Cloaks, daggers and Ms X appeal

by Jonathan Calvert and David Connett - Inside Expose

The Observer; 26th January 1997

Press Index

Agents hired by McDonald's to infiltrate green activist groups behaved in true thriller fashion: they sneaked into offices, 'borrowed' documents and recorded meetings.

IN THE dingy room above the bookshop on north London' Caledonian Road, private detective Brian Bishop sat listening to the earnest discussions of the tiny environmental group. Mr Bishop had attended many of these meetings before, but this time something attracted his attention . . . a new girl.

Returning to his office, he filed his report, making special mention of the mysterious newcomer. 'She was about 5ft 6in tall and aged around 19-22 years. She had full, light brown hair. She was of medium build and had a fresh complexion, devoid of make-up. She was attractive in both face and figure,' he wrote.


THE MEETING: Ms X and Charlie Brooke, standing by the door on right, at a meeting of London Greenpeace.


To Mr Bishop's trained eye there was something suspicious about the woman. Her jeans looked brand-new and yet there were two splits on the knees which, he noted looked as though they had been 'administered rather than worn'.

His suspicions were well founded. The woman was indeed not all that she seemed. Ms X, whose identity is known to the Observer, was a former policewoman who had been working for two years as a self-employed private detective. Unknown to Mr Bishop she, too, had been hired by the fast-food giant McDonald's to spy on the assortment of environmental activists that made up London Greenpeace.

Quite why McDonald's the world's largest fast-food company, worth 20 billion needed these two private detectives and five others to investigate this little-known group is a question only it can answer.

The information gleaned by the detectives was later used to help McDonald's serve libel writs on five group members. Faced with the prospect of taking on the mega-rich international conglomerate, three felt they had no option but to apologise, but Helen Steel and Dave Morris decided to defend themselves. It was the start of the now celebrated 'McLibel' trial the longest court hearing in British legal history, lasting 314 days and costing many millions of pounds. McDonald's is suing Ms Steel and Mr Morris over a leaflet distributed by London Greenpeace no relation to Greenpeace International - entitled 'What's Wrong With McDonald's'. The leafelt accused the company of promoting unhealthy food, exploiting Third World countries, workers and animals, and destroying the environment. The company says the allegations are false and highly defamatory.


THE SPIES: Private detective Allan Claire with Sid Nicholson, a vice-president of McDonald's


The case, which will be decided by a judge rather than a jury ended before Christmas and Mr Justice Bell is now reviewing the evidence. His judgment is expected some time before Easter. Despite its worldwide dominance, McDonald's is extremely sensitive about its reputation. It has fought legal battles across the world to stop people using and abusing its name, symbols and slogans.

During the marathon McLibel trial, evidence was heard that in a four-year period the company had taken 'action' against 45 separate UK organisations, including national newspapers, the BBC, magazines, universities and even a small teashop.

London Greenpeace came into the sights of McDonald's legal big guns when one of its leaflets was passed to Sid Nicholson, a former senior police officer and the company's UK head of security. Mr Nicholson, now a company vice-president, received the leaflet from the right-wing Economic League - a secretive organisation renowned for its blacklist of people it considers subversive.

McDonald's decided to pitch its corporate muscle against a handful of north London vegans and green campaigners. In September 1989 its lawyers approached Gerald Hartley, boss of Kings Investigation Bureau Ltd, one of the oldest agencies in London, and instructed it to target the group. One week later it hired a second company, Robert Bishop Ltd, to cover the same ground.


THE FRONT LINE: Miss X deeply invovled with green activists, joining them to picket and leaflet.


Confidential legal documents reveal McDonald's cloak-and-dagger approach. Both fims were 'instructed to infiltrate London Greenpeace to ascertain as much information as possible about the organisers of the group and in particular the people responsible for writing, distributing, publishing, and printing defamatory information about McDonald's.

Neither were aware of the other's existence and both have been informed of the strict requirement of secrecy.' The two firms used a total of seven agents to infiltrate. They went to meetings, often significantly swelling attendances manned stalls and even distributed the disputed leaflets. Several letters about McDonald's belonging to London Greenpeace were taken by the investigators, photocopied, passed on to the agencies and then returned.

Mr Bishop attended more than a dozen meetings throughout 1990. One report contained a curiously detailed description of London Greenpeace's offices. Mr Bishop noted that one window 'had no security locks on the frame and opened out to the outside', adding that an adjacent office in the same building was occupied 24 hours day. Another agent, Allan Claire, a freelance working for Robert Bishop Ltd, admitted gaining entry to the group's office. He denied breaking in, claiming instead that he entered one evening using a 'phone card' to swipe the door lock. He took a number of photographs, which were later used during the trial.

In his report, he wrote: 'Went through the letters. Good letter re: MCDs. Managed to obtain it/borrow it.' Many of the agents filed reports, blissfully unaware of the presence of fellow agents. Ms X's arrival into this tangled plot was immediately noted by Mr Bishop. She, in turn, immediately noted a 'quietly spoken' young man called Charlie.

'He is 5ft 10in in height, slim to medium build, collar-length light brown wispy hair with a, fringe, and he was wearing black trousers with holes in the knees and a tatty T-shirt,' she wrote in one of her first reports. After a while she came to know Charlie Brooke intimately. Now 35, Mr Brooke was one of the leading lights of the group.


... AND THE VICE-PRESIDENT: Agent Brian Bishop, pictured with Sid Nicholson, was suspicious of the new girl.


Ms X's relationship with Mr Brooke proved fortunate, as it allayed the group's suspicions. As one member close to the couple said: 'At the time we were concerned that the group may have been infiltrated, but she was beyond suspicion because she was going out with Charlie.' In the autumn of 1990, Mr Brooke was also attending meetings of the Hackney and Islington Animal Rights Campaign, which had been very active in its oppositon to McDonald's, frequently picketing outlets and handing out critical leaflets.

Among its members was Paul Gravett, a vegan anarchist, who was thought to-be a linchpin in both the animal rights group and London Greenpeace's campaigns against the burger company. Another animal rights group member, Geoffrey Shepherd, had been jailed for setting off incendiary devices at three Debenhams department stores during the mid-1980s.

Ms X also joined the Hackney and Islington campaign, attending meetings with Mr Brooke, becoming friendly with Mr Gravett and Mr Shepherd, and hosting dinner parties for them at Mr Brooke's north London flat.

Friends say her relationship with Mr Brooke flourished. The couple spent Christmas together and exchanged gifts. Ms X helped in the health food shop where he worked and she even went to visit his mother in West Yorkshire. Mr Brooke, in contrast, was never introduced to any of her friends nor did he ever go to her rented bedsit. She was able to report firsthand to McDonald's London Greenpeace's reaction to the writs served on five members by the burger giant's lawyers. Mr Brooke was not among those who received a writ.

It was four months later when three of the five, including Mr Gravett, apologised to McDonald's and Ms Steel and Mr Morris embarked on their determined confrontation with the litigious corporation. As the battle lines were drawn, the work of the private detective agencies appeared to end. By February, the-relationship between Ms X and Mr Brooke had cooled. She began saying that she could no longer spend weekends at his flat because of work commitments. He told friends that he never saw her again after he ended the relationship.

Only one memento of the strange affair remains: the tabby cat Ms X left at his flat and never collected, a physical reminder of how the detective for McDonald's had touched his private life.


See also: Back to Media Page