1 September 2013

The State and its enemies

A story which surfaced only briefly a couple of months ago, illustrates the challenges that any voter faces when trying to assess the truth or otherwise of statements made by organisations of, or which represent, the state.

In 1986 a London organisation called 'London Greenpeace' (as opposed to 'Greenpeace' - the international organisation) started to campaign against McDonalds (the fast food chain) and distributed leaflets criticising McDonalds across a range of issues. In 1990, McDonalds instigated a libel action against five individuals associated with the leaflets, three of whom apologised and two who did not. This led to the longest running libel case in English history (McDonalds vs Steel & Morris).

Whilst McDonalds won a judgement in the English Courts (1997), Steel & Morris sued the Metropolitan Police for disclosing confidential information to McDonald's investigators. Steel & Morris received £10,000 and an apology. A later judgement in the European Court of Human Rights decided that Steel & Morris' Human Rights had been breached in the original trial and ordered that the UK Government pay Steel & Morris £57,000 in compensation. (This judgement did not relate to the decision in the original trial but simply to the challenges that Steel & Morris faced in mounting their defence.)

Whilst McDonalds might have managed to claim some sort of victory, the consequences of the McLibel trial were far worse for them than for the defendants. The trial gave the case worldwide media exposure and caused McDonalds immense damage - damage which McDonalds brought upon themselves.

However, what was never disclosed throughout the original trial nor during Steel & Morris' action against the Metropolitan Police was the alleged involvement of the Metropolitan Police in writing the original leaflet. It is now claimed that an undercover police officer, then known as 'Bob Robinson', infiltrated the London Greenpeace group and co-wrote the original leaflet, something which should have made the Metropolitan Police a co-defendant in the trial. Further, whilst the Metropolitan Police were allegedly involved as an 'agent provocateur', they were also supplying confidential information to McDonalds to assist their case.

If all of this is true, then did the Metropolitan Police simply decide that London Greenpeace were guilty of something and, to prove their case, manufacture a 'crime' and encourage them to commit it? And then, throughout the longest libel trial in English legal history, say nothing.

The MacLibel 2 went out on the streets with nothing more incendiary than a leaflet and it took 20 years of their lives. Almost 30 years later, with our privacy breached by government at every level, what would make you or I a suspect in today's febrile political environment? Is it enough just to think that our government might be wrong to make ourselves 'enemies of the state'? What happens if anyone has the temerity to put it in an email?