BBC True Spies series: police happy to disclose information when it suits them.

In 2002, the BBC broadcast a three-part documentary series that looked at how the police spied on political groups, called True Spies. In fact this was the first time that the existence of the Special Demonstration Squad, the SDS, called ‘the Haires’ in this series, was revealed in public. Produced by the renowned Panorama journalist Peter Taylor, the series revealed details of how they developed their fake personas and operated undercover. The undercover officers also disclosed the groups that they infiltrated. The programme even revealed the so-called Jackal-run, a name based on the Frederick Forsyth novel Day of the Jackal; this was the use of the identity of children that had died young, a spycops tactic that would cause so much upheaval a decade later.

In the run-up to an important hearing of the Pitchford Inquiry in March 2016, The Guardian published an article about True Spies: Leaked letter appears to undermine police bid for undercover secrecy. It came at a time when the police were making submissions to Pitchford that the public inquiry should be held behind closed doors.

The letter send to SDS officers at the time proves that the Metropolitan police had been ‘keen to support’ the documentary series and helped former officers to take part in it.
The police’s co-operation with the programme shows that they are happy to disclose information when it suits them.

The Special Branch Files Project can also present two further letters that reveal more detail about the close cooperation between the producers of the series and the top-echelon of the Metropolitan Police.

The first letter shows how Peter Taylor first approached Commissioner John Stevens with a fairly broad idea:

Taylor continues with how he will focus on ‘subversives’.

In the next letter we have, the BBC producers still do not talk about the SDS as such, rather they wish to talk to officers within the Met who have dealt with ‘those it has considered ’subversive’’.  When they met with the Commissioner and David Veness, the latter promised his help in finding people who would want to be interviewed. Note how the producers already are on first name terms with the Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations; they have easy access to the Met and it is obvious that the police are willing to cooperate.

Peter Taylor explained on the BBC True Spies website how difficult it had been to get undercover officers to talk. The main obstacle being the Official Secrets Act.

Under the Act an offence is committed if a disclosure is made ‘without lawful authority’ and if that disclosure causes ‘damage’. We knew that if we were to avoid prosecution, we would have to ensure that all former members of the intelligence services we interviewed had ‘lawful authority’ to speak.

This meant gaining the support of Chief Constables and Heads of Special Branch around the country and top cover from the Association of Chief Police Officers. It took many months but we finally succeeded – with the result that no Special Branch officer spoke without ‘lawful authority’.

But why did they agree? I think the climate of excessive secrecy, at least on the part of the police service, is slowly changing. True Spies is testimony to it. Frankly, most senior officers believed that their former colleagues had an important story to tell and that our project was an important contribution to contemporary history.

The Guardian – as mentioned above – quoted a letter written by Roger Pearce, then head of Special Branch, to prepare  SDS officers for True Spies just before it was broadcast in 2002. He wrote:

Pearce thougt it ‘helpful to offer a brief advance summary of its content, specifically from the perspective of the SDS unit’:

Pearce concluded: ‘I remain convinced that the overall message from the programmes will be enormously to the credit of those who served in Special Branch over the past four decades.’.

‘Unprecedented row’

Not everybody was happy with the series. The Telegraph at the time wrote about an ‘unprecedented row’:

Senior officers are infuriated with the BBC for revealing the identities of sources who helped in investigations of subversive groups. Detectives within Special Branch also fear that the series will damage their ability to foster future contacts.

It is understood that Ben Gunn, the former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, gave support to the project in his capacity as chairman of the security committee of Acpo. He gave a letter to Peter Taylor, the BBC journalist who wrote and presented the series, which Mr Taylor was able to show former detectives and informants. In it, Mr Gunn praised Mr Taylor’s journalistic integrity and the True Spies project.

Special Branch officers are furious that support was given to Mr Taylor. One senior detective said: ‘There was an almighty cock-up. Once it became clear former informants were going to be identified, there was anger at the highest levels’.

The police have an interesting take on the position of former officers and their vow to secrecy, back in 2002. In reply to the allegation that ‘retired Special Branch officers were encouraged to talk about previously secret operations in a way which apparently breaches the Official Secrets Act’, a Scotland Yard spokesman said that they are at liberty to talk about their work:

We assisted the BBC with its research on the subject, which is closely linked with the operational history of Special Branch. A number of ex-officers approached the Met asking for advice as to whether they should contribute, which we gave them. It is incumbent on them not to do anything that could compromise operational security. However, ex-officers are private individuals and the final decision as to whether to give interviews is up to them.

Better watch True Spies!

And as is turns out, the Met Police were still proud of True Spies as recently as 2008 (this is just two years before Mark Kennedy, the first spycop would be exposed). Proud enough to suggest journalist Solomon Hughes to watch the series, when he asked for the files Special Branch held on the leftwing newspaper Black Dwarf, student protests and anti Vietnam war protest:

Ever so helpful, the Freedom of Information officer suggested Solomon check Wikipedia as well:

(Otherwise, the refusal to release the documents provides a fine example of the policy to Neither Confirm Nor Deny the existence of files to protect the work and identity of undercover officers.)

Much seems to have changed since. The Metropolitan Police’s position is now that if undercovers are to talk about their work at the Public Inquiry, it must be done behind closed doors. Secrecy is paramount.

Lord Pitchford’s ruling on secrecy and disclosure is expected on 3 May 2016.


The Letters.
Letter of Peter Taylor and Sam Collyns, BBC to Met Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, 30 October 2000
Letter of Sam Collyns, BBC to Met Police Assistant Commissioner David Veness, 9 January 2001.

The letters were disclosed under to Freedom of Information Act to Jac St John.

Letter of Roger Pearce, Commander of Special Branch to officers of the SDS, 17 Ocober 2002

– Julie Harknett, Metropolitan Police response to Freedom of Information Request by Solomon Hughes, 16 May 2008

Further reading:

– Peter Taylor’s True Spies Documentary series on Special Branch: Exctract from a critique, Notes From the Borderland, 5 August 2010

– True Spies 1. Subverting the subversives, BBC Two, 27 October 2002.
Watch Episode 1 or read the transcripts.

– True Spies 2. Something Better Change BBC Two, 3 November 2002.
Watch Episode 2 or read the transcripts.

– True Spies 3. It Could Happen To You BBC Two, 10 November 2002.
Watch Episode 3 or read the transcripts.

– Rob Evans, Leaked letter appears to undermine police bid for undercover secrecy, the Guardian, 18 March 2016


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