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Soapbox: Is all fair in love and warheads?

The personal cost of campaigning against the arms industry. Mark Thomas is a comic, a political activist and a writer. He can remember exactly where he was when he began to think that a close friend, one of his fellow anti-arms industry activists, was a spy, allegedly in the pay of BAE Systems...

Ten years ago I found out that a good friend and a fellow activist was spying on the anti arms trade movement. It transpired that Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer was paying someone to spy on me, a comedian. Not just me though: hundreds and hundreds of activists had their right to privacy and freedom of association violated in a network of spies and companies collecting information on activists from CND, Campaign Against Arms Trade and trade unionists.

When the story began to break, a common reaction was disbelief. Though few people would call me a liar there was a faint whiff of discomfort in the air. I was either a conspiracy theorist or a fantasist – over inflating my own sense of importance and radicalism. Somewhere between David Icke or Rick from The Young Ones. Others would react as if I was delighted I was being spied upon. They would say, “Well, you’d be disappointed if you weren’t,” as if I was actively seeking the attention as a way of validating my activism, a modern day Renee Descartes: “I am spied upon, therefore I am.”

So mindful of those comments, I want to lay out the facts for you. I am involved with Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) – the name tells you all you need to know about the area we were working in – and back in 2003 a friend, fellow activist and Campaign Co-ordinator for CAAT was a man called Martin Hogbin. In September that year he was accused of spying on behalf of BAE Systems. Martin has publicly denied these allegations.

Part of the evidence against Martin were the records on his own CAAT computer that record him forwarding internal documents and emails to a third party, hundreds of them over a series of years. Martin admitted to sending these but claimed it was by mistake. If true, these emails sent by mistake were monumentally unlucky. The email address Martin was forwarding to was linked to a spying company called Threat Response Initiative, run by a woman called Evelyn le Chene, whose job it was to collect information on activists and sell it on to corporations.

Martin’s denials came under more intense scrutiny in 2007 when BAE Systems was forced to admit in court that they had indeed spied on CAAT. More than that, BAE Systems was forced to give a legally binding undertaking not to spy on CAAT again. In effect one of the world’s biggest arms companies had been forced to say sorry. However, amidst the court documents came another admission, that BAE Systems had employed Evelyn le Chene to do that spying for them. The woman who ran the company linked to Martin’s emails.

The day I found out about Martin, I sat in the CAAT office reading a report detailing his email activity and it dawned on me that Martin, my friend, had fostered our friendship in order to get details of my private life and political activity. I had been betrayed by a man I thought was a friend.

As I sat reading I felt nausea, my mouth filling up with the coppery tasting saliva that is the precursor to vomit. I actually wanted to be sick and as I walked home, I felt my legs buckle. It was a very physical reaction to having my privacy violated and being betrayed.

Now some might think this is no big deal, a bloke poses as a friend to get information for a company I campaign against. But consider this: if the police want to search my house and find out information about me they have to get a warrant, they have to go through a legal process and I am aware of that process. Martin didn’t have to go through that process, he simply pretended to be a friend and walked straight in my life, indeed lots of people’s lives. The police searching my house would need to comply with procedures, laws and standards, but a spy working for a private company has NOT ONE LAW designed to cover their activities. Not one, and this has to change.

Some might think that a company like BAE Systems has a right to find out what campaigners are doing in order to protect their financial and lobbying interests. Put simply, if I campaign against them, they have a right to spy on me to keep an eye on me. But if that is the case, then I have a right to know I am being spied upon, I have a right to know who is doing it and how I can find what information of mine is being taken and for what purpose.

Nowhere is the nefarious purpose of data collection on activists more obvious than in the case of the Construction Blacklist. A list of workers in the construction industry involved in trade unions or health and safety issues, that is used to stop those on the list from working. The list has 3,200 names on it and many of those workers have been unlawfully denied employment. That is what the list was for, simply to stop trade unionists from working on building sites. Major construction companies like Balfour Beatty, Carillion and Sir Robert McAlpine have already admitted to their role in the blacklist. Workers having their lives wrecked through unemployment because of their political beliefs sounds like something that used to happen in the Soviet era, but it is happening here and now.

But it is the scale of the spying that brings even more comparisons to the Soviets’ famous monitoring of its own citizens. Justice campaigns, like the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign, have been spied upon by the police. Journalists are monitored by the police if they cover demonstrations and are critical of the police. Women are duped into relationships with undercover police officers so the officers can find information on campaigners. Climate change protestors have corporate and police spies in their midst.

For me the effect of being spied upon by Martin has been a painful process at times. It is hard not to be affected when someone breaks your trust. And, like any act of betrayal, you rake over the embers of a relationship wondering what was true and what was not. You wonder who you can trust. You wonder who might betray you next. But the one thing it has made me certain of is this: the new battlefield for human rights is privacy.

Mark Thomas performing stand up cuckooed edinburgh
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