A force to be reckoned with: When Duncan Campbell called the police he didn't realise his name spelt trouble

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The Independent Online
SINCE I am a journalist who has occasionally braved the Official Secrets Act it would be untrue to say I have always been on the right side of the law. But I had assumed that I could, when necessary, dial 999 with confidence. I had reckoned without the dangers of living in Stoke Newington, north London.

Earlier this year, the local police paid pounds 67,000 in damages for violence against suspects and for false imprisonment. Another group of officers allegedly supplied seized drugs to a network of dealers whom they protected and controlled. A senior Scotland Yard officer had spoken of 'the most serious corruption allegations for 20 years'.

I was only dimly aware of these developments and thought they had nothing to do with me. One evening last June, I learnt differently.

I had returned home to hear a loud banging from the end wall of the house. Looking out, I saw two men from a nearby building site attacking the house foundations with some vigour. The boundaries of the house were inconvenient to a neighbouring property developer. Six weeks previously, he had bulldozed a large section of the boundary wall; it had been re-built at considerable expense.

I went out and politely asked the developer to call his men off. During our discussion, he gathered a pickaxe and swung it at the wall to emphasise his intentions. Perhaps foolishly, I placed myself between him and the wall. He continued swinging the axe, I pushed him away, he aimed the axe at me twice. I jumped over the wall, ran into the house, locked myself in an upstairs room and dialled 999.

Two police vehicles arrived within 12 minutes. After I explained what had happened, they went in search of the developer. When they returned it seemed they had lost interest in the pickaxe, its owner and the dents he had left in the wall. They arrested me.

At the police station, I was charged with causing actual bodily harm. Further, in the officers' view, I was too dangerous to be allowed out on the streets; for reasons of public safety, I would be kept in their cells overnight.

By now, understanding was dawning. I had given my profession as 'journalist and TV producer'. A young constable asked me: 'Are you that journalist, Duncan Campbell?' I was flattered. Perhaps the constable remembered my controversial series on The Secret Society, shown on BBC2 in 1987. Perhaps he was even a New Statesman reader who remembered my exposes of phone-tapping in the intelligence services a decade ago. Yes, I said, I was that journalist.

But which journalist? Later, another officer asked: 'Are you the Duncan Campbell who's been writing all this stuff that's given this station a bad name?' Yet another, taking my fingerprints, asked: 'Have you been giving us all this grief?' Since I had never written about Stoke Newington police, I was baffled and told them so.

I should have guessed the truth earlier, but I had been out of England and had not been reading the London editions of the papers. I have a namesake - Duncan Campbell, crime correspondent of the Guardian. For more than 15 years, we have suffered misrouted cheques and unwanted invitations. I have been asked if I can arrange favours from his partner, who is Julie Christie, the actress; he has been asked to lecture on the Official Secrets Act.

Now things had taken a more serious turn. Just four days earlier, my namesake had published the latest in a series of reports exposing the corruption in Stoke Newington CID. And, in the same week, another journalist, called Denis Campbell, had reported further allegations in Time Out. Clearly, this was a bad moment for a journalist named D Campbell to call for police aid. Instantly jailing journalists is not, it is true, a conventional remedy for criticism in most parts of Britain. But this was Stoke Newington.

The following morning, magistrates granted me unconditional bail. But the matter did not rest there. Officers visited the pickaxe-wielding developer on several occasions, urging him, I was told, to press his complaint. He claimed that he had suffered a broken canine tooth but was 'too busy' to submit to a dental examination. Two building workers had witnessed the incident. One, my solicitor was told, had been found and would give evidence in court. The police located the second witness the day before the case was due for trial - unfortunately, they said, he was in Jersey. I realised, when I got to court, that they did not have the first witness either. The man they produced was another building worker who was on site but did not see the attack.

At the last minute, the prosecution offered to drop charges if I would agree to be bound over to keep the peace. I accepted. I already had a stack of lawyers' bills and I was not confident that the magistrates would spot that the witnesses had, in effect, been rigged. It all seemed very unfair. But this was Stoke Newington - where it is bad news to be a reporter called Campbell.

Duncan Campbell now lives in Edinburgh.

(Photographs omitted)