‘It was as if he set out to destroy my sanity’: how the spy cops lied their way into women’s hearts – and beds

With hindsight, the environmental activist Helen Steel, a key figure in the 1990s McLibel case, can see that her life with John Dines was suspiciously idyllic.

When they met, at a London Greenpeace meeting in the late 1980s, she was spending her free time protesting against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, or staying in mining villages supporting striking miners. Soon he was enthusiastically joining her on hunt saboteur trips to disrupt grouse shoots in Yorkshire, or on demonstrations against the poll tax, and spending his weekends with her, helping to campaign against the environmental record of McDonald’s.

It was only decades after their relationship ended that she began to understand that they got on so well because Dines was using a battery of grooming techniques perfected by colleagues in an undercover police division. The undercover officers in Dines’s unit presented themselves as vulnerable and alone in the world; often they would say they were recently bereaved or estranged from their families, preying on the women’s good nature, inviting their sympathy and love.

The first time Steel went to the pub with Dines, he said his father had died very suddenly. A few months later, he told her his mother had also died unexpectedly; he said he was short of money, so she lent him the funds to fly to New Zealand for the funeral. She began to feel sorry for him and somehow these feelings evolved into a more complicated sense of attachment. Steel was just 23 when they met and was initially surprised that a man five years older than her should be so interested, but they seemed to have a lot in common, particularly their politics, so when he asked her out, eventually she agreed.

They found a flat in London and moved in together. They had wonderful holidays in the Outer Hebrides and at Camber Sands. All the while he was telling her he wanted to buy a small house in the countryside with his inheritance, somewhere he could dig a duck pond for her and they could settle down and have six children.

“We got on so well, sharing many of the same interests and never having arguments … Life with John was idyllic,” she writes in Deep Deception, an extraordinary account of how undercover officers from the Metropolitan police’s special demonstration squad (SDS) deceived dozens of women into fake relationships, co-written with four other women who were similarly ensnared.

“All of us began by thinking that the men had in some way genuinely cared about us – even after we discovered that they were undercover officers,” she says now, describing how her anger mounted steadily as she researched and wrote the book. “As we talked through what happened to us, we saw so many patterns; it really rammed it home that there weren’t any genuine moments – they were purely manipulative and abusive.”

Throughout the time they were together, Dines was married to someone else; his parents were alive and well. When his deployment was over, he left a note on the kitchen table telling her that he needed some space and abruptly disappeared.

There can be no clearer example of misogyny within the Met than the undercover police division’s treatment of these women, who were duped into relationships by officers who used them to construct convincing alter egos, to mask the surveillance work they were doing on small, mostly left-leaning and non-violent protest groups.

“I still don’t think the police get it. That was our purpose in writing this book – we wanted to expose the institutional sexism that allowed these relationships to happen and to stop more women being abused by officers. It’s very easy for an individual’s experience to be written off as a glitch, or just the responsibility of an individual officer, but the strength of us writing our story together – you start to see patterns, and it is the patterns that demonstrate that this was a systemic problem,” she says.

Even people who think they are familiar with the broad outlines of the undercover cop scandal will be astonished by the contents of Deep Deception. The book weaves together the women’s experiences chronologically, revealing in horrifying detail how they were each tricked into relationships.

One of the women lived for five years with a man with whom she hoped to have children, before he disappeared unexpectedly and without trace; it turned out he had been married with three young children throughout the time they had been together. Another had a relationship stretching more than seven years, while another from their group had two children with an officer, believing that he had genuine feelings for her. “The betrayal and the Orwellian surveillance behind it have devastated lives,” the introduction notes. But the book is a triumphant exercise in exploding the women’s status as victims; it goes on to describe their success in subsequently exposing the cynical and sordid full extent of the spy cops operation.

Steel is not sure whether she was selected randomly as a way of giving Dines credibility within the activist community, or if she was targeted because of her involvement in the McDonald’s campaign. Shortly after they began their relationship in the early 90s, she was walking with Dines back to his flat when she was served with a libel writ by McDonald’s over a leaflet she had helped produce highlighting the environmental damage caused by the burger chain; she now believes he must have been involved in helping organise for the writ to be served.

The case would become the longest-running legal battle in English history. Steel and her co-defendant, Dave Morris (an unemployed postal worker), became famous globally for their dogged refusal to apologise in the face of McDonald’s multimillion-pound lawsuit. As Steel prepared her defence, Dines would obligingly pick her up from meetings with the young lawyer who was helping her – a newly qualified Keir Starmer – enabling him to hear all about the defence arguments as he drove her home. Later it would emerge that another undercover officer from the same SDS unit had helped draft the offending leaflet.

“They targeted anyone with a desire to protest against the status quo, anyone attempting to hold the government or big business to account. Only a handful of far-right groups were infiltrated among the many hundreds of leftwing ones,” she says. “A large part of their function seemed to be to protect corporate interests.”

This riveting book exposes repeat patterns of abusive behaviour by the undercover cops, revealing how the men used well-honed strategies for building up relationships and jettisoning them at the end of the deployment. The officers were adept at a method known as “mirroring”: subtly latching on to things the women were interested in and later declaring that they, too, shared those same passions – the same music, politics, books, commitment to vegetarianism. It becomes clear that they were passing on tips and guidance to each other on how to manipulate the women they were using to provide a front for their undercover work.

The undercover officers had vans and flexible work that made them available for transporting people to and from activist meetings – allowing them to eavesdrop on plans. The freelance nature of their pretend jobs (as gardeners, carpenters or delivery drivers) also permitted them to disappear for protracted stretches to spend time with their real families.

