigations, including the Hillsborough inquest and the Alice Gross murder.

Gross, a 14-year-old girl from west London, went missing as she walked along a canal towpath in August 2014. The Met operation to find her was the biggest since the London 7 July 2005 bombings. But it was only after ten of Neville’s super-recognisers were brought in to the investigation that her body was discovered in the River Brent.

The team zeroed in on one of the suspects, a Latvian construction worker called Arnis Zalkalns, whose wife had reported him missing a few days after Gross disappeared. A CCTV clip showed Zalkalns cycling along the canal 12 minutes behind Gross. In footage from an off-licence later in the day, the officers recognised Zalkalns, who was buying a few Carlsbergs, and council cameras captured him cycling back to a particular spot on the River Brent at dusk. At his next sighting in a shop, later in the evening, he was wearing fresh clothes. The super-recognisers suspected that Zalkalns had changed because he had been back to the crime scene. They informed the officer in charge, who ordered a fresh search of the stretch of river­bank where they had seen Zalkalns – and Gross’s carefully concealed body was found.

***

On May 2015, the Super-Recogniser Unit was established at New Scotland Yard, the first – and still the only – dedicated team of its kind in the world. Initially it comprised four officers whose skills had been tested by Josh Davis and who were seconded from elsewhere in the force. (The unit now has six men and one woman.)

Detective Sergeant Eliot Porritt, who had worked on the Alice Gross murder, was the most senior recruit. A 36-year-old former plain-clothes officer from north London, Porritt had been largely unaware of his superior face recognition skills until a few years ago. “As a boy, I watched The Terminator and Aliens with my father, who worked for Billboard and Hollywood Reporter magazines. I now remember him being amazed when I noticed that an actor – Bill Paxton – was in both films, even though he looked different in each role,” Porritt told me. “But I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I assumed everybody saw what I saw.”

The main function of the super-recogniser officers was to attend large events, such as music concerts and the Notting Hill Carnival, and spot criminals there. In their downtime, they were tasked with trawling through the Met’s forensic image database, which holds more than 100,000 stills of unidentified suspects captured on CCTV camera or on mobile phones in London since 2011. Each picture is linked to an unsolved crime – in essence, a cold case – and is tagged with the date, location and type of offence, along with the suspect’s distinguishing features, such as race and hairstyle.

As they scrolled through the images, the officers first checked whether they recognised anyone from their time on the streets or previous Caught on Camera appeals. The next challenge was to link suspects involved in multiple crimes, using their powers of recall and recognition to match images – a process they called “snapping”.

“Basically we’re saying, ‘This guy and that guy in those two pictures are the same person – snap!’” Porritt told me when I visited the Super-Recogniser Unit one after­noon. “And you’ve got two strands to it: the people we already know and who we try to link with as many crimes as possible; and people who we don’t know but who we still link and then try to identify.”

It was difficult, painstaking work: the images were often grainy, the lighting poor and camera angles awkward. Furthermore, a criminal’s appearance could change over time. But if snapping led to an arrest it would be worth it: a person charged with multiple crimes was likely to be sent to prison rather than receiving a suspended sentence and being left free to reoffend.

In early August 2015 one of Porritt’s junior colleagues (who asked for his name to be withheld) was looking at CCTV images from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he had worked as a beat cop. The officer noticed the same, smartly dressed thief – the man the team later nicknamed McNulty – in two stills taken in upmarket shops. Snap. Then another, and another – snap, snap. As he broadened his search to other affluent boroughs of London, the officer kept seeing the same face. He printed out the images of the serial shoplifter and tacked them to a wall in the office. He told me: “When I had 13 or 14 crimes, I said to Eliot, ‘There’s £35,000 worth of goods stolen by this guy. We need to do something.’”

They downloaded the CCTV clips from where the stills had been taken. McNulty’s hands were so fast that in some cases the officers had to slow the footage down to ascertain exactly when the theft had occurred.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him [McNulty], it was like: ‘That’s good.’”

Porritt sent out a media appeal and the London Evening Standard published a story about the “sleight-of-hand thief”. Through tip-offs, the police learned that the man’s first name was Austin. Porritt’s colleague keyed the name in to the Met’s custody image database, which stores mugshots of everyone arrested in the capital. There were 73 Austins. Number 14 looked familiar. “I think I’ve got him!” the officer shouted.

Jimmy McNulty was Austin Caballero, a born-and-bred Londoner. He was on the arrests database because he had been caught stealing an expensive rug in January 2015, but the police, unaware of his other crimes, had freed him on bail. He skipped his court hearing. There was a bail address but when Porritt and his colleague knocked on the door, there was no sign of the thief. Caballero was on the run.

