Tuesday, 7 April 2015

‘It has been a relief to speak freely’ - Helen Steel interview

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine, March 30-April 5 2015. 
The campaigner at the heart of the epic McLibel legal battle in the 1990s who revealed that the man she considered her soulmate was an undercover police spy has urged others to speak out against surveillance and injustice. 
Helen Steel was among five members of London Greenpeace who faced libel charges after distributing a pamphlet titled What’s Wrong With McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know in 1986. This alleged that McDonald’s exploited children with their advertising, promoted unhealthy food, paid low wages, were anti-union and were responsible for animal cruelty and environmental damage. 
Three apologised to McDonald’s but Steel, then a part-time bar-worker, and unemployed postman Dave Morris refused to apologise. They chose, despite no legal aid being available, to defend the case. 
In a mixed ruling Mr Justice Bell found some claims unproven but agreed that children were exploited by advertising, that McDonald’s paid low wages and served food with no positive nutritional benefit. The defendants were ordered to pay £60,000 damages. This was later cut by
a third when the Appeal Court ruled that McDonald’s regular customers had a very real risk of heart disease. Steel and Morris refused to pay. 
A free speech campaign saw protests outside two-thirds of the company’s UK stores,
and leaflets distributed in ever greater numbers. Commentators called the case “the biggest corporate PR disaster in history”. 
In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the lack of access to legal aid during the McLibel trial was in breach of the rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Steel and Morris were awarded £57,000 against the government. 
One of the authors of the LG pamphlet was Bob Robinson, who was later exposed as Bob Lambert, an undercover police officer who has since apologised for deceiving “law abiding members of London Greenpeace”. Lambert was a member of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). This was established in 1968 and during its 40 years in existence targeted political activists. 
Another SDS member was John Dines, who posed as New Zealander John Barker. He began attending political meetings alongside Steel in 1987, before they began a relationship in 1990. 
They moved in together and discussed starting a family but, in 1992, Dines disappeared. 
Steel searched extensively for her partner but with no success. Two years later, while walking home from the High Court during the McLibel trial, she had the instinct to call into the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriage office on the same street. 
She eventually came across a record of a John Barker, aged eight, who had died of leukaemia in the town Dines/ Barker said he was from. 
“The bottom fell out of my world,” she said. “I thought I knew this guy and yet I did not even know his name. It cast doubt on all my other previous relationships, on everyone around me. If I could not notice that someone I loved and lived with wasn’t real, who else might be fake and how I could know who to trust? 
“I thought about the possibility he might be an undercover police officer and that in turn made me nervous about telling other people in case it got back to the state. When I did eventually tell a couple of other old friends they thought I was being paranoid. This left me questioning my own sanity.” 
She even travelled to New Zealand to try to find Dines, after which the police, even though he had left the force in 1994, moved him to another country to prevent her finding out the truth. 
Semi-official confirmation eventually arrived in 2011 when the former partner of an undercover officer told her Dines had been one too. 
Around this time it emerged that another undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, had had several relationships with environmental activists he had spied upon. 
Then gradually activists, journalists and the whistleblower Peter Francis, one of Dines’s former colleagues, began revealing the real story about the SDS, including the use of dead children’s identities. Dines, Lambert and Mark Jenner (the latter employed to spy on, among others, the author of this piece) suddenly found themselves in the newspapers. 
Faking breakdowns 
Seeking to prevent these human rights abuses from being repeated Steel began legal action against the Metropolitan Police, along with other women who had also unknowingly had relations with undercover police officers. Some had even had children with officers who, usually after faking mental breakdowns, suddenly disappeared without explanation. 
All the officers had occupied important positions, such as secretary or treasurer, in campaigns that covered anti- racism, miscarriages of justice, corruption and employment rights. These roles allowed the police to assemble information on the political activists involved. 
It was the newspaper coverage of the SDS officers’ relationships with women political activists that pushed Steel towards speaking out once again – even though she has always found public speaking very difficult and used to let Morris do most of it. 
“Some articles argued that what happened was no big deal or suggested that we were to blame for what had happened to us,” she said. “There were politicians defending the police officers and the Met Police. What was happening was so typical of women who have been sexually assaulted. 
“Two of us decided to waive anonymity and begin publicly speaking. I am glad I have done so especially as I have received overwhelming public support. 
It has been a real relief to speak freely about what happened.” 
She wishes she had not remained so quiet for many years. 
“Many more people should be speaking out, but because so many feel anxious about being ridiculed if they do then our society ends up being dominated by the voices of a few people who were mostly educated at public schools, where people are taught to speak confidently,” she said. 
“It means they don’t get anxious about the impression they make even though they are talking nonsense about people whose lives they know absolutely nothing about, such as asylum seekers or disabled people. If there is no challenge then their views become accepted as fact rather than opinion. 
“This case has exposed what was going on. Whilst I don’t have that much faith in the justice system it is a useful vehicle, combined with public campaigning, to seek some form of accountability and to try and prevent these events from happening to others. 
“But I think that we all need to be speaking out against the current system where profits are put ahead of people’s lives and our communities. The whole system is corrupt and we need to discuss ways to create meaningful change.” 
Radical change 
Would she like there to be radical change? 
“I certainly would. Ultimately capitalism needs replacing as under it a tiny minority are extremely rich at the expense of the rest of the world. 
“Those in charge are ruthless and lacking in empathy. We need a society that is based on co-operation and sharing so ultimately those running society need to go. 
“Those who hold power don’t want alternative ideas to spread because it could threaten their privilege. 

“Ultimately, that’s why McLibel happened and why the Met spied on me.” 

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