Hacking, phone taps and the anarchists
‘A Company of Bastards’ and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (this brief history of militant trade union phone hacking in the 70s was published in Freedom, 13th August 2011)
Recent comment on the ethics of phone hacking and the media reminded me of our practices in the 1970s, during the time of the alternative press and counter-cultural journalism in the North of England; not to mention what we got up to in the name of our academic interests.
We didn’t actually go in for phone hacking as such, but we did tape-record telephone conversations of various parties without their knowledge. Usually we did it with people that we did not like, such as slippery union bosses like Arnold Belfield (a Rochdale Magistrate and Secretary of the National Union of Textile & Allied Workers) or Albert Hilton (President of the Rochdale Branch of the National Union of Textile & Allied Workers) or as the publication Rochdale Alternative Paper did when it recorded the boss of the Weavers & Winders Union, others did it on the odd local employer or manager. We did this at the time mainly for practical reasons because, when it suited these people, they tended to have memory lapses and that could be troublesome for trade union activists on the shop-floor. In the early 1970s, Albert Hilton, then President of Rochdale National Union of Textile & Allied Workers, had to have his memory jogged by the production of a tape recording to prove that he had had a telephone conversation with me some weeks before the committee meeting at which he and the Secretary were trying to expel me from the union. He then made himself look guilty by responding thus: “Anyone can fake a tape recording!”
We didn’t only limit these activities to tape recordings of telephone conversations either, sometimes we would engineer a tape recorder into a briefcase and take it to a meeting with the bosses or union officials to make covert recordings of the proceedings. These recordings would sometimes provide us with an aide-memoire so that we could fill in reports or to produce articles. But mostly they would be produced to undermine our enemies among the bosses and union leaders in the 1970s and beyond. A bloke called Brendan – close to the anarchist movement – was a bobby-dazzler at making these secret recordings and even Derek Pattison, who is now on the editorial panel of Northern Voices and is a life-long anarcho-syndicalist, in the 1980s got another anarchist called Ian Smith to ring up one of his ex-employers pretending to be a boss asking for a reference and expecting him to give a bad one so that he could later discredit that boss. Some of the material thus obtained may have been used for articles in Freedom, the anarchist weekly, when in the 1970s it was edited by Peter Turner, also a member of UCATT and Secretary of Hammersmith TUC.
Yet, this kind of surreptitiously acquired material had other uses besides wrong-footing dodgy employers and union bosses, it could be used for academic research. My own dissertation for my BA was based on one such confrontation between myself and a union official, Arnold Belfield, then, in the 1970s, Secretary of the National Union of Allied Workers: the thesis was entitled ‘Members and Officials: Some Aspects of a Trade Union Dispute’ and was based on a recording taken with Mr Belfield’s knowledge on the premises of the union. One Friday evening I just turned up at the office before it closed and slapped the tape-recorder down on his desk and started to interrogate him; there was a bit of an altercation of course, a bit of pushing and shoving, and then he rang for one of his union cronies for support. When that didn’t work and I still refused to leave, Arnold Belfield, who was also a Magistrate in Rochdale, called in the police, and then when I still refused to leave until I got a proper answer to my questions from Arnold, the copper, with the help of Arnold, began to try to carry me out: it was all there on tape the shouting, the cries of “get his other leg” and from the police officer: “I’m sick of this, I’m finishing work at 6pm, and I don’t want to be messing about with you!”
I suppose… the anarchists at the time in the 1960s and 70s would have argued that it was in the public interest to acquire this kind of information through tricks and wire taps. We would have said these methods were justified given what we were trying to find out and, in the case of the anarchists, dealing with employers and bosses, that it was our way of getting the edge of the employers and the union bosses. But whatever the ethics of doing this kind of thing, these past practices, both by academics and anarchists, have probably now all been made illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA 2000) in the year 2000.
But RIPA 2000 did let employers and councils do some authoritarian things, such as at Bury Council where, in 2006, they secretly filmed a team of their own binmen employees doing their work, and later tried to use the film footage to prove that three had been taking bribes off some shopkeepers. All of these binmen ended up getting a significant sum in an out-of-court settlement and payment which was later commented on in the Mail on Sunday and the Bury Times. This kind of thing reminds one of the old East Germany under the Stasi or secret police. The signs are that the RIPA 2000 didn’t really stop the abuses as it set out to do; I don’t know if the academics or anarchists have now been intimidated by the RIPA 2000.
Courtesy of Northern Voices, a bi-annual regional journal published by the Northern Anarchist Network, see http://northernvoicesmag.blogspot.com/
Published in Freedom, 13th August 2011