|New Labour, the
Media, and the British Secret State
Just after the previous issue of
Variant appeared I talked with one of the editors and we agreed that I
would write something about the relationship between the secret state--the
spooks--and the media for this issue. It turned out to be one of those serendipitous
occasions, for since then there has been, by British standards, a veritable
torrent of information. But while I was thinking about the shape of this
essay Foreign Secretary Robin Cook presided over the publication of a Foreign
Office report on the notorious Zinoviev letter, which embodies many of
the issues; and it is with this that I begin.
In opposition politicians talk the
talk. It is always interesting to see if they can walk the walk when they
get into office. Robin Cook began life as a feisty Edinburgh MP who was
asking awkward questions about the role of Special Branch in the late 1970s.
He was asking some of the right questions about MI5 as the revelations
of Peter 'Spycatcher' Wright and Colin Wallace came to light in 1986/7;
and in the 1990s he was asking some of right questions about the entire
British intelligence complex in the wake of the publication of the Scott
Report on British arms sales to Iraq. For example, here's Cook in December
1986 in the first flush of the Peter Wright allegations about MI5 plotting
against the Wilson government. 'Today's security services are not pitted
against the KGB, they parallel it in the surveillance of their domestic
population.' Considering reform, he wondered 'whether it would not be simpler
merely to legislate for the abolition of the security services', especially
in light of Peter Wright's revelation 'that MI5 provides no discernible
service to the public, even in the intervals between swapping personnel
with the Russians and destabilising democratically elected governments.'1
These are not the words of someone
who understands much about the security and intelligence services--very
few politicians do: The subject is complex and being interested in it is
rarely good for political careers--and though Cook never followed through
on any of these issues, the basic impulse was radical.
On 4 February this year as Foreign
Secretary, Cook made extravagant claims for the publication of an official
Foreign Office report on the notorious Zinoviev letter. In 1924, the minority
Labour Government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, which
meant a general election. The next day the Foreign Office was sent a copy
of a letter, purporting to come from Grigori Zinoviev, the president of
the Soviet Union's international organisation, the Comintern, addressed
to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter
urged the party to stir up the British proletariat in preparation for class
war. Just before the election the letter appeared in the Daily Mail 2
and helped the Labour Party lose the General Election.
Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary
Cook had been asked by a Liberal-Democrat MP if he would open the official
MI6 files on Zinoviev. He wouldn't, but he did commission the Foreign Office's
Official Historian to write a report on the matter. This report, claimed
Cook in the Guardian, was 'a remarkable exercise in openness'... a 'huge
amount of material [was put] into the public domain'. But only the official
historian of the Foreign Office is allowed to see the files and the 'huge
amount of material' consists merely of the report's 124 pages of text and
annexes. This pathetic, officially-filtered dribble of material from 75
years ago could only be described as 'remarkable' within the context of
the obsessive secrecy of the British state. Further, despite the fact that
the official report concludes that two MI6 officers were involved in passing
the fake to the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office was provided with
'corroborative proofs by MI6 which have now been shown to be suspect'--i.e.
more forgeries to support the first one--the report concludes, and Cook
accepts, that 'there is no evidence of an organised conspiracy against
Labour by the intelligence agencies'. Quite what is being implied here
by the use of 'organised' is beyond me. A disorganised conspiracy?
The Zinoviev letter incident is
a kind of template for one aspect of the relationship between the British
secret state and sections of the British press: Intelligence officers give
disinformation to the Tory press to publish to damage the British left.
Zinoviev was the big stinky fact that the British secret state could never
quite dispose of when it denied running covert operations inside British
politics. Which is why, despite being 75 years old, it is still a sensitive
subject for Whitehall.
Patriots not sneaks?
In his Guardian piece on the Zinoviev
report Cook commented that it represents 'the maximum amount of material
into the public domain without betraying the trust of those who helped
Britain by co-operating with our intelligence services.' Home Secretary
Jack Straw has come up with the same line when resisting appeals to open
MI5 files. Speaking anonymously to David Aaronovitch in the Independent
on Sunday, Straw was asked when people like Aaronovitch--like Straw, a left-wing
student leader in his youth--would get to see their MI5 files.
