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Ethics and morality, Legal, criminological and forensic

Weaponising empathy

Professor David Harper listens to 'Undercover: The Spycops', a BBC podcast series.

29 February 2024

How would you react if you discovered that your partner of several years was not the person they said they were but was, instead, an undercover police officer, and who had a wife and children you knew nothing about? This is the question explored by BBC Radio Nottingham presenter Andy Whittaker in a new ten-part BBC podcast series

Whittaker focuses on the case of police officer Mark Kennedy who worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and infiltrated activist groups in Nottingham over seven years using the cover identity of ‘Mark Stone'. He was, throughout, regularly reporting back information to his police handler and occasionally visiting his wife and children in Ireland.

As a psychologist who has researched surveillance and is interested in the ethical implications of covert surveillance techniques, including undercover political policing, I was curious to see how the podcast would cover this story. I think it will be of interest to a range of psychologists in that it reveals the psychological effects and the ethical and human rights implications of this tactic on those who are targeted. It also highlights the socio-psychological impacts of surveillance on activist campaigns, and the effects of such work on officers. Finally, it is a case study of organisational dysfunction.

Whittaker interviews Kennedy’s ex-partners and a number of the activists who he befriended. He describes the psychological effects of his deception and betrayal of their trust. A common theme is that, having been deceived and betrayed in such an intimate manner, it becomes difficult both to trust others again and to trust one’s own judgements about people. The women with whom Kennedy had sexual relationships felt their lives had been invaded by the State. Had they known he was a police officer, they said they would not have allowed him to enter their homes and lives and would not have consented to a sexual relationship with him. 

In one episode, Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer, says that infiltrating a group means ‘weaponising empathy', in his case, befriending often vulnerable drug users as he infiltrated criminal drug gangs. Kennedy began his infiltration of the environmental movement via the Sumac centre in Nottingham. There he befriended activists, lived in a shared house with some of them, and established his cover identity as ‘Mark Stone'. He made himself useful to campaigns as he had a van and dropped them off after meetings. This was apparently a common tactic for these undercover officers to obtain people’s addresses so they could be reported to handlers.

One day, whilst on holiday, ‘Lisa’, the long-term partner of the person she knew as ‘Mark Stone,’ found that his passport was in the name of Mark Kennedy. She also discovered phone texts from his children, which he had never mentioned to her. After overcoming her doubts, she and activist friends began to discover the truth, eventually confronting Kennedy.

The State has often used informers to report on political organisations seen as subversive: historian David Garrow reports that, in the 1960s and 1970s, 17 per cent of US Communist Party members and 11 per cent of US Socialist Workers Party members were FBI informers. Although activists are vigilant about informers and undercover officers, when their presence is revealed, activists can become paralysed by paranoia and distracted from their original campaign.

The series also raises questions about the construction of identity and the psychological impact of undercover work. Was Kennedy just acting a role throughout or did he have some affinity for the environmental movement and consider some of those he reported on as friends?

Later episodes discuss the psychological toll of undercover work on police officers. Kennedy appeared to have struggles with his mental health after being confronted, but interpretations of this are complicated by the fact that appearing to have a nervous breakdown was a common tactic used by undercover political police to end their deployments.

The podcast provides a case study of how the State’s paranoia about activist groups, coupled with poor oversight and institutionalised sexism led to both an apparent reckless disregard for human rights and a failure to assess the proportionality of such deployments. The disruption caused by demonstrations and direct-action campaigns clearly does not justify the use of undercover police officers deployed over several years, a conclusion the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry also seems to have reached in its interim report

Although it would be easy to view those targeted by Kennedy simply as victims, one is struck by how the activists, especially the women deceived into sexual relationships, have drawn strength from collective solidarity and have sought to expose the truth about undercover political policing. This is an important and ongoing story – the Undercover Policing Inquiry is not due to submit its final report until December 2026.

- Reviewed by David Harper, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of East London. [email protected]