BBC crime drama Sherwood signifies the moment our campaign on spy cop abuse cut through the noise.
Set in a former ‘red wall’ mining community in Nottinghamshire, the main storyline follows a police manhunt for killers on the loose. The writer, James Graham, interweaves this with an intriguing subplot about an undercover police spy who has continued to live under a false identity since being deployed to watch striking miners decades earlier.
Previous attempts to capture the significance of the spy cop scandal on screen have tended to focus on the personal torment of police officers trapped by their double lives, as was the case with Undercover (2016) and the BBC’s Informer. . (2018). Sherwood is no exception. A fascinating subject for drama, perhaps, but a far cry from the sociopathic, narcissistic actions of real spy cops whose behavior shows no trace of such introspection. So before the show started, I was wondering how the spy cop theme was going to develop. Would the representation be sensitive? Would it feel authentic? And would that help our campaign?
The National Union of Miners (NUM) is a main participant in the Secret Police Public Inquiry and represented by human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce – clearly the inspiration for Lindsay Duncan’s character who delivers a powerful monologue about Thatcher’s war on the unions. Although there is as yet no evidence that agents of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) or any other secret police unit operated in the mining areas (although it is known that the special branch had at minus one high-ranking agent within the NUM, known as “Silver Fox”), it is clear that MI5 and its special branch regularly used informants and listening devices against NUM members. of the SDS have gathered intelligence on several unions, so the choice to root this story of state infiltration in the miners’ strike is more symbolic than anything else.
With any drama, we are invited to suspend our disbelief. At Sherwood, I found it tricky. While there was at least one real undercover cop who went Awol, choosing to stay in the world he was spying on, that was far from the norm. The female officer in question did not continue to use her spy agent’s cover name – her superiors would never have allowed that. So there is no evidence that a real plainclothes policeman (the vast majority of whom were men) hung around all his life, continuing to live under his false identity. Quite the contrary: they used, abused and then abandoned us. And that’s what their managers sanctioned.
I understand Sherwood is a drama, not a documentary, and it’s clear that Graham has done his spy homework. It was moving to see a television reckon with state espionage in the name of neoliberalism and the wreckage it leaves behind, but it is unfortunate that once again viewers are asked to sympathize with the police officers struggling with domestic unrest. And that the actual racism, sexism and emotional abuse perpetrated by real spy cops remains unexplored.
Along with others, I campaigned for a decade to raise awareness of this police scandal to ensure that such a secretive and lawless unit could never be allowed to operate again. These clandestine deployments sabotaged progressive movements, manipulating and exploiting people like me. Since 2015, I have been involved in the costly, time-consuming and frustrating secret police investigation: the first report was due in 2018 with a current end date of 2026. Last week, however, there was a reference of Matthew Rycroft, Home Office Permanent Secretary on the Home Affairs Select Committee who, in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark and in response to a question about the excessive costs of the investigation, said: ” The Minister of the Interior could choose to close [it] down.”
If that happens, it will be a parody. To be sure, the public should monitor the progress of the investigation. The more people understand what the spy cops did, the more important and relevant the investigation will become. For this reason, and despite its flaws, Sherwood is useful as a conversation starter. Reaching new audiences beyond our social media echo chambers, he raised awareness of the existence of spy cops and alluded to their nefarious influence. I hope the officials, politicians and investigative team have watched and understand that the spy cop scandal has affected the general public. It’s not going away and neither are we.
Alison is one of eight women who first brought legal action against the Metropolitan Police for the conduct of undercover officers and a founding member of Police spying on lives. A key participant in the public inquiry into undercover policing, she is one of the authors of Deep Deception – The Spycop Network’s Story by the Women Who Uncovered the Shocking Truth. Twitter: @AlisonSpycops