My spy

Mark Thomas and Merrick Badger met at the Edinburgh Fringe festival to discuss their experiences of being spied on

October 1, 2014 · 11 min read

Comedian Mark Thomas was an arms industry campaigner with his friend Martin Hogbin, who worked for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). After seven years, Hogbin was exposed as a spy hired by BAE Systems. Thomas instinctively supported Hogbin, refused to look at the file of evidence CAAT had against him and even took Hogbin on tour. It was only a year later that he had to face the truth. Ten years on, his new show Cuckooed is about coming to terms with the experience.

Merrick Badger is an environmental and social justice activist who, seven years into a fraternal friendship with Mark Stone, became suspicious and was part of the group that exposed him as police officer Mark Kennedy. Since then he has been a researcher on political policing and an activist with the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS).

Merrick Your show Cuckooed is about being spied on ten years ago. Why does it still bother you?

Mark It’s something that’s unresolved. The impact of being spied upon stays with you, it has a profound influence. But all of us feel ready to tell the story now. At first there was a feeling of shame. Anger too, but definitely shame.

Merrick At having been duped?

Mark Yes. I should’ve seen through this. And that was really shameful to me. But then you want answers. Why did you do this? What was in it for you? You have a whole range of personal questions about the person who was the spy.

But you also want to know who they were doing it for, what their remit was, who they were working with, where’s the crossover between the state and corporate sector. You want to know what happened to the stuff they got. Who has that data? What do they use it for? This is still a live issue.

Merrick That’s crucial, this is still going on. The police downplay it by talking as if it’s historical, as if they aren’t still doing the same things under a different acronym. It can happen to anyone. You don’t even have to be an activist. If you are Jean Charles de Menezes’ family, that’s enough. The police have one role, to counter threats, and they don’t differentiate between a threat to life and limb, a threat to corporate profit, a threat to police credibility and a threat to the political norm. Bereaved families, environmentalists, construction workers, anti-fascists, trade unionists – they did the same thing to all of us and they’re still doing it.

Mark I’m telling the story now because I think a number of voices need to come together to say we have common cause. This is our story.

Merrick More people spied on are coming forward, and it’s partly to do with that being ready. When one of your best mates for seven years was a cop it means everything about you is on file somewhere, so the first impulse is to not talk – to not have anything else taken from you for other people’s inspection and appraisal.

Mark For me, when someone who has been part of your past is a fabrication, you ask yourself, what bit of me is true? What bit of that past is true? You start to question your personal narrative.

Merrick There’s also your personal judgement. It’s one of the things the women who had relationships with spies have to deal with – on top of all the other psychological damage, the knowledge that they were the gateway, they vouched for this fucker. Thinking about how they got people’s loyalty, I’m struck by the similarities between Hogbin and Kennedy. They didn’t try to emulate the activists they spied on, they both stuck out as gobby, gregarious, larger-than-life blokes. That was actually quite refreshing in an activist world of mannered analytical minds. They were so upfront it wouldn’t really occur that they were devious.

Your prolonged emotional conflict in the show made me realise that of all the people I know who were spied on, I’m probably the luckiest. You spent a year avoiding the file of overwhelming evidence about Martin. Some people spent years suspecting, some of them got criticised by friends and called paranoid. Some people will never know for sure. But for me, after being told a passport had been found in Mark Kennedy’s real name, I only had two or three weeks of sifting through birth certificates and electoral rolls before I had him confessing to my face.

The big difference with my case is that Mark Kennedy hired Max Clifford and sold his story to the Mail on Sunday. There were vintage pictures of him in uniform at his passing out parade, pictures of his wife, there was video of him talking in copperspeak; he’d had his hair cut, taken out his piercings, and dressed like Alan Partridge. It was a totally different person, it was a police officer. It flushed me of Mark Stone, exorcising me in a way that most other people haven’t had.

Mark I’ve kind of gone through that after we confronted Martin recently. If he’d been open and honest about spying, that would have been an act of friendship, an act of contrition. There were shards of friendship there but those have really disappeared in the last few weeks. It’s this funny thing that you stop being a victim every time you get out and tell the story, you take more control.

It’s obvious to me that him not admitting the truth is a final bit of power over us. That power is an incredible thing, and people can play with it at both ends. With Martin, I think he really enjoyed getting one over on BAE Systems. He really enjoyed putting a pie in a BAE bigwig’s face, he really enjoyed doing the actions. I don’t think they were just exercises in building credibility – though undoubtedly they were that – they were things he immensely enjoyed too.

It was that feeling of being the most important person in the room. Which is why I think his refusal to talk to me is still about keeping that little bit of power.

Merrick I find it hard to tell with Kennedy. So much that seemed real was definitely untrue, so how can we know if any of it was true? But certainly Mark spent a lot of time socialising, DJing, holidaying with us.

If he’d just been about fucking us over and laughing at us behind his hand, he would’ve disappeared after we caught him. Instead he tried to stay in touch, sending me a personal fawning email with his new email address, and I wasn’t the only one. Basically, we’re more fun than the cops.

