The Media Today

Q&A: The Guardian’s Rob Evans on the undercover abuses of British police 

September 20, 2023
The undercover Special Demonstration Squad, which was part of London's Metropolitan Police Service, have been accused of a series of abuses of power since its founding in 1968. Credit: Matt Brown / Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, Bob Lambert, an officer with London’s Metropolitan Police Service, spent the weekend as off-duty officers often do, at home with his wife and two children in the leafy region where he lived. On Sunday evening, he said he had to work and left the house. His family had no idea that Lambert would drive straight to a maternity ward to witness the birth of his son with Charlotte, an animal-rights activist. Charlotte, for her part, was under the impression that Lambert was an activist himself; to her, he was Bob Robinson. Over the next couple of years, he seemed to Charlotte a devoted father. But then he disappeared without a trace. It would take until the child was twenty-six for him to discover that his father was actually Bob Lambert—an undercover officer tasked with infiltrating political groups.

Lambert is one of more than a hundred undercover officers who infiltrated social movements in the UK from 1968 onward, with the goal of generating intelligence about planned protest actions. In numerous cases, officers are reported to have had sexual relationships with activists—Lambert himself allegedly did so with at least four women—and in at least four cases they allegedly fathered children. “The first challenge for all new recruits involved constructing their fake identity, or ‘legend,’” the journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis wrote in their book Undercover (2013). One way of looking at Lambert’s behavior is that he “calculated that having a child with an activist would cement his cover story.”

Starting in 2011, news of this mass deception broke. It became known as the “spy cops scandal,” and led, in 2014, to the launch of an ongoing public inquiry into police abuses. The story raised big questions about the legitimacy of policing and the reach of the state in surveilling legitimate activists. And it’s far from the only scandal in recent years involving the Met. In 2021, Wayne Couzens was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a woman named Sarah Everard when he was a serving officer. This year, David Carrick, a former officer, was convicted of violent sexual offenses against a dozen women. The Met currently has over a thousand officers suspended or on restricted duties.

Evans, a reporter at The Guardian, covered the spy-cops story from the start, revealing a litany of shocking abuses; this month, he reported on a new case of deception involving a nineteen-year relationship between a woman and an undercover officer. Last week, I called Evans to talk about his investigations. (Full disclosure: I also write for The Guardian.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

JB: This all began back in 1968, when London’s Metropolitan Police wanted to get information on countercultural protests and began embedding undercover officers with activists. That escalated in the following decades. Can you sketch the wider sweep of Britain’s undercover policing scandal?

RE: This goes back to 1968, a very politically turbulent year. Governments and the established order around the world were coming under challenge, and the British state essentially wanted better information about what activists were up to. The British state has always monitored political groups. They use a variety of techniques—informants, phone-tapping. In 1968, they set up a new form of infiltration, which hadn’t really been done before, which was to have a squad of hundreds of police officers who adopted a fake identity and pretended to be activists. 

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They infiltrated mainly left-wing groups, and, over deployments that usually lasted four to five years, they would insert themselves into a group and begin to spy on them. This was a completely secret operation that went on for decades. And I think what you see is that, when state agents operate in complete secrecy, they start to carry out abuses; they think they’ll never be caught because they’re not being watched. No one in the public knew about this, and the undercover officers just thought they could do things which, if the public knew about them, they probably wouldn’t do.

You’ve covered the story from the very start and got to know the people affected, including multiple women who had sexual relationships with undercover officers and even some who had children with agents. Can you talk us through the human costs of this operation?

Because the undercover officers thought that they wouldn’t be caught, in effect they started abusing women; they started relationships without telling women their real identity. That’s key—because it means that the women can’t give their consent. They don’t know who this person really is. If they knew they were police officers, they would have said no. And their managers essentially turned a blind eye—or they encouraged it because they thought this is a way of getting information. 

If you’re an undercover officer and you turn up out of the blue, you’ve got to create the illusion of a credible real life. One way to do that is to have relationships with women in that group. Then people trust you. So that’s what you see from the 1970s onwards—regular deception of women by male undercover officers into relationships lasting a long time. You have four officers who are alleged to have had children with activists they met while undercover. That’s just devastating.

How difficult was the story to uncover, from a reporting perspective?

When you’re looking at very deep-seated misconduct, it’s not just the reporters. You see a grouping of people who want to find out what happened. It’s not a case of The Guardian coming along and just uncovering this; lots of other people played a very active role. You have the women themselves, who were very active in turning the tables through their own detective work, finding out their boyfriend was actually an undercover officer. They’re not passive in this. What’s known as the “spy cops scandal” was initiated when a woman who was deceived into a six-year relationship by an undercover officer established he was undercover and confronted him. Then you’ve got lawyers, other activists. So the interplay between those groups is important. It’s not like the journalist is the hero—it’s more complex than that.

Can you bring us up to date on where the UK public inquiry is now and how far away we are from potential accountability?

The public inquiry is very long-running, almost glacial. It was set up in 2014. It didn’t start hearing evidence until 2020. They do it chronologically. We have started on the early part of this covert operation, which is 1968 to 1983. So we haven’t got very far; we aren’t looking at the inquiry finishing until at least 2026. 

But what’s important is that the inquiry is producing a lot of information and documents right from the heart of the secret state that you never see. If you’ve been the target of an undercover inquiry or monitoring by the state, it’s really important for you to see the reports that they were producing and to know the scope of it. And the victims of the surveillance do challenge the police and say, What you’ve written in this report is rubbish. The second thing that’s interesting is that we had an interim report from the chair in the summer, which looked at the early years of the inquiry. It was pretty critical of the police and the operation, saying it was essentially unjustified and overzealous. 