They exited suddenly, after announcing they were having breakdowns and needed space; they disappeared to South Africa or the US and appeared to be untraceable. The women were devastated at the abrupt end of relationships, upset for themselves, but also worried about the welfare of the defenceless, lonely men they had loved.

Steel’s story has been written about previously (not least in the excellent Undercover, by the Guardian journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis), but the extent to which her life was messed up by the decision of Dines to dupe her into a relationship is laid bare in this book. It is a shocking and at times painful-to-read series of dizzying, life-shattering deceptions. For a while, Steel had some residual affection for Dines; it was hard to believe that there had been nothing genuine in his behaviour towards her over the two years they had lived together. Subsequently, she has met more than two dozen other women similarly abused and her gaze has hardened.

The Met continues to insist that these relationships were unsanctioned misdemeanours committed by individual rogue officers, but Steel believes this is nonsense. “We could see that what had seemed like heart-wrenching stories told by the officers at the time were so similar they could only have come through shared practice. It was chilling,” she says.

Four of the women behind the book have chosen to remain anonymous, but Steel long ago abandoned any attempt to box off this chunk of her life. She writes with powerful rage about the women’s continuing battle for justice. “We were often portrayed as victims with no agency and we wanted to show that it was our detective work that uncovered this scandal, and to show that fighting back against those abuses was an empowering experience,” she says.

Although there have been public apologies and financial settlements for some of the women, the book highlights how energetically the police continues to obstruct the women’s campaign to get answers. In a post #MeToo era, at a time when the Met is facing the fallout from its handling of Sarah Everard’s death, it seems remarkable that the force is resisting these women’s requests for disclosure about the details of their cases, by refusing to release the files on them.

“These are akin to Stasi files. All kinds of information was put down in these police files. It is grossly intrusive. There’s no justification in a democracy for keeping those kinds of files,” Steel says.

It is particularly startling to register how consistently the women’s experiences have been trivialised in the years since they exposed the unit’s actions. A judge hearing their case in 2013 described the police officers as “cads”. Another judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, hearing a different part of the case that year, made a peculiar reference to James Bond to provide context for the behaviour of the police, arguing that the fictional spy’s behaviour showed how the intelligence services had for years used “officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature … in order to obtain information or access”. The women were treated dismissively during a home affairs select committee hearing.

Writing in the Daily Mail in 2014, Richard Littlejohn derided the women as “an assortment of unwashed dopey birds who slept with undercover officers”. Most significantly, an attempt to prosecute the officers for rape and sexual assault failed in 2014, when the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was “insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction”.

The CPS decision not to prosecute the officers was “absolutely outrageous; totally sexist,” Steel says. “There is no way that we would have consented to these relationships had we known who these men really were and what their purpose was in our lives.” The deception made the women think they were going mad; most were later diagnosed with serious psychological injuries including post-traumatic stress, extreme anxiety, depression and panic attacks.

Steel discovered in 1994, through impressive, forensic investigation, that Dines, whom she knew as John Barker, had stolen the identity of a child who had died at eight of leukaemia; some time later, she realised that he was a member of the SDS. Writing the book meant she had to go through diaries and letters from the time of the relationship; she was shocked by how unkind he had been in his treatment of her, particularly the manner of his departure, when he left her and returned repeatedly over several months, telling her he loved her and feeding her new lies about his grief for his fictitiously dead parents. Rereading the letters “really struck home just how abusive and manipulative he was. And that made me really angry; it was as if he set out to destroy my sanity.”

Dines, who later moved to Australia, has never explained his behaviour. Steel managed to track him down in 2016 and speak to him at Sydney airport (the mobile phone footage of that brief meeting is worth watching, as a fleeting insight into Dines’ callous dismissal of what he has done).

“As far as we know, not a single one of them has faced any consequences for their actions, not even the docking of their pensions,” she says. The impact on the women, however, has been profound. Steel’s faith in her judgment was shattered, so it took a long time before she was able to have another relationship, which meant by the time she started trying to have a family it was difficult. She had seven miscarriages and was ultimately unable to have children.

“It has severely affected our ability to trust other people, or to form intimate relationships again. You can’t compensate for that,” she says, noting that even the state compensation system does not see the world from a woman’s perspective, being more inclined to focus on loss of earnings.

She is unimpressed by the effusive police apology issued in 2015, which she thinks does not sit well with the persistent refusal to release the women’s files so that they can properly understand why they were targeted and the nature of the information held on them. “There is a tension between them claiming it should never have happened and saying they think it’s appalling, and refusing to tell us the truth about the extent of it and who knew,” she says.

In response to the book, the Met reiterated its regret, stating: “Undercover policing has changed significantly with independent judicial oversight of all operations, and past events highlighted in this book in no way reflect modern-day undercover policing. We recognise the hurt and distress caused to the authors of this book. The actions of undercover officers who deceived these women into sexual relationships were totally unacceptable.”

A public inquiry into undercover policing has been running since 2015, but progress has been severely hampered by police requests for secrecy. The hearings restarted this week, however the sessions relating to the women’s experiences are not expected to begin until next year.

“The public inquiry has been bending over backwards to protect the privacy and feelings of the former undercover officers. There is no concern for our privacy and our right to know,” Steel says. “We all want answers. If the police want to raid someone’s house, they have to apply for a warrant and they have to set out the reasons why they need to search the house. But with these relationships, no warrants needed to be applied for. They were living in our houses and they had access to everything we had in our homes; they had access to the contents of our heads. They could ask us whatever questions they wanted and we would answer – believing they were our trusted partners, not an undercover cop trying to get information. It was disgusting and inhumane abuse.”

Deep Deception is published by Ebury Spotlight (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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