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Thursday, March 06, 2014 

The not so shocking truth.

David Cameron is shocked. Theresa May is shocked. Ed Miliband is shocked. Doreen Lawrence is not shocked. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention will not be shocked. It turns out, hardly shockingly, that those in the Metropolitan police's Special Demonstration Squad, invested with the power it seems to do more or less as they saw fit when it came to infiltrating political protest groups, were allowed to carry out "minor crimes" to maintain their cover and that some went much further. Specifically when it comes to the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there are "reasonable grounds" on which to suspect one officer was potentially corrupt, while it seems the Lawrences were also personally spied on.

The two separate reports published today are a wonderful example of what happens when the police (although overseen by the IPCC) and an independent figure investigate the same thing. The interim Operation Herne report by Derbyshire chief constable Mick Creedon (PDF) goes out of its way to discredit Peter Francis.  It extends the familiar concept of neither confirming or denying that an officer was part of the SDS to Francis himself, despite how it is repeatedly made plainly obvious in the report that he clearly was with the unit, so all of his statements are referred to disingenuously and it might be said, disrespectfully, as claims.  Francis himself refused to have anything to do with Operation Herne, fearing that regardless of the promises made that he would be treated as a witness rather than a suspect, he could still face prosecution.  After receiving assurances from the attorney general he did co-operate with the Mark Elllison investigation, while refusing to allow the material from those interviews to be shared with Herne.

As a result Creedon's report repeatedly claims it could find no evidence to substantiate most of the allegations made by Francis.  It does this while not dwelling for a moment longer than necessary on the fact that the original intelligence files produced by SDS prior to 1998 were destroyed after the "sanitised" intelligence had been submitted or the operation ended, something that shouldn't be "viewed with suspicion", as this was SDS practice at the time.  Whether this should have been the practice or not doesn't seem to have occurred to Creedon.  It doesn't matter however as this sanitised intelligence was kept and has been located, and most of the SDS and Special Branch officers at the time did agree to be interviewed.  Unsurprisingly, only one of these officers provided anything amounting to to corroboration of Francis' most serious allegation, that the Lawrence family themselves had been spied on, and he is described as only having been recruited as DI in 2005, leaving in "discordant" circumstances in 2008.

Mark Ellison's report by contrast seems to be describing an entirely different world.  Having spoken to Francis and clearly found him to be a reliable and credible witness, something backed up by how even Creedon accepts that without Francis we wouldn't have known that the SDS stole the identities of children who had died as infants and that authorised or not, some SDS officers did have unacceptable long-term relationships with the activists in the groups they infiltrated, the same evidence is presented in a different light.  Ellison's report therefore attaches little weight to how "no record can be found to confirm any relevant aspect of claimed SDS activity" and so goes by what it has been able to uncover.  It finds that the on-going infiltration of one of the groups attached to the Lawrence campaign led to the passing of personal information back to the Met, and that a meeting in 1998 during a break in the Macpherson inquiry between the undercover officer and DI Walton, who had been seconded to the team involved in drafting the force's submission to the inquiry, was "wrong-headed" and at worst "completely improper".  Walton himself might not have been fully aware of what was he was being asked to do by meeting the officer, but it nonetheless leaves the impression of the Met spying on the Lawrences and attempting to gain intelligence on how they should respond at the inquiry.  Creedon's report, by contrast, accepts at face value the assurance of the undercover officer that "that the intention and actions of the SDS were to indirectly support the Stephen Lawrence family".  Of course.

On the specific allegation from Francis that he was tasked with gathering intelligence on the Lawrence campaign that could be used against the family, while agreeing there is no paper evidence and the other officers say otherwise, it notes there was a "strong feeling of indignation and a degree of hostility within the Met" towards the family and its statements. This was directed against the family itself rather than the groups that were also campaigning, such feelings possibly leading to a desire to collect information that could be used to correct the impression the force was incompetent or not putting sufficient effort into the search for Stephen's killers.  Combined with the fear that the campaign for justice could lead to public disorder, Ellison finds it believable that there may have been a desire to gather "collective" intelligence.  His overall conclusion is that only a public inquiry able to see and hear evidence can make a definitive finding on whose account is the more credible.

The response from the government to order just that makes perfectly clear which report Theresa May puts more stock in.  Nonetheless, Creedon's report which doubles as a criminal investigation will continue for another year, while Ellison will also conduct another inquiry into potential miscarriages of justice due to undeclared SDS involvement and both will have to be finished before the judge-led inquiry can begin.  This further delay could well mean that the full truth about the botched initial investigation into Stephen's murder will not be known until a quarter of a century after it took place, as appalling an indictment of the British justice and review system as it's possible to imagine. 

Just as the SDS was allowed to operate with almost nothing in the way of formal guidance, let alone legislation, so now the other section of the secret state, the intelligence agencies, are allowed to do almost as they please with little in the way of formal oversight.  If the development of facial recognition software could be hastened by tapping into the streams of webcam users, it was done.  No government minister however has so far commented on those allegations, as national security would be endangered by doing so.  Just as we attempt to finally get to the bottom of one national scandal, the door is slammed shut on one we could well still be dealing with in another 25 years' time.

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