'Never...you see, these informers,
no matter how you feel about them, were recruited on the basis that they
were doing a job for their country. As far as they were concerned they
were patriots not sneaks.' 3
Clearly this is Whitehall's first
line of defence against any possible Freedom of Information legislation
which might try to include the secret state. And it is, of course, baloney:
the 'trust' which is so important to our secret servants can easily be
preserved by doing what the Americans do, deleting the names of individuals
in the files. Just how far we are from anything resembling the kind of
openness to be found in the United States can be seen by comparing this
meagre, officially sanctioned and written report on Zinoviev, with the
publication, via the Freedom of Information Act, of the actual CIA documents
which began the CIA's operations against Chile in the 1970s which led to
the dictatorship of General Pinochet. 4
Until fairly recently the identification
of a journalist with the intelligence and security services was a news
story in itself--and something that would set the pigeons fluttering in
the secret sections of Whitehall. But things have changed. Gordon Brook-Shepherd
is a journalist who worked in the field of intelligence, chiefly for the
Telegraph. He is the author of a pair of books about intelligence history
which were obviously written with the assistance of the British secret
state, chiefly MI6--The Storm Birds and The Storm Petrels. In his latest
book, The Iron Maze: the Western Secret Services and the Bolsheviks (Macmillan
1998), he remarks on page 2 of his 'two volumes on Soviet defectors to
the West (a project also launched on my behalf by British intelligence)'
(emphasis added). The blurb on the book jacket says that after a war-time
career in military intelligence, ending up a Lieutenant-Colonel with the
Allied Commission in Vienna, Brook-Shepherd became a journalist.
'His first civil post-war post,
as head of the Daily Telegraph's Central and South-East European Bureau
during the Cold War Years, brought him again in touch with the Western
intelligence community. These contacts were renewed at intervals right
down to the war in Afghanistan, which he covered on the spot when Deputy
Editor of the Sunday Telegraph.'
Compare that with the autobiographical
blurb on his The Storm Petrels, published a decade earlier in 1988. Then
Brook-Shepherd was described as having 'a deep understanding of the world
of espionage' (wink, wink) and being a 'much-travelled foreign correspondent'.
The change has come about with the
end of the Cold War. But the change, though real, should not exaggerated.
Brook-Shepherd's book Iron Maze is a re-examination of certain intelligence
aspects of the invasion of the newly-born Soviet Union in 1919 by the combined
forces of the US, Japan, the UK and France. While he has had access to
newly opened French and Soviet intelligence files, in the UK he was given
a series of 'briefings' on the content of the British equivalent files.
Not even a long-term associate of MI6 is apparently to be trusted with
the British files.5
Though the spook-state relationship--and
the spook-state-Conservative Party relationship--can be clearly traced back
to the First World War, it expanded enormously after the Second. The psychological
warriors and intelligence officers who had worked against Hitler slipped
easily into similar roles against the Soviet Union. These changes were
formalised with the creation of propaganda wing of the secret state, the
Information Research Department (IRD), in 1948. Labour junior Foreign Minister
of the time, Christopher Mayhew, died recently thinking IRD was his creation6
but he merely adopted proposals which had already been agreed on within
Whitehall. The recent very important book by Lashmar and Oliver, Britain's
Secret Propaganda War (Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1998) tells
the story of IRD in unprecedented detail.
IRD began as Mayhew intended, as
the British contribution to the propaganda war then going on between the
West and the Soviet Union. But what began as an anti-Stalinist outfit slipped
naturally into being an anti-anyone-who-is-anti-British outfit--but using
the struggle with the Soviet Union as the framework.7
All nationalist and liberation struggles in the British empire in the post-war
years were portrayed by IRD as being aspects of a great global conflict
with the agents of international communism. IRD became the British enthusiasts
for the Great Communist Conspiracy Theory--and not just abroad. As Lashmar
and Oliver show, in 1956 they began running operations in the UK against
the British Communist Party; and eventually, absurdly, and unsuccessfully,
tried in the early 1970s to portray the Provisional IRA as somehow run
by Moscow. At the height of its operations, IRD was feeding secret briefings
to dozens of British journalists and hundreds world-wide--as, of course,
was the CIA and the KGB.8
IRD's massive briefing system was
the first really organised spin-doctoring of the British media in peace-time.
