A Stasi comedy
The full Mark Thomas experience
OUR SPEAKER began with the words, "My name is Mark Thomas and I'm an NUJ member." Mark was at LFB's April meeting on the judicial review he's bringing, with NUJ support, on the Metropolitan Police practice of gathering data on journalists for "Domestic Extremist" databases. Mark was "very happy to have my co-litigants with me" - Jason Parkinson, David Hoffman, Adrian Arbib and Jules Mattsson, four of the other five NUJ members bringing the judicial review.
Mark's "accidental journalism" started with The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, whose mission was to "just take the piss out of people... mock them," starting by interviewing Tory MPs while he was dressed as a bear. One bewildered MP blurted out "eighteen" when questions about honey suddenly turned to capital punishment and "at what age we should kill people?" Mark turned to something a bit more "factual based... we were actually investigating". His fake media training school for arms dealers at an Athens arms fair got Indonesia's military to admit on camera to torture, while the stunt he pulled with his pop-up exhibit in the Sellafield visitor centre on radioactive seagull poo resulted in a million-pound clean-up operation on the nearby beach.
Mark has come across "instances of spying" before. The Sunday Times Insight team paid £:20,000 for documents on BAe Systems (British Aerospace) security, which revealed that they had infiltrators in the Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT). Mark initially refused even to see the documents, but when he did "it became clear" that Martin Hogbin, one of the ":people I was close to" at Campaign Against The Arms Trade, had been a spy for BAe Systems , "the immediate effect was to deter people associated with Hogbin from activism."
BAe Systems eventually "admitted in court to spying on CAAT". The Corner House and CAAT sought judicial review of the decision by the Serious Fraud Office to collapse the case against BAe Systems over the Al-Yamamah Saudi arms deal. "During the course of the litigation we were having a legal meeting and the phone rang - BAE lawyers were very sorry that they appeared to have our internal legal strategy.".
Then there was construction blacklist. Mark was briefly "a crap builder" self-employed in a business with his father. "I used to work with my dad on the sites... if he had known I was on the construction blacklist he'd probably have said that it was best for everyone.". After the Information Commissioner's Office raided the Consulting Association, where the blacklist was kept, Mark Thomas's name emerged as one of the 32,000 on that list, which included trade union activists in the industry, as well as mayone who'd raised concerns about health and safety or employment law breaches.The person who ran the blacklist "kept most of his records on paper. His wife said after he died that he spent the next weeks burning everything in the garden.". Other journalists are known to have become "collateral damage" and ended up on the blackist just for covering the industry - if you think you might have been one of them, contact the ICO here (with the NUJ's support).
Some on the construction blacklist were seriously under-employed for decades as a result, and there are even some suicides attributed to it. Mark is supporting the campaign of the blacklist victims, who have rejected the puny offer of compensation from the household name building firms that paid for the list, and demanding much more.
And Mark was "very proud to say that according to the Met I am a domestic extremist," noting the absurdity of the term: "it's housebound, so it's possibly in the kitchen: am I a radical when it comes to cooking?"
A Data Protection Act request to the Met revealed "they had noted when I did book readings... fundraisers and various anti-nuclear stuff." The data compiled on Mark was "like being spied on by the Stasi crossed with an Ealing Comedy." One report on a demo noted, "Mark appeared at the South side of the Square, with a mountain bike with yellow forks; he said 'hello' to us and seemed happy". At the Mayday 2000 Guerrilla Gardening event in Parliament Square police noted that "Mark Thomas... has a large quantity of cress on rear of bicycle."
There's "stuff which is factually inaccurate." Although "to my eternal shame" Mark has "never been on a Class War demo, I have shopping to do" but one police log listed a Class War event at which "the only identifiable protester was general rabble-rouser and alleged comedian Mark Thomas," a phrase he plans to use on posters for a forthcoming tour.(His Walking the Wall Tour poster bore the words "financially assisted by the Metrpolitan Police". This was following a "12,000 payout for being unlawfully detained on the street for 12 minutes.
L to R: Jules Mattson, Jason Parkinson, Adrian Arbib, David Hoffman and Mark Thomas
Among "over 60 items" of "intelligence" Mark discovered, "police are making notes about when stuff I do about nuclear reactors appears on TV; when articles I've written appear in Time Out and the Guardian." It seems that the Met is not just spying on activism but spying on journalism. "We believe there are other NUJ members who are being monitored by the police. If you have covered the police, it is important that you put in a Subject Access Request and find out whether you are a Domestic Extremist - and if you are, join the court case."
Added Mark, "If this was happening in another country we'd be signing petitions for Amnesty and organising benefits for PEN." (http://www.pen-international.org/PEN International, which supports freedom of expression for writers worldwide.)
Jules did a FOIA request to the Met and was "told by way of refusing that request" there were over 2000 records on the Domestic Extremism database with keywords such as "journalist". It would "cost too much" to find out exactly how many records on journalists they have. Jules also found a Powerpoint slide showing his name and photo, with the words "no trace PNC [Police National Computer, so no criminal record]... pain in the arse."
If you've ever ":reported crime or protests it'd be worth spending £10 for a Subject Access Request, recommends Jules. "My record is detailed and lengthy and I hadn't done even anything interesting" - the Met sent him 90 pages-worth of data, "60 sent to the wrong address... Get yours. It might entertain you for about 10 seconds as mine did and then terrify you.". Jules is bemused as to why the Met went to such trouble to gather so much data on him in the first place, "What must it be like to join the police and get promoted to the elite counter-terro unit and end up writing down my Tweets?"
We also heard from photographer David Hoffman, who despite having no criminal record found a policeman's notebook had recorded that "Hoffman has a conviction in the late 80s for assaulting the police." Where does this inaccuracy come from? "There is no trace of this information in any police system," the police said.Despite having "sued [the police] four times and won; David got just "one page of A4 back after his Subject Access Request with much white space. That one page had Hoffman down as a member of the Anti-Nazi League, which "doesn't even exist anymore."
Environmental photographer Adrian Arbib found himself a labelled a "domestic extremist" following a police stop near Heathrow. "I was doing an article on the death of the English apple orchard," he said, still puzzled. "They had me down as a known environmental protester. I care - my passion is to save orchards and stop roads trashing the countryside - all journalists who have a passion, they're criminalising... I did a story at Radley Lakes where Npower were dumping fuel ash – injunctions were taken out against me; Panorama refused to pay me for footage because they said I was a protester - it destroys journalism.".
For Jason Parkinson's and Jess Hurd's testimony on their domestic extremist files, see here. Mark said the judicial review under Human Rights Act Articles 8 and 11 (privacy, association, freedom of expression) was at the time of the meeting due to come to court "soon", and "it is my legal opinion the Met are fucked".