Police informers and their stories are being widely discussed in the media after revelations that Britain's police force has “thousands of informers in activist groups”, according to the Guardian.

Movies and books written by and about “insiders” concentrate on the more complicated cases. Hollywood has a long list of movies about police informers, the most recent being Scorsese’s The Departed.

Here, we are treated to double the intrigue, with a police informer in the Boston mob, and a criminal informer in the department.

The depiction is in typical Hollywood glamour, but the plot and script are near-perfect, sucking the viewer in from the start.

The life of an informer is portrayed as dangerous, exciting and full of ethical dilemmas, but the morality of the subject is the only thing that carries through in the real insiders talked about in the media.

Real-life informers

Matilda Gifford, who supplied The Guardian with recordings of her conversation with officers trying to turn her into an informer, was faced with some ethical dilemmas when the officers offered her money to pay for her student loan.

The bullet-dodging, cutthroat world of The Departed could not be further from the reality of Plane Stupid activists in Scotland.

However, not all informants have as “comfortable” a time as Ms. Gifford.

Roberto Saviano, who wrote the book Gomorrah as an insider to the Neapolitan mob, is now under special protection after receiving death threats from the organisation.

Many a “supergrass” have been killed in the past after testifying against crime organisations.

Movies and books, by their nature, talk about the more famous and thrilling of insider cases, but one series that cannot be said to dramatise things is HBO’s The Wire.

The series is set in Baltimore, following a police unit trying to pin down drug-dealers by installing phone wire-taps.

No amount of comment can do the series enough justice, but suffice to say that all sides of the story are covered, from the drug dealers to police politics and wider sociological arguments.

TV perfection?

Informers in the series are depicted in a number of ways.

There is Bubbles, the crack addict, who is willing to speak for a meal and small change after his friend is beaten up by one of the gangs.

He often provides the very little comic relief in this drama, while also proving a valuable plot device.

Then there is Omar, a lone wolf who refuses money for his information, motivated to avenge the murder of his gay lover by the drug-dealing gangs.

The series poses a huge amount of ethical questions faced by insiders and outsiders alike, and has been praised for its unrelenting realism.

The life of an informer is obviously glamourised by blockbuster movies, but that’s not to say that the “smaller” informants are not faced with problems and dilemmas.

Just because they are not Leo DiCaprio or Matt Damon dodging bullets and killing people in elevators does not mean their position is at all comfortable.

Stories like that of Ms. Gifford show the distress that any ground-level informer goes through.

Police say this is necessary for them to do their job, but it remains to be seen why it they need to monitor a non-violent group conducting legal protests in a free democracy.

Photo by K.Hjorth (Skinflint)
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Police informers: democracy necessity?

by Alberto Furlan