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Q&A: Undercover Millwall cop James Bannon on Running with the Firm
FORMER police officer James Bannon has revealed all in a recently published book about an undercover operation in the late 1980s to infiltrate a gang of Millwall hooligans.
Running with the Firm was released in August and reached the top five in the UK best seller list.
Bannon, who began his career with the Met at Greenwich police station before being selected for the undercover role in 1987, quit the force shortly after the operation was ended suddenly in 1989 following the collapse of several high profile football violence trials.
He went on to become an actor, the writer of mid-90s film ID and is now a stand-up comedian.
The author has also turned his book into a play, which was critically acclaimed at this summer’s Edinburgh Festival and will be performed this autumn in central London and Brighton.
News Shopper sports editor Paul Green has covered the Lions for almost a decade and caught up with Bannon yesterday to discuss the play, book, Millwall and his motivations for going public now.
What prompted you to write this book now almost 25 years on?
I wrote the film ID in 1995 but didn’t advertise the fact it was about me for various reasons. All of the people I worked with on the operation have now retired, and it was as much their wish as mine that the story be told it its entirety rather than just what was in the film. On that basis I wrote the book and I’ve got to say that, given the reaction to it, I’m pleased I did.
A lot of Millwall fans would feel your book just adds to the stereotype of them all being hooligans. What would you say to that criticism?
Read the book, then I would be more than happy for them to make that opinion having read the book because I certainly had no intention to go out and portray that at all. I support Millwall and have continued to do so after ending the operation. I think they are a great club. They have got a mindless element that give them very bad press but if you actually read the book and take the time to do that, then your opinion of Millwall will be slightly different to the one portrayed in the media.
You mention in the book the decision to pull the operation before arrests were made was a political one. Could you explain that a bit more for people who weren’t around at the time?
There were three trials which failed abysmally due to fabricated evidence and these were well-documented at the time – a West Ham trial, a Chelsea trial and also a Millwall one.
The Millwall trial resulted in a number of people being sentenced and sent to prison. There was then a West Ham trial and a Chelsea trial, and as a result of some of the evidence which had been produced to the courts which proved to be inaccurate, both of the trials collapsed.
The guys that were sentenced for the Millwall operation (not the one Bannon was working on) appealed and their sentences were overturned. As a result of that it was deemed any operation involving undercover officers infiltrating football hooligans wasn’t seen to be favourable. Therefore after two years of an operation on which I had worked, it was finished overnight.
You left the police shortly afterwards. Did you feel let down by the Met’s decision to end the operation?
At the time I felt very let down, but I’d also seen another side of policing which I hadn’t seen prior to working undercover. I think a combination of lots of things made me decide if I could do the type of job I had done for the past two years maybe I could look at maybe doing some other things which weren’t quite as risky.
I was 23 and had done something which in my opinion I was probably never going to better, so I was looking for the next challenge for want of a better phrase and took the decision that at the age of 23, really the career of a police officer wasn’t for me.
Peter Francis, the undercover police officer who has blown the whistle recently in the Stephen Lawrence case, feels he wasn’t supported by the Met after his mission was finished with counselling and support. Were you offered any support like that or do you feel, like him, you were let down by your employer?
I can’t talk on behalf of Peter Francis, quite rightly I can only go on what they offered me. I didn’t look for them to support, but having said that it wasn’t forthcoming.
It was a very different time to where we are now, we are talking about the mid to late 1980s and things were done in a different way.
There wasn’t much understanding of post traumatic stress disorder or psychological evaluations at that time. Whether or not it was even there to be offered would be a question to be asked. I think it would be very, very easy for me to turn around and blame the Metropolitan Police for their inability to assist me.
My leaving was my decision based on the two years of work that I had done and I don’t hold them accountable for it. I didn’t look or ask them for assistance, so I suppose on that basis if you don’t ask for it then you don’t get offered. It certainly wouldn’t have been the done thing in those times.
I think the situation we’ve got with Peter Francis, Mark Kennedy (an undercover officer who quit the police in 2010 after the collapse of a trial of environmental activists) and some of the other undercover officers is one that needs to be addressed and will be by the current investigation being carried out. It isn’t something I will be getting involved with because I’ve got no gripe with the Metropolitan Police.
Have you had any reaction from any of your former colleagues since the book came out?
