An ultra-distance runner turned BNP member has spent 14 years trying to get the police to confirm he was a paid informant placed inside the far-right party. Chris Burn reports.
For years, ultra-distance runner Gary Shopland was an important member of the British National Party - rising through the ranks to become leader Nick Griffin’s bodyguard and being appointed treasurer of the far-right group’s Yorkshire branch.
But he says that all along he was a police informant - and has been fighting for 14 years to get West Yorkshire Police to confirm he was working for them so he can rebuild his life.
The force continues to insist it will neither confirm nor deny any matter relating to whether or not Shopland was in its pay - a situation the 55-year-old says has caused him years of anguish and left him unable to get a job or build friendships.
“It has devastated my life, my mental health and my physical health,” he says.
“There is always a question mark over me. I just want to clear my name.”
Prior to getting involved with the BNP, Shopland had held jobs including as a lifeguard, a bouncer and a store detective but his true passion was for ultra-distance running.
He travelled the world running long distances in extreme conditions. Shopland was even filmed in 1988 for a BBC documentary called ‘Mad Dogs and an Englishman’ focusing on his efforts to run across the Death Valley desert in California.
He ran 500 miles in 20 days - covering the equivalent of a marathon per day in temperatures well over 37C. He was the first person to try such a feat and as the documentary records, Shopland was a man who felt driven to complete unusual challenges.
According to Shopland, in the 1990s an acquaintance from the running scene who worked for West Yorkshire Police introduced him to senior officers who put an extraordinary proposition to him - join the British National Party to spy on them for us.
While most people would have turned down such an offer, he says that for a man addicted to taking on extreme challenges it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
Living in Holmbridge near Holmfirth at the time, Shopland said he had “absolutely not” been involved in any groups like the BNP prior to the police’s contact and held none of their views.
“It seems a bit mad, but I had to learn to be a racist. When you are mixing with these people, you almost feel like you are becoming one. But I knew, or thought I knew, in the back of my mind that the police were going to look after me,” he says.
Shopland says the simple explanation he gave to the BNP as to why he wanted to join them was accepted and he began to regularly attend meetings.
“They were aware of my athletic background and the fact I had been in the Territorial Army Paratroopers in Pudsey.
“I told them at the first meeting that I had picked up a nationalist magazine on the way to the Paras and agreed with what it was saying. I was just lying, just pretending that your beliefs are their beliefs.”
Shopland says his background in the TA and the running world impressed those in the BNP, while his previous bodyguard training meant he was soon asked to look after leader John Tyndall and his successor Nick Griffin.
In the same way he approached running with extreme commitment, Shopland says he threw himself into his task, regularly attending BNP meetings and on one occasion, even infiltrating a left-wing group on behalf of the party.
“I got stuck into everything I was offered, I saw it as a potential intelligence opportunity. My goal was to get close to Nick Griffin and that is what I did.”
Shopland was caught on camera several times stood next to or close to Griffin during a BBC news report on the BNP leader’s campaign in the 2001 Oldham election.
The following year he became treasurer of the BNP’s Yorkshire branch. But all the while, Shopland says he was meeting with the police on a weekly basis to feed them back information about the group’s activities. He says he told officers information about planned demonstrations, places and mosques the BNP were going to target with leaflets, along with intended hate mail targets including a number of Yorkshire MPs.
“The police said I was giving them a lot of high-grade stuff. When you are undercover, especially for that amount of time - seven, eight years - you can’t help getting involved with people. It is a human thing but their politics used to make me sick. That was the hardest part, that I had to pretend to be one of them.”
Things came to a head for Shopland when his house was used by Griffin to meet a journalist from The Observer in 2002. Shopland and his background in ultra-distance running formed a large part of the article, which was then followed up by his local paper.
“Everybody knew and people would cross the road to avoid me. People who used to talk to me and be friendly, didn’t anymore, while others who didn’t used to talk to me, suddenly did. It was weird. I realised I had to get out if it.”
Shopland has since moved away from Yorkshire but says he has suffered with mental health problems and found it impossible to get a job because the force has refused to confirm any details about whether or not he was an informant.
He says he has spent thousands of pounds on legal fees, held private meetings with police and made repeated complaints and Freedom of Information requests - all to no avail.
In 2008, a force solicitor sent a letter to Shopland’s legal representatives which said: “West Yorkshire Police are aware of historic reports suggesting that your client is a racist and/or Nazi. These reports were totally inaccurate and without foundation.”
Shopland says: “The obvious conclusion from this letter is that West Yorkshire Police are aware of the work I carried out on their behalf; otherwise they would have no knowledge of my true identity.”
A psychiatric assessment of him was carried out found “the failure by the police to clear his name has resulted in this having a prolonged impact on his personal, psychological and interpersonal life”.
Shopland eventually went to The Guardian, who published his allegations in 2014 but police continued not to confirm or deny any details. Since then appeals for information via the Information Commissioner’s Office, the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner have all failed.
After the force refused FoI requests from Shopland following publication of the article on “national security” grounds, the ICO ruled in May 2016 that it had been right to do so.
Shopland complained about the force’s handling of the situation to the IPCC in October 2016. In his letter, he said: “West Yorkshire Police by refusing to help me is in effect preventing the public for being able to form a judgement on how the force has treated me.
“West Yorkshire Police have claimed that disclosing my identity would endanger national security. I believe that this claim is also baseless as I was sent by police to infiltrate the British National Party - an organisation that is not classified as a terrorist group.”
The IPCC passed the matter on to West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson.
A ruling in December 2016 by the interim chief executive of the police and crime commissioner’s office dismissed the complaint as “repetitious and an abuse of the procedures” after a number of previous attempts to raise the matter with the force between 2008 and 2014.
Following representations by Shopland, a further response sent in January this year added: “The police and crime commissioner has looked into this matter and has informed you that he supports the force’s position in respect of intelligence sources.”
Shopland appealed that ruling to the IPCC, who did not uphold it.
Shopland says he has a simple message for West Yorkshire Police: “Please reveal who I was and what I was so I can get my life back.”
But with police maintaining their stance on the issue to the present day, Shopland’s marathon effort to prove his story appears to still have a long way to run.
Secrecy policy over informants
West Yorkshire Police said it is the force’s policy not to confirm or deny whether people have been informants.
Assistant Chief Constable Russ Foster, of West Yorkshire Police, said: “The question of whether someone is or is not a police informant is one that the police service is often asked. Many methods are used to obtain intelligence and that intelligence is vital to keeping our communities safe.
“There exists strict governance and guidelines in relation to all intelligence gathering techniques many of which are subject to frequent and independent inspection. It is, however, the position of West Yorkshire Police, and the police and other law enforcement agencies nationally, neither to confirm nor deny whether people are, are not or ever have been informants.”
The British National Party said: “We can neither confirm nor deny anything about this matter.”