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Spycops Inquiry: Special branch kept tabs on journalists

by Bethany Rielly

SPECIAL branch kept tabs on journalists seeking to publicise how campaigners exposed a police spy who infiltrated protest groups in the 1970s, a public inquiry heard today. 

Undercover officer Richard Clark spied on the Troops Out Movement (TOM), a campaign calling for British soldiers to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland, and quickly rose through the ranks. For a period of several months he even headed the entire movement.  

Clark, who used the cover name Rick Gibson, later moved on to infiltrate revolutionary group Big Flame, but campaigners grew suspicious of him and launched an extensive investigation into his background. 

This led them to discover the death certificate of the deceased child whose identity he had stolen for his fake profile. After they confronted Clark he subsequently disappeared in 1976. 

Ten years later, TOM campaigner Richard Chessum, who was spied on by Clark, spoke to journalists about the confrontation. 

Giving evidence to the undercover policing inquiry today, Mr Chessum said he now knows that Special Branch was aware of his meetings with journalists. 

A memo between senior Special Branch officers from 1986, disclosed to the inquiry, shows that intelligence was being gathered on a freelance researcher working for journalists at the Observer.

It reports that Mr Chessum gave information to the researcher about the unmasking of Clark by Big Flame and that a campaigner had seen him recently outside Scotland Yard.

Mr Chessum told the inquiry this information confirmed that Clark had been a police officer, and not another type of covert agent. 
 
Investigative journalists Nick Davies and Ian Hollingsworth wrote a series in the Guardian in the 1980s on state surveillance including the confrontation between Big Flame and Clark. 

But it’s unclear whether these are the journalists referred to in the memo as names have been redacted. 

Despite leaving the TOM in the late 1970s, it appears Special Branch continued to monitor Mr Chessum well into the following decade. 

He told the inquiry that Big Flame first swore campaigners to secrecy after outing Clark.

“So far from seeking retribution against ‘Rick’ while he was around, they were worried about retribution from the state because they’d uncovered him, and they … were quite scared,” he said. 

Mr Chessum also told the inquiry that he feels he was frozen out of work for a period of five years as result of police spying on his political activities. During that time he said he applied for around 1,500 jobs but never received an interview.  

The inquiry continues. 

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