Despite that, it feels like the story has not attracted the wealth of media coverage or mass public anger one might expect. Do you agree, and if so, why is that?

I don’t know how to answer this without being disparaging to other parts of the media, because I know that journalists operate under the conditions they have. The question is time. Paul Lewis and myself were fortunate that we were given time to go away and look at this. That’s what investigations are about. The Guardian thinks this is an important story, and has backed us; they’ve given us the time and space to pursue it. We’ve been really fortunate.

Let’s talk about the Met Police. It seems to me that, while criticizing some officers as bad apples, they don’t seem to think they’ve done anything fundamentally wrong with the operation. Is that a fair analysis?

Yes, I mean, when you do something wrong, the way to rectify it is to say sorry, give a full explanation, and then people think, Can I accept that? And they may forgive you. That’s not what you see with the Met Police chiefs or virtually all the undercover officers. It’s very rare that you have an undercover officer saying, “I was part of something that’s terrible, and I’m going to give you as full an explanation of why we did it and why it’s wrong.” There’s only been one true whistleblower, Peter Francis. He was an undercover officer who, in the nineties, spent four years spying on anti-racist groups. He made contact with us and gave an informative explanation of how the undercover operation worked. He’s a big part of our reporting. You need people who have been on the inside to come and tell you, This is actually how it worked.

You’ve mentioned before that the public seems to have two attitudes to undercover policing: they think it’s generally acceptable for serious criminals but are more uncomfortable about it for protest movements. Has the Met sometimes used the former to justify the latter?

Yeah. There’s two main forms of undercover operations. One, operations to catch serious criminals—you know, the pedophiles, drug gangs, that type of thing—which I think by and large people think, That’s what the cops ought to be doing. They have a less forgiving view about the infiltration of protest groups, because they think, We aspire to live in a democracy, so why are you doing that? 

And in some cases taking over leadership roles of those organizations, right?

Yes. I mean, then you’re altering the course of democracy. Because then you’re never sure: Would that group have done something differently if that undercover cop hadn’t been at the top or near the top?

To zoom out, where do you think this story fits in amid contemporary global debates about the legitimacy of policing?

For a lot of people it’s very gloomy that there’s a constant stream of scandals involving the [UK] police: involving Sarah Everard, Wayne Couzens, David Carrick. It just goes on and on. The problem for the police is, the more scandals, the more support for the police degrades. In our democracy, the theory is you have a system of policing in which the public consent to what the police do. If the public withdraw their consent, then the police are in a difficult position.

Other notable stories:

  • Nuggets are starting to roll out from Michael Wolff’s new book, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty; in an excerpt for New York magazine, Wolff claims that Tucker Carlson’s wife soured on Ron DeSantis after he pushed one of her dogs under the table, while The Guardian reports that, per Wolff, Rupert Murdoch has become a “frothing-at-the-mouth” critic of Donald Trump, to the point of wishing the former president dead. The reviews are rolling out, too: A.O. Scott, of the New York Times, describes the book as a “cornucopia of innuendo and convoluted prose.” And CNN’s Oliver Darcy reminds readers that they should take the book’s claims with a grain of salt, since Wolff “may not be the most reliable narrator.” He has been chided in the past for misstatements and “sloppy or unethical reporting practices.”
  • Recently, Press Forward, a coalition of philanthropic organizations led by the MacArthur Foundation, made a splash when it committed to invest at least five hundred million dollars across five years to tackle the local-news crisis in the US. Yesterday, journalism organizations including groups that represent Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Indigenous reporters called on Press Forward to ensure that it distributes its resources equitably and that “underrepresented voices are heard and supported.” The groups note that institutions led by people of color tend to receive less grant funding than white-led counterparts, and that news outlets serving “racial, ethnic, or linguistic communities” face existential revenue challenges.
  • In other local-news news, the media company Advance is working to build out a New Orleans–based news site called—a project that will test community trust, Axios’s Sara Fischer notes, after Advance sold off the local Times-Picayune in 2019, leading to a “talent bloodbath.” Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell spoke with Andrew Morse, the new president and publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about his ambitious plans to hike digital subscriptions at the paper and expand its reach across Georgia. And Gabrielle Hays, of PBS, reports on a paper that was launched to serve Afghan refugees who have settled in Missouri.
  • Authorities in the eastern part of Libya ordered journalists to leave the city of Derna, which was devastated by flooding last week after a pair of dams collapsed during a storm, killing thousands of residents and displacing many more. Officials said that reporters were impeding the efforts of rescue workers and also cited fears around the spread of disease in the city—but the order came after hundreds of protesters rallied against the local administration and saw their demands picked up by national media. Communications lines have also gone down in Derna; The Guardian has more.
  • And according to the Journal’s Lingling Wei, senior Chinese officials were told that Qin Gang—the foreign minister who mysteriously disappeared from public view earlier this year before being removed from his post—was ousted because he had an affair and fathered a child in the US in his prior role as China’s ambassador to the country. Qin was previously rumored to have had an affair with a US-based journalist, but China-watchers were skeptical that this was the true reason for his ouster.

ICYMI: Benjamin Netanyahu wants to overhaul Israel’s judicial system. Its media, too.

Jem Bartholomew is a freelance reporter. He was previously a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, New York magazine, and others.