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How Gary McKinnon became a cause celebre

Clockwise from top left: Jilly Cooper, Keith Duffy, Julie Christie, David Blunkett, Sting, Barry Norman, Emma Noble and Terry Waite

By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News

British computer hacker Gary McKinnon's fight against extradition to the US has drawn support from a large and diverse range of influential people. How did his case become such a cause celebre?

It has to be one of the most unlikely partnerships in the history of popular music - one is a toned and tanned boy band singer, the other a brooding and balding lead guitarist from one of the rock giants of the 1970s.

But it's not music that has brought Boyzone's Keith Duffy and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour together - it's the case of computer hacker Gary McKinnon.

Mr McKinnon has become Britain's best-known conspiracy theorist, or, as London Mayor Boris Johnson put it - he's a "classic British nut job" who believes in "little green men".

Gary McKinnon
Gary McKinnon has Asperger's Syndrome

The American authorities see it differently. The 43-year-old is a wanted man in the US, where he has been accused of "the biggest military computer hack of all time". For the past five years he has been fighting an extradition request from the American authorities which want to try him on US soil.

If convicted there he faces up to 60 years in prison.

Along the way he has amassed a legion of supporters, as diverse in their make up as they are distinguished in their own fields of achievement. They include novelist Nick Hornby, film critic Barry Norman, Emma Noble, the ex-glamour model and former daughter-in-law of John Major, Sting, his film producer wife Trudie Styler and actress Julie Christie.

Politicians of all hues have also leapt on Mr McKinnon's case. And pop stars Chrissie Hynde and Sir Bob Geldof have teamed up with Gilmour to record a song of support.

In the past six weeks his cause has been further bolstered by a high-profile campaign in the Daily Mail newspaper.

But how did Mr McKinnon's fight become such a rallying cause for this disparate group of supporters?

Mr McKinnon does not deny he hacked into Pentagon systems, but claims he was searching for evidence of a UFO cover-up. His story started back in 2002 and the media have, periodically, followed the twists and turns of his legal battles (see graph, below).

Mention in press

There was also a spike in coverage when he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome - a form of autism - last year, but the campaign to stop his extradition has gathered pace, passion and people in the last six months.

While a PR agency has taken on some of the work, Mr McKinnon's campaign has won support for a variety of reasons.

Author Nick Hornby, Emma Noble and Keith Duffy are thought to have taken an interest because they have children with autism. For others, it raises serious questions about freedom and rights.

Question of justice

Former Beirut hostage Terry Waite learned of the campaign from friends.

"[Mr McKinnon's] a young man who's vulnerable, who may well have breached the law but in this case, the law has to be exercised with common sense and compassion."

It changed from the geek in his bedroom to the great American military machine trying to remove this person from the bosom of his mother
PR guru Mark Borkowski

He is one of many supporters concerned about what he called the "inadequate and unfair" extradition treaty between the UK and the US.

As it stands, the UK requires the US to show only "reasonable suspicion" to secure the extradition of a British citizen. But the US asks for "probable cause" from the UK.

Mark Kelly, keyboard player with British rock group Marillion, became interested in the story a couple of years ago. He shares, with Mr McKinnon, a love of computers.

"It was one of those stories that caught my eye. I have always had a fascination with computers and I can see how he got caught up in looking for evidence of UFOs and with his Asperger's, it probably became a bit of an obsession."

But when Kelly put a petition on the band's website it irritated many American fans - an indication of how opinion about the case is divided.

While most of the celebrities seem to have come on board of their own accords, author Jilly Cooper admits to the BBC she supports the case "in principle" but knows little about it. She says she was contacted by a newspaper "early in the morning".

'Soap opera'

There is no doubt the McKinnon camp received a major boost when the Daily Mail made the campaign its own about six weeks ago.

The paper declared the case was an "affront to British justice" and "in the name of both sanity and compassion" urged Home Secretary Alan Johnson to "think again". Since then it has included updates almost every day.

Styler and Sharp
Trudie Styler (left) and Mr McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp

Public relations consultant Mark Borkowski believes the Mail's backing has been crucial, calling it the "oxygen" the campaign needed. And the timing was right, as the "modern day soap opera" reaches its finale.

"It changed from the geek in his bedroom to the great American military machine trying to remove this person from the bosom of his mother."

And while the story appeals to mothers in Middle England, the Mail's readership base, it also reaches out to the future online audience, he says. But for Max Clifford, a fellow PR expert, the paper's motivation has been chiefly political, another "stick for the Daily Mail to beat the government".

And it's no surprise to discover there is some PR professionalism in the campaign. London-based PR agency Bell Yard is working "pro bono" (free) for the McKinnon campaign. It has experience in this field, having represented the "NatWest 3" - three British bankers who were eventually extradited to the US on fraud related charges. The agency was unavailable for comment for this story.

In the know

But it is Mr McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, who is the key player. She says her son's case is another example of how the government is failing to protect its own. A musician and author, Ms Sharp is so well versed in the extradition laws she sounds like a lawyer.

She has been plugging away for years - never turning down an interview, responding to all e-mails and now tweeting about her son's dilemma on Twitter. And she hasn't passed up on the benefits of old style networking - which helps explain how the pop star support got rolling.

Ms Sharp is friends with David Gilmour's brother-in-law and she says the guitarist got involved because he has always supported mental health charities.

She re-wrote the lyrics of folk classic Chicago, which Gilmour, Sir Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde put their voices to - it was the campaign's first plea to US President Barack Obama.

Ms Sharp said the couple have been a huge support and she is constantly amazed by what people have done for the family.

"I am really shy and find it incredibly hard to deal with the media attention but I have to make sure Gary stays here.

"So many good things have happened but the worry is always there."

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