I’ve had no reaction from former colleagues where they’ve said anything to me personally, but I’m sure there has been a huge reaction in relation to people who have read the book. We live in a world where it is very easy to criticise, so I’m sure there will be some criticism. To me it seems people are more willing now to criticise rather than offer some support. I don’t want to be congratulated at all, I wrote the book for no other reason than I wanted to tell the story as it was.
One of the criticisms which could be levelled against the book is the fact all of the names of people involved have been changed, thus denying any of the characters portrayed the right to respond. What would you say to that?
I tried very, very hard not to do that. The book was with the legal people for eight months and as a result of that, and just so everyone is aware, the decision to change names, places, characters and everything else was not mine but the publisher’s. It was because of the libel laws and the way they work in this country, meaning they had no other option.
Were you naming people as they were originally then?
I would have had no problems naming the places and people.
Anyone who knows the book knows what The Puffin and The Old Castle is and will recognise that.
All I will say is everything in that book is factually correct, I haven’t written the book to fabricate stuff or highlight anything to make me or anyone else look any better.
The book is written from a true standpoint and I will stand and defend it.
You’ve written a play based on the book which you showcased at the Edinburgh Festival and are due to show soon in central London and Brighton. Do you have any plans to show it in our area, say in Lewisham or Dartford?
I think the question for me would be is that going to be inflammatory taking it to Lewisham, or Up the Creek or the Greenwich Theatre. I think potentially. Would I have an issue with doing it at The Orchard Theatre in Dartford? Not at all. The demographic of the audience in Edinburgh was quite interesting. Quite a lot of the Hibs and Hearts old school hooligans came to see the show for exactly that reason thinking ‘who the hell does this bloke think he is?’ beforehand. The reaction afterwards is I suppose what I expected it to be which was that they got as much out of the show as I did performing it.
You say you are a Millwall fan to this day. Bearing that in mind, plus your own background as an undercover police officer targeting Millwall fans causing trouble, what was your reaction to the incident at Wembley in April?
As a Millwall supporter who saw that I was as surprised, if not more so, than anyone. My view is it should have been a midday kick-off, not at 5.15pm.
Yet again we are dealing with the media and the fact that it started so late because ESPN wanted to show it on TV. What it does highlight and show is there is still an issue and problem with football hooliganism whatever way you want to look at it - and you can dress it up and call it other things or do whatever you want to do.
I was just a bit sad about it really as a Millwall supporter, irrespective of what I did. Ultimately for me I did that 25 years ago at what was probably Millwall’s height with the likes of Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino and Terry Hurlock - people who basically played their hearts out for the club and took us from the second to the first division.
Yes, I was working as an undercover police officer but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the football I watched at the time, they were a class side.
I think where we are at now in direct response to your question about Wembley is I just felt it was all very sad the fact that the people involved were fighting among themselves. Whether it was drug induced or alcohol induced doesn’t really matter, I sadly can’t think of any other club, irrespective of whether it was a 1.30pm kick-off or 5.15pm, who would start fighting among themselves. That is the sad thing about it.
I explain in the book that the lengths the club go to in order to lose that reputation and remove it is commendable, it is just a few mindless twats who spoil it. The trouble is it is because of the reputation Millwall have got, it does attract an element of people who want to posture Stone Islanded up, wear scarves and walk about saying ‘look at me’. Whereas even back when I was doing it, what you would class as the top guys who certainly we were trying to infiltrate, there was a certain code where if some old lady was walking across the road you would stop.
Millwall do have a reputation, and there is part of that which is justified let’s be honest. They are people who support the football club for the wrong reasons. Ninety five per cent of genuine Millwall fans, I would imagine some of them will be genuinely p***ed off with the book because they will see it as just another book about Millwall and hooliganism. But if you read the book I do go some way to explain why it does go on. There are, as detailed, just a number of mindless idiots who do need to be pulled up for what they do and punished.
Nobody in the book was arrested, charged or punished as a result of your work though?
That wasn’t my decision, I just did my job. I get asked a lot 25 years on how do you I feel now? Part of me is a bit relieved really that it didn’t go to trial. I certainly wouldn’t have written the book if it had gone to trial because the animosity would have been far greater. I’m not saying there isn’t any animosity now but it would have been far greater than it appears to be at the moment. It really was a long time ago.
Running with the Firm by James Bannon (Ebury Press) is out now, and available at all good bookshops and Amazon. ‘Running with the Firm, One Man Show’ is at The Soho Theatre, London, November 13 and The Komedia, Brighton, on November 8. Follow James on Twitter @runningwiththefirm
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