Our ideas of integrity, trust and honesty in friendships, which we like to think of as universal, actually aren’t. People like Martin and Mark don’t share them. Martin could never have really been your friend for the same reason that you and I could never be a spy.

Mark People can compartmentalise their lives, and I think Martin had genuine feelings of affection that were in a box over here, then there were genuine feelings of betrayal which were in a box over there. I think he had a real enjoyment of being the one person who knows more than anyone else.

Merrick That’s a thing undercover cop Jim Boyling said – he liked it because it was like being God, he was the one person who knew everyone’s secrets on both sides and got to decide what to tell who, to decide people’s fate. But now we know they’re there, we can protect ourselves and start to fight back.

Mark I think there are serious questions the movement needs to be asking itself, given the level of infiltration from corporate and state sectors. NGOs, campaigners and activists need to ask, do we need to create a unified response to this? Yes. Do we need to be pushing for public inquiries? Yes. Do we need to look at how legislation could be brought in to curtail this? Yes.

We need to be building support networks so when spying happens we can go, ‘These are your options; you’ve got legal options here.’ You can actually bring a privacy case and a freedom of association case. You can do that!

We are in this wild west situation where private companies can just go and spy on whomever they want and have a right to do that. So it is entirely within our rights to have access to that information, and to know where it goes.

Merrick I agree, but NGOs face a serious risk of brand damage if they admit they are spied on. This is why they’ve commonly pretended it never happened, which leaves spies at liberty to move on to the next organisation. This is why CAAT are so interesting because they openly talked about what happened.

Mark At first CAAT wanted to go public but the legal people said they couldn’t show the evidence. CAAT now say they wish they’d ignored that and just done it. It was different when the second lot of spying at CAAT came out in 2007. CAAT were bringing a judicial review about the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to drop the investigation into the allegations of bribery between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. BAE Systems’ lawyers got in contact with CAAT’s lawyers and said, ‘We’re terribly sorry but we appear to have your legal advice and strategy’, which had come from a leaked email.

The lawyers got BAE Systems into court, forced them to admit they’d spied on CAAT, forced them to name the company, LigneDeux Associates, that had sent the email and that they were paid by BAE Systems to provide ‘media and internet monitoring’ on CAAT. And finally forced them to sign a consent order saying that legally they are bound not to spy on CAAT in future.

Those organisations that are spied on should be going, ‘Let’s get these fuckers in the dock,’ and we can do that.

The scale of the problem is huge. These police units were out of control and corporate spying has no regulation. These people fucking owe us. They exploited us and fucked us over. They owe us the truth.

Merrick There is the promised public inquiry into the police infiltration units. But drawing the line around it is such a difficult task. Even with the one they’re proposing – which we don’t have terms of reference for yet – it’s a massive sprawling issue. To just tackle the police spy units is huge and unwieldy. Same with the corporate spying.

Then there’s the international angle. Kennedy alone worked in 14 countries and other countries’ police forces send spies here. There’s the family justice campaigns, the families whose dead kids’ identities were stolen, it’s utterly gargantuan.

Merrick The legal measures taken against private companies like BAE wouldn’t wash with state spies. We’ve seen the Stephen Lawrence’s family inquiries and inquests hamstrung by secrecy and lies. We can’t expect the forthcoming undercover police inquiry to deliver the whole truth, let alone justice. But we do get a huge amount of information out of them and that helps to define the next obstacle to tackle.

Mark The disclosure that starts to come out lets you move forward. It’s not called a struggle for nothing, though – it’s fucking hard! The scale is enormous. That is the thing that I don’t think people previously understood, that it was that big.

Merrick We mustn’t let that overwhelm us though. Now we know what we’re up against we’re in a stronger position than ever. We did some amazing stuff with these fuckers in our midst. We did the anti-roads movement and Greenham Common. We’re as strong as we were then, with the added ability to fend off spies who would undermine us.

Pixels and mortar: The politics of video game worldbuilding

With the worlds of architecture and video games becoming increasingly intertwined, Gerry Hart examines how video games communicate through their design

Revolutionary threads in feminist art

Siobhán McGuirk reports on textile arts used by feminist activists worldwide, from 1800 Paris factory workers to anti-capitalist 'yarnbombers' today

Solidarity, sit-ins, and samosa packets: one artist activist’s journey

Sofia Karim recalls how her uncle's arrest led her to create an online platform for artist activists to campaign against authoritarianism

Collage including photos of Seferis and Theodorakis

A poet, a composer and an unlikely Greek protest song

Mikis Theodorakis died in September last year, half a century after one of his most illustrious collaborators, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Giorgos Seferis. Eugenia Russell looks at the unlikely protest song that unites them

A choir in colourful outfits with arms outstretched

Revitalising artistic activism in the age of art-wash

We must be looking to artistic interventions that are inclusive, transformative and embody true solidarity, writes Chris Garrard

A brush with revolution: art and organising

Artist Sarbjit Johal reflects on the role of visual art in protest, movement-building and giving a voice to marginalised people

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...