But MI5, MI6 and the Armed Forces also had journalists they could trust
to publish information and disinformation for them. The doyen of the Fleet
St. spook's conduits in the 1960s and '70s was Chapman Pincher at the Daily
Express,9 who was succeeded
at the Express by William Massie.10
In the 1980s the major transmitter of secret state disinformation, mostly
from MI5, was The Sunday Times, among whose many disgraceful smear campaigns
those against Arthur Scargill and the unfortunate Carmen Proetta, who witnessed
the SAS execution of the three IRA members on Gibraltar, remain in the
During the Cold War the British
intelligence and security services used the media as a source of cover
for agents abroad and as a vehicle for anti-Soviet and anti-left propaganda
and disinformation. With the end of the Cold War and with the collapse
of the British left and trade union movement as serious opponents of capital,
the intelligence and security 'game' has changed. MI5 is still doing its
best to generate domestic 'threats' to justify its continued existence;
but the green movement, the anti-roads and the animal welfare groups hardly
constitute an equivalent to the intelligence services of the Soviet bloc.
The spooks still have their media assets--as a quick perusal of the Sunday
Telegraph and Sunday Times will show--but these days, so does every other
government department. The Ministry of Defence currently employs 160 PR
staff,11 many of whom
will have been through the Army's psy-ops training courses. The line between
active public relations, spin-doctoring, and running psy-ops campaigns
is so faint as to be invisible.
When the Foreign Office's Zinoviev
report appeared in early February this year the major media had forgotten--or
chose to ignore--the fact that it wasn't the first time since Prime Minister
Blair took office that the Zinoviev story had appeared. In August 1997,
just after Labour won the General Election, MI6 leaked material about Zinoviev
to a couple of friendly journalists, Patrick French ('Red letter day' in
the Sunday Times 10 August 1997) and Michael Smith ('The forgery, the election
and the MI6 spy' in the Daily Telegraph 13 August 1997). Both articles
were based on the release of certain documents from MI6's archives which
purported to throw light on the Zinoviev incident.
French's piece used a briefing about
the contents of the documents before they had been released. He argued
that they show that the 'red menace' depicted in the Zinoviev forgery was
real, and thus 'The Zinoviev letter did not need to be faked'. It was a
fake which described the real situation; and so, implicitly, was justified.12
Smith's article, written after the documents had been made available, argued
that the letter 'may have been forged to protect a British spy at the heart
of the Kremlin'--and so, implicitly, was justified.
In other words, the Zinoviev letter
not only described the real situation, it was produced to save a brave
British agent who had penetrated to the heart of the red menace pointing
at the heart of the British way of life. And which right-thinking person
could object to that?
These Zinoviev leaks from MI6 were
counter-balanced by one from MI5, the tale of Andy Carmichael who described
in the Sunday Times (27 July 1997) his 'five years as a fully salaried
MI5 agent' inside the National Front (NF). According to Carmichael, the
National Front, in the guise of National Democrats, had planned to disrupt
the Referendum Party's General Election campaign in the Midlands because
the Front believed that the Referendum Party would take votes from them
(standing as National Democrats). But the NF plot, we are told, 'unsettled
senior MI5 officers'. Interference with a British general election 'would
prove an enormous scandal' and Carmichael was told to 'pull the plug' on
the NF plot. In case we hadn't got the point, the author of the piece,
David Leppard, not noticeably critical of the British security and intelligence
services in the past, tells us that 'Shortly afterwards MI5 decided to
wind down its operations against all extremist parties'.
Patently designed to help persuade
the security and intelligence services' new political masters that they
had nothing to fear from their secret servants, these stories were crude
examples of a fairly recent phenomenon in British politics: The leaking
of secret information in the political and bureaucratic interests of the
secret services in the Whitehall 'game' of budgets and roles in the changed
circumstances of the post Cold War era.
