Uncovered: British journalists who are spooks
While it might be difficult to identify precisely the impact of the spooks (variously represented in the press as “intelligence”, “security”, “Whitehall” or “Home Office” sources) on mainstream politics and media, from the limited evidence it looks to be enormous.
As Roy Greenslade, media blogger at the Guardian, and editor of the Mirror at the time of the Gulf crisis in 1991, commented: “Most tabloid newspapers – or even newspapers in general – are playthings of MI5”. Spy novelist John le Carré, who worked for MI6 between 1960 and 1964, has even claimed that the British secret service then controlled large parts of the press – just as they may do today.
Investigative journalist David Leigh records a series of instances in which the secret services manipulated prominent journalists. He says reporters are routinely approached by intelligence agents: “I think the cause of honest journalism is best served by candour. We all ought to come clean about these approaches and devise some ethics to deal with them. In our vanity, we imagine that we control these sources. But the truth is that they are very deliberately seeking to control us.”
John Simpson, BBC world affairs editor, describes in his autobiography how he was once approached by a “man from MI5”. He said: “At some point they might make me broadcast something favourable to them. Or they might just ask me to carry a message to someone. You never knew,” he said. But Simpson adds: “It doesn’t do journalists any good to play footsie with MI5 or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); they get a bad reputation.”
Observer foreign correspondent Mark Frankland talks in his autobiography of his time in SIS in the late 1950s and comments: “Journalists working abroad were natural candidates for agents and particularly useful in places such as Africa where British intelligence was hurrying to establish itself.”
Jonathan Bloch and Patrick Fitzgerald, in their examination of covert UK warfare, report the editor of “one of Britain’s most distinguished journals” as believing that more than half its foreign correspondents were on the MI6 payroll. And in 1991, Richard Norton-Taylor revealed in the Guardian that 500 prominent Britons paid by the CIA and the now defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International, included 90 journalists. Many journalists have admitted wanting actually to become spies: Taki, the Spectator’s “High Life” correspondent, has confessed he tried to become a CIA agent after he found out that his father had been one. The BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman approached a SIS recruiter at university but was turned down.
Some of the most important research into the links between hacks and spooks has been conducted by Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty published in 2000, a seminal history of war correspondents, and The Second Oldest Profession (1987), a history of the intelligence services. He has even claimed that at least one intelligence agent is working on every Fleet Street newspaper.
In particular Knightley has highlighted the activities, immediately after the Second World War, of the Kemsley Imperial and Foreign Service, better known by its cable address, Mercury. It was part of the Kemsley and then the Thomson chain of newspapers, which provided foreign news and features to papers like The Sunday Times and the Empire News. The head of Mercury was Ian Fleming, celebrated author of the James Bond spy novels. Fleming, who had served in British naval intelligence during the war, controlled as head of Mercury a worldwide network of journalists many of whom had wartime intelligence backgrounds.
According to Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian security specialist, there is a category of people who are particularly attractive to intelligence agencies: “They may be informers, arms dealers, businessmen, even journalists. Their common value is their special access to groups or targets which the agencies have in their sights but cannot reach on their own. And if anything goes wrong, the agencies can always resort to the well-worn defence of ‘plausible deniability’.”
Thus during the later 1950s, MI6 began recruiting on a massive scale anyone (journalists, businessmen, academics) who might be useful on their travels to the Soviet bloc to gather intelligence – and perhaps even help with introductions to Soviet official who might be “turned”.
Intelligence gathering during the miners’ strike of 1984-85 was helped by the fact that during the 1970s MI5’s F Branch had made a special effort to recruit industrial correspondents – with great success, according to Stephen Dorril, author of a seminal history of MI6. Guardian journalist Seumas Milne claimed that three quarters of Fleet Street’s industrial correspondents were at that time agents for MI5 or for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch.
In 1991, just before his mysterious death, Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell was accused by the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in his book, The Sampson Option, of acting for Mossad, the Israeli secret service, though Dorril suggests his links with MI6 were equally as strong. In particular, Maxwell was suspected of orchestrating the discrediting and exposure of Mordechai Vanunu after he revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear programme, in The Sunday Times of October 5 1986.
Since September 11 2001, all of Fleet Street has been awash in warnings by anonymous intelligence sources of terrorist threats. The former UN arms inspector, Scott Ritter, revealed in his book, Iraq Confidential, the existence of an MI6-run psychological warfare effort, known as Operation Mass Appeal. According to Ritter: “Mass Appeal served as a focal point for passing MI6 intelligence on Iraq to the media, both in the UK and around the world. The goal was to help shape public opinion about Iraq and the threat posed by WMD.” MI6 propaganda specialists, at the time, claimed they could spread the misinformation through “editors and writers who work with us from time to time”.
Thus from this evidence alone it is clear there has been a long history of links between hacks and spooks. But as the secret state grows in power, through massive resourcing, through a whole raft of legislation – such as the Official Secrets Act, the anti-terrorism legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and so on – and as intelligence moves into the heart of ex-British leader Tony Blair and prime minister Gordon Brown’s ruling clique so these links are even more significant.
* Richard Lance Keeble is professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln.