MI6 and the Media: Document, BBC Radio 4

The latest programme in the BBC radio series Document dealt with alleged links between MI6, as the organisation officially called the Secret Intelligence Service is popularly known, and the British media during the Cold War. The format of this programme is that it starts with a document or documents and then tries to find the historical story behind the document or documents. A previous post on this blog discussed an earlier episode, which analysed relations between Britain and Vichy France during WWII.

Click here to listen to it from the BBC website; as far as I am aware, there are no time or geographic restrictions on its availability. Note that the online recording starts with a brief trailer for a later programme.

The BBC describes the programme as follows:

Jeremy Duns examines leaked documents which suggest close links between MI6 and the British press during the Cold War.

In December 1968, the British media was shaken by a series of secret documents leaked to Soviet state newspapers. The documents claimed a range of key Fleet Street correspondents and news chiefs were working for the intelligence services. Further papers alleged close links between the BBC and MI6.

At the time, the documents were dismissed by the British media as forgeries, part of an escalating propaganda battle played out in the Russian press. In this edition of Document, Jeremy Duns uncovers evidence which suggests that the papers were genuine and examines how they might have found their way into Soviet hands.

Notorious spies George Blake and Kim Philby are among those under suspicion of having leaked the documents.

Jeremy Duns speaks to distinguished Sunday Times journalist Phillip Knightley, and historian of the intelligence services Professor Christopher Andrew.

The story began with in August 1968, when the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia in order to put down the Prague Spring, crushing the Czech leadership’s vision of ‘Socialism with a human face.’ The invasion was heavily criticised in Britain by both the media and the government.

This coverage appeared to anger the USSR, since in December the Soviet newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles attacking the British media, which it accused of ‘being an accomplice in ideological subversion.’ Jeremy Duns came across this whilst researching a book on an unrelated spy operation. The Soviets claimed that a large part of the British media was directly working with MI6.

Their source was what they claimed to be a series of MI6 memos. These are the documents analysed in this programme. They included the code names of MI6 officers assigned to work with named journalists, all beginning with BIN. It was also alleged that the BBC was broadcasting coded messages on behalf of MI6.

The allegations were described as ‘rubbish’ by the left-wing Guardian, whilst the right-wing Daily Telegraph thought that they were ‘clumsy and crude.’

Duns looked into the story to see if there is any truth in it. He started with government archives, but MI6 has not released any relevant documents, and none could be found in the UK National Archives.

He then proceeded to interview a number of people who might know the truth. In 1969 Bill Norris reported on the Nigerian Civil War for The Times. He was approached by the British military attaché, who wanted him to provide intelligence on military strength in the north of the country. He declined as he was not a spy and regarded what he was being asked to as being both unethical and very risky. Others agreed to help the military attaché , but Norris would not say who they were.

Kim Philby, the KGB double agent inside MI6 who defected in 1963, made allegations about links between MI6 and the British media in a 1971 interview with Izvestia. One of documents was dated 1959, raising the possibility that Philby might have supplied them to the KGB.

Rupert Allason, who writes on intelligence matters under the pseudonym of Nigel West and studied the KGB files on Philby in the 1990s, did not find this credible as Philby had no access to MI6 files after 1951. Allason was unsure of the authenticity of the documents. He said that MI6 was very cautious of journalists, although some of them were ex MI6 officers.

Dr Stephen Dorril of the University of Huddersfield found the documents more compelling; he has written several books on the British security and intelligence services. He said that the details of how MI6 operates and its relations with journalists revealed in the memos suggested that they were real. He had previously been told of the BIN code names by an ex officer. He suspects that the memos came from George Blake, another KGB double agent in MI6. Blake was involved in recruiting journalists for MI6 and gave almost all the documents he encountered to the KGB.

Philip Knightley, a former Sunday Times journalist, was a contemporary of many of the journalists named in the memos. The allegations do not surprise him, as he had heard the same names quoted before around Fleet Street. He thinks that the documents are genuine.

The former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn wrote in his diary in December 1979 that Mark Arnold-Forster had told him that he worked for MI6 whilst being a Guardian journalist during the period covered by these allegations..

One of the journalists accused of working for MI6 was David Astor, editor of The Observer. Jeremy Lewis, who is writing a biography of him, thinks that the allegations are plausible. Astor had a relationship with MI6 at start of WWII, and this may have continued.

Duns then visited the BBC archives in order to investigate allegations against it. A redacted memo of 24 April 1969 could be read by holding it up to the light. It expresses sympathy for friends who had been caught up in the Soviet propaganda attacks; friends is a euphemism for MI6, but there was nothing else on the subject in the BBC files.

Prof Jean Seaton of the University of Westminster, the official BBC historian, pointed out that the KGB would try to brand BBC World Service Russian broadcasters as spies in order to discredit them.

There is less evidence against BBC than the print media of the employment of journalists by MI6, but the question of it transmitting secret messages on behalf of MI6 remains. This involved the broadcast of prearranged tunes or sentences so that an MI6 officer could prove to somebody from the Soviet Bloc that he was trying to recruit that he had official backing. This is plausible according to Seaton, who pointed out that it was WWII tradecraft.

Prof. Christopher Andrew of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the official historian of MI5, said that his first instinct on seeing the documents was that they were photographs taken by a Minox miniature camera rather than the originals. This points towards them having been taken by Blake, who used a Minox to copy large number of MI6 documents.

All the journalists singled out as potential MI6 agents are now dead, but cross-referencing of their careers suggests that the documents are from the late 1950s, when Blake was operating as spy. He was discovered and sentenced to 42 years in prison in 1961, but escaped in 1966 and reached the Soviet Bloc. Philby was already in Moscow, and the KGB would have sought Philby’s advice on what propaganda  would have the greatest impact on the UK public. Andrew pointed out that this would apply whether or not the documents were genuine.

Sir Alastair Horne worked for British intelligence in WWII. After the war he became a journalist for the Daily Express, which sent him to Berlin in the early 1950s. He was asked by Maurice Oldfield, his wartime boss, to run three agents in West German ministries. He did not want to and thought that it would interfere with his journalism, but felt that it was something he had to. He thought that it was unethical, but that we were fighting a war against a miserable and ghastly dictatorship that wanted to take over our way of life.

Soviet propaganda may actually have been the truth in this case, but the nature of the contacts remains unknown; they might have been more informal than claimed by the Soviets. Andrew has no doubts that there were contacts, but is cautious about their nature. Dorril thinks that there is much more to come out about co-operation between MI6 and newspapers during Cold War. Knightley believes that such links are dangerous as the opposition will assume all journalists have intelligence links if one is shown to have them.

An interesting programme in an interesting series. The intelligence services played a major role in the Cold War, and there is no doubt much more still to be discovered on the subject.

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