Throughout 1994, for example, the
Metropolitan Police and MI5 waged a press war as MI5, sans the Red Menace,
tried to move in on areas hitherto the property of the police. For the
first time in this country the politics of intelligence and security agency
budgeting were being acted out--in part--in public. Even the Daily Telegraph,
was moved to comment on 5 November 1994 on 'a burst of activity among defence
institutions scurrying to identify new roles for themselves to justify
their budgets and bureaucracies.'13
Final confirmation of this aspect of the contemporary spooks' relationship
with the media came from the former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson, who
told us that '[MI6] devotes considerable resources to lobbying its position
in Whitehall, and has a specialised department whose role is to spin-doctor
the media by wining and dining favoured journalists and editors.'14
It was recently alleged that Dominic
Lawson, the editor of the Spectator, is a paid asset of MI6. Lawson and
MI6 have denied this but, if true, it would be an interesting example of
the changing world (alternatively, of declining standards.) For until fairly
recently the editor of a conservative (and Conservative magazine) like
the Spectator could have been relied upon to open his columns to (dis)information
from MI6 out of a sense of patriotism and duty. But with the Cold War over,
the empire gone, much of the City of London now foreign-owned, Britain
now merely a declining region of the European Union, the old discourse
of nation and state within which concepts like 'duty' and 'national interest'
were meaningful is in disarray. What is 'the national interest' these days?
Who is the enemy?15
1 New Statesman, 12 December 1986,
pp.7 & 7. Thanks to David Turner for the quotation.
2 Thus beginning that paper's reputation
which led Michael Foot always to refer to it as the Forgers' Gazette.
3 Independent on Sunday 9 April
1998. The unidentified Minister to whom Aaronovitch talked is obviously
4 The CIA documents are at:
5 He may have been an MI6 officer
under cover. There have been persistent rumours that in the 1950s and '60s
MI6 paid for the Telegraph's foreign news operation. Cf Brook-Shepherd's
'Central and South-East European Bureau' of the Telegraph.
6 Mayhew's memories of IRD in its
early days are to be found in his A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (I.B.
7 Even this had been prefigured
during the war. One of the bits of the story of WW2 which the official
British legend is reluctant to acknowledge is the massive campaign of propaganda,
smears and blackmail waged by the British state against the isolationists
in the United States in the period leading up to US entry into the war.
8 This is described in detail by
Lashmar and Oliver. The fact that so many of Britain's journalists and
newspapers were regurgitating unattributable briefings from IRD may explain
why this extremely important book has had virtually no reviews. To my knowledge
there is no single volume on the CIA's media operations but Carl Bernstein
(of Woodward and Bernstein fame) made a start in his piece 'The CIA and
the Media', in Rolling Stone, October 20 1977. I can't think of an equivalent
for the KGB that is worth reading.
9 Pincher's many books, notably
the 1978 Inside Story, are a testament to a career publishing material
given to him by the secret arms of state. In 1991 his The Truth about Dirty
Tricks contained a staggeringly inaccurate chapter on Colin Wallace which
Wallace himself demolished in Lobster 21 (May 1991).
10 Massie was prolific in the Daily
and especially the Sunday Express in the late 1980s. For perhaps the most
grotesque example of his use of spook information see the front page lead
in the Sunday Express of 14 February 1998, 'Labour MP and the girl reds',
which was based round a surveillance photograph of a Labour MP taken in
11 The Armour-Plated Ostrich, Tim
Webb, Comerford and Miller, West Wickham, Kent, 1998 p.82.
12 A new branch of historical research
suggests itself: history with the documents included which should have
been written but weren't.
13 For a couple of examples see
the Independent of 9 November 1994, which reported that 'MI5 ... and Special
Branch are vying to take the lead in representing Britain at Europol's
headquarters in The Hague. MI5 is making an aggressive bid to take-over
the European Liaison Unit of the Metropolitan Special Branch ...'; and
Computer Weekly of 10 November, 1994, which reported that 'The security
service MI5 is to offer advice to government IT managers on nearly all
computer security issues further diluting the role of Whitehall's dedicated
computer agency the CCTA.' MI5 successfully moved into both the above and
organised crime as well as taking over most of the Metropolitan Police's
anti-terrorist operations. MI6 moved into 'the war on drugs' as well as
international organised crime.
14 The Guardian 15 August 1998.
15 It is striking that in the 1980s
the US citizens, notably the senior CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who were
caught spying for the Soviet Union did it simply for money, not for ideology.