Yesterday, we published a blog about Helen Steel, whose world was turned upside down by a relationship with a man she knew as ‘John Baker’.
Mr Baker walked into his first Greenpeace London meeting in 1987. To those in the group, he seemed like a committed environmental campaigner. He offered rides home to other activists after their meetings, and helped organise numerous rallies and protests.
In 1990, Baker entered a serious relationship with Greenpeace activist Helen Steel, another environmental and social justice activist. “We moved into a flat together, we talked about starting a family, and we talked about spending the rest of our lives together” Ms Steel told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
Mr Baker disappeared two years later. According to those who thought they knew him best, Baker was suffering a “mental breakdown” and fled England to get his head together. His parting gift to his partner, Ms Steel, was a vague letter sent from South Africa. Baker hasn’t been heard from since.
There’s just one problem with this story: John Baker died of leukaemia in 1968, when he was eight years old.
John Baker’s real name is John Dines, an undercover police officer from the United Kingdom’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Mr Dines was one of hundreds of undercover officers that infiltrated left-wing groups in England between 1968 and 2008 to gather intelligence on behalf of MI5.
It has since been revealed that the SDS used the names of at least 80 dead children to create false identities for its agents. Many agents then entered into long-term personal and sexual relationships with protest organisers and activists to gain trust and access to information. One instance saw an officer, Robert Lambert, father a child with an activist, only to abandon them both when his duty was complete.
Ms Steel did not intend to play spy catcher when she began looking for her former partner. “I was worried about his wellbeing, and also I was deeply in love with him so I tried to find him,”, she told us. She eventually tracked him down to Sydney, where she confronted him last week.
John Dines Named and Shamed in NSW Parliament
Helen Steel confronts John Dines at Sydney airport
Ms Steel visited Sydney last week to confront Mr Dines, who now works as a course director at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, a branch of Charles Sturt University in Manly. Although he apologised to Ms Steel, she still harbours her doubts over its sincerity.
“John apologised but I actually have no idea whether that apology was sincere. He’s had 24 years in which he could have contacted me to say he was sorry. The fact that he apologised to me at the airport when I was right in front of him, I really don’t know how sincere that apology was,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
Although the university has distanced itself from Mr Dines, claiming he is not employed in a direct teaching role, the irony that he is supervising a unit which includes “sharing good practice, human rights and gender sensitivity” in its learning outcomes has not escaped some.
“It is offensive in the extreme that John Dines can be involved in teaching these matters to police in this State. This is a man who professionally and systematically abused human rights as a police officer in the United Kingdom and showed a culpable lack of gender sensitivity. He has no place teaching police in New South Wales or in any country that says it respects human rights,” David Shoebridge, a Greens MP, told parliament during an adjournment speech earlier this week.
Mr Shoebridge has called for an investigation into whether New South Wales police have been trained by any officers in the use of the SDS’s tactics.
Undercover Police Operations vs Rights
Cases such as this demonstrate the importance of balancing the need to collect intelligence against respect for the privacy and dignity of those they’re collecting data on.
Article 12 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), of which Australia is a signatory, states that:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
In the United Kingdom, a spokesperson for the the Metropolitan Police Service admitted last year that:
“These relationships were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma. I unreservedly apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service. I am aware that money alone cannot compensate the loss of time, their hurt or the feelings of abuse caused by these relationships.
“The Metropolitan Police recognizes that this should never happen again and the necessary steps must be taken to ensure that it does not.”
In Australia, covert operations are governed under the Law Enforcement (Controlled Operations) Act 1997. The Act states that the chief executive officer of a law enforcement agency must give approval for a controlled operation to take place.
The process is monitored by the Ombudsman, who must be notified of any approvals which have been granted. The Ombudsman then has the task of inspecting agency records each year to ensure that they are compliant.
It is unclear whether current or past operations in Australia involve the level of breach that the UK operations did.