review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the Matrix Churchill affair, Her Majesty's Customs played the part of the honest policeman - sticking doggedly to the letter of the law, while the government were in a Whitehall backroom holding it over a steaming kettle. World in Action (ITV) ensured they will not enjoy their glory for long, with a report about the ill-lit ground in which investigation of crime turns into its commission. It included a bit of damage-limitation from a senior customs officer which showed that, when it comes to stonewalling and strategic ignorance, they are well able to maintain the proud traditions of the Civil Service.

"Strange Customs" examined the case of two informants, used in what is usually known as the war against drugs (a failing siege might be a more accurate analogy, or even a managed retreat). Both men had found that, when they ran into trouble in their undercover work, the customs service was less than energetic in testifying to their good faith. Interestingly enough, the problem was partly semantic - the men were hired as "confidential informants", that is spies who are expected to hover on the edges of a deal without sullying their hands, but they frequently found it impossible not to become "participating informants", that is spies who take part "to a modest extent" (HM Customs' words) in the activities they are trying to uncover. For the service it is clearly politic not to define these terms too clearly - they need to stage their regular tableaux of drug-war success - and smugglers are notoriously twitchy about people who appear to have mere observer status. But when things go wrong it is easy for informants to drop through the gap between what the Customs know and what they choose to admit.

John Lightfoot discovered this to his cost when he found himself arrested by the French police as part of a drugs gang. Despite the fact that he had been informing for HM Customs and that he was obeying his instructions, he was abandoned by his controllers. Only the pressure of his Euro MP eventually forced them to intervene with the French judge. In another case an informant and his family were put in danger after Customs had intervened without warning in a drug run - the man's wife was given 15 minutes to leave her home before relocation and is still waiting for her husband to get out of jail. She alleged that her husband had been persuaded to carry drugs by Customs despite his own reluctance.

Perhaps sensibly, World in Action did not go into great detail about how either of these men had been recruited and in both cases, it is fair to say the presumption of innocence was not quite as robust as it might have been in other circumstances. Presumably customs officers do not seek volunteers at bus stops - it is a line of work for which elderly ladies or church vergers would be unsuited. They need people whose faces will fit, and you couldn't assume that the protestations of selfless public service included here gave a full account of the agents' motives. Even so there was something decidedly unpalatable about the way customs officers tucked the rule-book in a bottom drawer while things were going well but scuttled behind it when things went wrong.

In one of the more curious voice-over hirings of recent months, that notorious old sea-dog John Peel has been narrating Channel 4's Classic Ships (C4), a nostalgic account of salt-rimmed timber. His more traditional reputation collided oddly with this unfamiliar subject matter in last night's episode about the small boats that potter about in harbours: "By any standards," he said, "the Newquay is a good gig." Decent acoustics, you wondered, and cash in hand after the last number? No, oak rollocks, fine lines and the perfect stern for a following sea. I'm afraid I can't really convince myself that John Peel knows a good gig from a municipal park pedalo but he has a nice voice and the programme itself offers a very appealing blend of social history and nautical paraphernalia.

Comments