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Appeal for information - did you work on Indochina magazine?

Undercover cops spied on journalists, Inquiry reveals

UNDERCOVER police spied on journalists in the course of their work, disclosures at the beginning of the second phase of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) have revealed.

Undercover police officer's report on a meeting of Indochina magazine

Report from an undercover police officer of a 1973 Indochina editorial board meeting

The UCPI looks at the conduct of undercover Metropolitan Police units the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), founded in 1968 ahead of demonstrations in London against the Vietnam War, and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPIOU) that replaced it in 1999. Undercover officers from these units spied on over 1000 political groups and campaigns over many years. In July 2016 a London Freelance Branch meeting heard the background from one of the lawyers representing those affected, including LFB members.

The revelation that "undercovers" had spied on journalists came during Day 1 of opening statements given virtually via Zoom, with Inquiry lawyer David Barr QC setting out the remit of the Inquiry: see here.

David Barr QC

David Barr QC, Counsel to the UCPI

Barr pointed to evidence for the activity of "undercovers", including a Metropolitan Police Special Branch report from 1971 that referred to intelligence gathered by an SDS officer. The SDS frequently passed on intelligence to Special Branch and also had a "close working relationship" with "the Security Services" - MI5.

The typewritten report in question is dated 25 June 1971 and begins "the following information has been received from a reliable source... " It describes "a meeting of the editorial board of 'Indo-China'" at a private flat on the evening of 22 June.

Indochina - strap line "in support of the struggle of the Indochinese people" - was the monthly magazine of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), a coalition founded with financial support from Bertrand Russell in 1966 that mobilised crowds of up to 100,000 for its demonstrations. The VSC was heavily infiltrated and Indochina was one of many entities that recently emerged on an expanded but still partial list of organisations that were targets of the SDS in this period, released by the Inquiry.

It's the only publication we know about so far that the SDS apparently sought to infiltrate - though the Metropolitan Police Special Branch was interested in the Morning Star and Socialist Worker:f see below.

Indochina magazine

An issue of Indochina

The SDS officer making the brief report says "the meeting discussed policy for the paper. It was agreed it should maintain its present format, although more emphasis would be made that the struggle in Vietnam was identical with the class war being fought in other capitalist societies throughout the world." References to who said what and addresses of meetings are redacted, with a white box with the word "Privacy" over those sections.

The SDS officer's name on the report has been blanked out and replaced with the number HN338. HN refers to Operation Herne, an earlier investigation into the SDS by Derbyshire Police.

The statement by the Counsel to the Inquiry lists HN338 as "Real name restricted, cover name unknown. He is deceased." HN338 is covered by a Restriction Order, which makes it a criminal offence of contempt under the Inquiries Act 2005 to reveal his real name. Inquiry Chair Sir John Mitting has ruled that to do so would cause distress to HN338's widow. HN338's "cover name" by which activists knew him is "lost" - records of it can no longer be found.

The magazine Indochina began life as the VSC's Bulletin in 1967. Two years later the VSC launched the monthly Vietnam and it changed the bulletin's name to Indochina the following year to give more coverage to Laos and Cambodia. Indochina was published until at least 1973. Throughout its life, the magazine had a "British complicity" column, cataloguing British government or corporate support for the US's war in Indochina. It had gone bi-monthly around the time of the meeting in the report. It had a cover price of one shilling, which became 5p after decimalisation in February 1971.

In today's world of blogs and print-ready PDFs that can be emailed to printers, we need to remind ourselves that in 1971 not everyone had the skill-set needed to produce a campaign newsletter - even one whose workers were probably unpaid and did it for love. Headlines were frequently composed using Letraset™ - basically sticky-backed plastic letters that you had to rub down onto art paper using the wrong end of a Biro. Body copy might be set on a Varityper - an all-clockwork typewriter with upward of 2000 moving parts that could set variable-width characters and justify each line of type, at the price of typing it twice. Or you might send typescript off to a compositor who would set hot metal type and pull just two or three galley copies from it. Either way, you then faced the fiddly task of pasting the columns and headlines in place with rubber-based Cow gum to make up a page for the litho printer.

It's likely that some of Indochina's editorial board were media professionals and NUJ members, especially in the era of the "closed shop" in which many agreements with employers meant that everyone hired had to join the union.

Indochina magazine

An issue of Indochina

If you were involved in Indochina magazine, the Freelance would like to hear from you, in confidence, at The Undercover Research Group, who have done a lot of work exposing undercover police - and, just as importantly, confirming that some people rumoured to have been undercovers actually weren't - would like to hear from you too. The URC work closely with core participants of the Inquiry and their lawyers. Email:

John Hendy QC (Lord Hendy), in his opening statement to the Inquiry on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union and Unite the Union, noted that the NUJ was one of several unions that applied for Core Participant status for the Inquiry but were rejected. It is possible that the NUJ could apply again in the light of new evidence emerging in the course of the Inquiry.


John Hendy QC in his opening statement to UCPI details police spying on trade unions

Hendy, who represented the NUJ in the Leveson Inquiry, referred to a Special Branch index card from 1973 that showed that its Industrial Intelligence Unit kept files on several trades unions. These were given the prefix 400/ in their filing system. Two newspapers showed up in their filing system too - Morning Star and Socialist Worker. Newspapers were apparently given the filing reference prefix 347/.

The NUJ has responded to these disclosures: "The NUJ is not surprised that Special Branch was attending and interfering with editorial meetings in the early 1970s. The union is calling on the public inquiry to publish more documents, more evidence and more information relating to undercover policing and journalism... The inquiry should be able to confirm or deny if undercover policing units and agents were put into media organisations. We are entitled to know if the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit have been spying on journalists or our union."

The next part of the UCPI is Tranche 1, Part 1, covering the period 1968-1973. The Inquiry is not expected to get to more recent undercover political policing activities - undercovers are known to have been present on demos as recently as 2013 - until around 2023. The timetable for the Inquiry is here.