The Guardian journalist behind the sensational revelations about the extent of undercover police work said the whistleblower at the heart of the story had been warned against coming clean.
Paul Lewis praised former special branch officer Peter Francis for deciding to go on the record to reveal details of undercover operations, despite coming under pressure not to do so.
- July 17, 2018
- October 10, 2017
- December 21, 2015
“It’s easy to ask ‘why didn’t he speak out sooner?’, but it’s a really challenging thing to do on a personal level,” Lewis told Press Gazette.
“He said he was threatened by people of the consequences for him if he did speak out so he had to make a judgment on that as well.”
He would not reveal the nature of these threats or where they came from.
Francis’ testimony was the basis of explosive revelations in The Guardian and on Channel 4’s Dispatches this week. He claimed that police spies had been assigned the job of collecting information on the family of murdered black teenager
Stephen Lawrence in order to run a smear campaign.
Lewis said he had around 30 meetings with Francis over the two years of his and Rob Evans’ investigation into undercover policing.
He had been an anonymous source on other stories but had been persuaded to reveal his identity by the Guardian journalists.
“We talked to him about how best to get the story out. The story is always bigger and stronger if a source can go on record,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he and Evans had spoken to other former members of Scotland Yard’s Special Demonstration Squad as part of the latest investigation and as the basis of other stories, such as the revelation that covert officers assumed the identities of dead children as part of their undercover work.
He added that he hoped that Francis would set an example for other SDS officers to speak out.
“The more that can take that step, I hope it would be an incentive to other sources to realise they can do it too and it can make a difference.”
However, he warned that the current climate had made it more difficult for whistleblowers to come forward.
“There’s a really worrying shift towards prosecuting whistleblowers and I think it’s anathema to democracy. The purpose of journalism is to find out things that people ought to know and we are totally reliant on our sources for that so the more they feel inhibited the less we find out about things that are in the public interest.”
He added that the relationship between reporters and police was also suffering as a result of the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.
“On a personal level I’ve not seen the ‘chilling effect’ that colleagues have talked about but I totally believe that it’s happening.
“People say sources are less willing to speak to them and that worries me as a fellow journalist.”