By then, it was clear that the task of searching the database should be the primary focus of the Super-Recogniser Unit, not just something to do in quiet times. The team had identified, apprehended and charged dozens of suspects, from shoplifters to commercial burglars and perpetrators of assaults. (Three in every four of the unit’s completed cases have resulted in a suspect being charged in court – against fewer than one in five cases in the wider Met force.)

The super-recognisers had also assisted other units struggling to close cases. Police in north London had obtained CCTV images of a man accused of sexually assaulting women on buses but were unable to identify him. Porritt and his colleague Alison Young used Oyster card data to map out the suspect’s travel patterns and noticed that he often began his journey at Camden Road Overground station. One afternoon, they went there to make inquiries. While on the concourse, Young, by chance, spotted the suspect – whom she had only seen in CCTV stills – passing through. “Oh, my God, Porritt, that’s him,” she exclaimed. They ran ­after the man and slapped on handcuffs. (The sexual offender pleaded guilty in court and was convicted.)

By the end of 2015, the team had much to celebrate. Yet there was frustration, too: the unit’s most high-profile target was still at large. The tally of offences linked to Caballero, rising by the week, stood at 42.

***

At 2am on New Year’s Day, Caballero ordered a taxi. He was out of cigarettes and did not feel like walking to the shop. On the way home, he tried to jump out of the cab to avoid paying the £5 fare. When the driver locked the doors, Caballero hit him with his shoe. The driver called the police, who arrested Caballero and took him to Holborn Police Station. “New Year’s Day is the worst shift you can possibly work,” Porritt said. “Holborn was absolutely manic, with prisoners all over the place, chaos.”

Caballero gave his name as Jack Donaghy and claimed never to have been arrested before. He was charged for the assault and bailed. One of London’s most wanted men in terms of numbers of crimes – involving stolen goods worth more than £100,000 – was about to walk free.

Just before he could do so, the custody sergeant noticed the red hand that appears on the police computer screen when the person booked has not been fingerprinted. Caballero tried one last ruse, saying that he had to rush home to be with his children. It failed. When his prints were scanned, his real identity was revealed.

At 10am that morning the super-recog­niser team was notified. Porritt drove straight to New Scotland Yard to write up the case summary for the police lawyer. “It was longer than my dissertation at university!” he told me. Meanwhile, in the interview room at Holborn Police Station, his super-recogniser colleague James Rabbett showed the suspect the poster that the unit had made using CCTV images of his crimes. “Caballero was gobsmacked,” Rabbett told me. “He then got a bit arsey, saying, ‘I’m not speaking to you until I’ve had a cigarette, I’m getting out of here, you can’t do this to me.’ And then it was: ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a full hands-up. Let’s get it done.’”

When formal questioning started, Caballero gave his name and date of birth, then smiled, put his head on the desk, and refused to talk. Based on Porritt’s evidence, the police lawyer agreed that Caballero should be charged with 42 crimes.

Word of the Super-Recogniser Unit’s success was spreading. In January, Porritt flew to Cologne to advise German police investigating the mass sexual assaults that had occurred in the city on New Year’s Eve. Enforcement agencies as far afield as India, Australia and the United States – as well as other parts of the UK – visited the unit or ­requested information on its methods.

One of the most common questions asked of the team is whether computers will put the super-recognisers out of a job. After all, some countries, including the UK, already use facial recognition technology at passport control. Porritt’s unit has its own software but this has been responsible for only one of the 2,010 identifications made since May 2015. DCI Mick Neville reckons that it will be ten to 20 years before software is advanced enough to be a useful tool, and even then super-recognisers will still be needed to analyse the results and identify the suspects.

Josh Davis, the University of Greenwich lecturer, agrees. “Algorithms will get better and we will be able to build 3D representations of faces. But people change appearance and we as humans are primed to see through those changes.”

Meanwhile, studies into the science ­behind super-recognition continue. Anna Bobak, a research fellow of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at Bournemouth University, said that the exceptional ability to identify faces has a strong genetic component and that efforts to train people to be better recognisers had yielded mixed results.

In her experiments, Bobak found that whereas most people concentrate on a person’s eye region when looking at them, super-recognisers often focus on the centre of the face, around the nose. “That’s not to say that the nose is important, but more that people can perceive the whole face better,” Bobak told me.

***

On 1 April, Austin Caballero appeared at Blackfriars Crown Court and pleaded guilty to 42 charges. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. Weeks later, his name still featured in the whiteboard list of “top ten serial offenders” in room 901 at Scotland Yard – and the number of his crimes was rising. For even though Caballero was now behind bars, his old thefts, caught on camera, were still being solved. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue