Fifty years ago a strange sea journey began. Now a new movie is launched it is time to confess my bit part in the real thing.

It is not often that a journalist is asked to ‘expose’ his own boss. On a summer Saturday in July 1969 I was working at a provincial news agency in Exeter when I took a call from the news desk of the Observer newspaper.
‘Have you heard of a man called Rodney Hallworth?’
‘Yes’.
‘We want you to expose him”.
I took down the details of the commission and set to work. The first person I called was the aforementioned Mr Hallworth, who as the owner of the news agency was my boss, a fact the Observer was clearly not aware of.
‘Rodney, I’ve just got an order from the Observer’. Pausing only briefly for effect, I went on; ‘they want me to expose you’. I then explained that the Observer had received a tip off that the rival Sunday Times was about to publish a sensational story about a solo yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst, who had disappeared from his boat in mid-Atlantic when poised to win the paper’s round-the-world race. The new development I reported to Hallworth did not come as a surprise to him. In his other role as the publicist for Crowhurst it was he who -with Sunday Times reporters- had retrieved a logbook from the abandoned trimaran when it was taken into harbour in the Caribbean.
This log revealed a very different story from the one which Crowhurst and Hallworth had been telling for the previous few months. Rather than follow the race’s course down the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, east across the southern oceans and round Cape Horn back into the Atlantic, Crowhurst had never left the Atlantic. He had lingered there with his radio turned off for weeks pretending to follow the race course before re-emerging on the home straight back to Britain. Only then did he discover that with other contenders dropping out he, this weekend sailor with no track record of long distance sailing success, was going to be the winner of the £5,000 prize. The assumption to this day is that Crowhurst took his own life at sea rather than face the inevitable inquests into his unlikely success. It fell to Rodney Hallworth to answer for Crowhurst’s deception and sad demise. My job as one of two reporters in his agency was to try to provide impartial coverage of the story in which he was a central figure.
Released this month (February 2018) the movie ‘The Mercy’, starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, tells the story of ‘the last voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ which began 50 years ago this summer. It is not the first film on the subject, the BBC made a TV documentary at the time and my former ITN colleague Louise Osmond directed a feature-length documentary ‘Deep Water’ for Film Four in 2006. To tie in with this new movie, the late Nicholas Tomalin’s excellent book ‘The Strange Last Journey of Donald Crowhurst’, written with Sunday Times colleague Ron Hall, is being re-published in paperback.
I’ve seen a preview of the film and it is, in the words of the Radio Times reviewer, ‘a compelling story told with care and compassion’. Both lead parts are well played but the scene-stealer is David Thewlis as Rodney Hallworth. Whereas the documentaries relied mostly on archive clips of Hallworth in relatively low-key mode after Crowhurst’s death, Thewlis is able to give it ‘full Rodney’ throughout the story.  Endlessly optimistic and verbally extravagant, his spectacles always just about to fall off the end of his nose, a proud son of Stockport demanding to be the centre of attention, only Thewlis’s girth fails to capture the real thing. Hallworth always flaunted an enormous paunch, the result of years in investment in ‘light and bitter’.
There is no character called Stewart Purvis in the film, but by coincidence, a young journalist called Wheeler, played by Jonathan Bailey, captures the same awe that I felt in the company of this legendary former Fleet Street crime reporter (more of that later), the same scepticism about his techniques and the same reluctance to challenge them.
Half a century on it seems the right time to confess my bit part in the Crowhurst saga and tell a yarn or two about Rodney or ‘Rod’ or ‘Rodders’ as we called him in the newsroom of his freelance agency, the ‘Devon News Service’.
For me the summer of ’69 was a gap between graduating from Exeter University and taking up a post at the BBC as one of their first news trainees. I’d first come across ‘Devon News’ while editing the student newspaper. A reporter would turn up each week looking for stories in our paper that they might be able to sell to regional broadcasters or national newspapers. Soon I was doing Friday shifts for them, phoning over copy for the Sunday papers that paid the best. ‘Is there much more of this?’ was the inevitable refrain from the copy-takers. I also combed Devon’s weekly local papers looking for more stories which we could sell on. After a year of Friday shifts while still a student I became a full time summer relief reporter during the start and, a year later, the finish of the Crowhurst story.
In the movie version, the Crowhursts lived in the Devon seaside resort of Teignmouth and thus his boat was called ‘Teignmouth Electron’. The real story is more revealing about the relationship between Crowhurst and Hallworth. When I first started working at Devon News it was explained that the business was multi-dimensional, though still small enough to fit into a two storey house near Exeter Central Station. There was the news agency selling words and pictures, a favourite combination was inventing stories about animals which apparently thought they were other animals, it being impossible for the animal to deny the story. The news photographers could double as wedding photographers. I remember when one was diverted from a church to the higher priority of a multi-car crash on the Exeter by-pass, the disappointed couple were invited to re-stage the ceremony for photographs to be taken in the office. In a new  appendage Rodney announced that his next venture would be in rissoles which were to be the future of pub food. But the ancillary business which excited him as much as news was public relations and that was to be where the bear traps lay ahead.
It was Hallworth, not Crowhurst, who lived in Teignmouth, actually in Shaldon just across the water, and he had got himself appointed as the public relations officer for the town. As reporters we were under orders to get the word Teignmouth into as many stories as possible even if they had no connection whatsoever. Larger and more significant Devon towns would be described in copy as being ‘near Teignmouth’. I remember that after a comparatively modest flood Rodney took it upon himself to declare that Teignmouth was officially ‘a disaster area’. When the hotel keepers complained this would frighten away visitors, he responded that far from it they would come in droves to see the damage.
Donald Crowhurst actually lived in Bridgwater in Somerset where he ran a business called ‘Electron Utilisation’ and the reason that his trimaran was called ‘Teignmouth Electron’ and set off from Teignmouth was because Rodney  persuaded him to. In return the town provided some funding, I never discovered how much but I do know that the BBC got the TV rights very cheaply. I don’t think Crowhurst had ever been to Teignmouth before. The Donald Crowhurst I met  in those days before he set off was the way he appears in the news clips: shy, nervous, rightly daunted by what lay ahead. His wife Clare even more so.
Once at sea he would call in via Portishead radio and give his position. None of us in the office, including Rodney, knew anything about sailing and we would pass on these positions each week to the race organisers at the Sunday Times. Once he stopped calling in (I only discovered after his death that he did this deliberately because using his radio would give away his real position) we were faced with the dilemma of responding to the Sunday Times’s regular requests for updates. So without any knowledge or understanding of the prevailing winds or other influences on his position we would send in what I can only call our own estimates. Those Sunday Times readers with more nautical experience began to find the details of these somewhat surprising.
I have reflected many times on Rodney Hallworth’s own behaviour during this period and I am convinced he did not know then what Crowhurst was up to. I certainly didn’t. The tragedy was that when Crowhurst re-emerged from his silence and began reporting genuine positions on the final stages of his journey, Hallworth’s excitement created extra stress that probably helped to tip Crowhurst over the top. It wasn’t the main cause, that was the terrible deal Crowhurst had done with a Somerset businessman in which the Crowhurst family home would be mortgaged if the boat was lost, or he gave up the race. But undoubtedly it was an enormous pressure on him having Rodney on the radio telling him of the big welcome he would receive and the enormous interest there would be in finding out exactly how he had won the race against the odds.
From the moment the full story of Crowhurst’s demise broke Rodney never attempted to edit the copy I filed on the story. There were no more conflicts of interest. I remember phoning over to the national news agency, Press Association, a story which listed all the questions that the saga raised and being very excited a few hours later when it appeared in the Exeter Express and Echo and other evening papers around the country. But I’m not sure that anything I filed ever amounted to the ‘exposure’ of my boss that the Observer commissioned.
Rodney Hallworth died in 1985 of heart problems. A number of Devon News alumni returned for the funeral and we walked behind the coffin across the Teignmouth-Shaldon bridge as a jazz trumpeter played ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. Rodney had put money behind the pub bar for the drinks at the wake. Researching his life-story I discovered that nothing he ever said about his past was exaggerated, if anything it was understated. His primetime was 1950s and 60s Fleet Street, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ territory where reporters,  detectives and lawyers would swap gossip on the real life equivalents of the ‘Penge Bungalow Murders’. Another chronicler of the period, Victor Davis, wrote of ‘the great crime men of the day’ who possessed ‘the ability to ingest enormous quantities of alcohol and still be able to duck and dive and file copy in time for the first edition’. Among those he listed was the ‘genial and rotund’ Rodney Hallworth of the Daily Mail and later of the Daily Express.
In the Mail’s digital archive I found Hallworth exclusives about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang for murder. He told friends he accompanied her to the gallows in 1955 which sounds unlikely but knowing him is possible. In 1956 he was one of the first reporters to spot the significance of a police inquiry into an Eastbourne GP whose patients share a predilection for dying and leaving money to him in their will. Over a decade 132 patients of Dr John Bodkin Adams fell into this category. Arriving for what became known as ‘the Eastbourne Job’ at the height of the holiday season Hallworth was told by the manager of the Grand Hotel that ‘all I can offer you is the Bridal Suite’. So that became his base for weeks as he reported ‘the most sensational investigation of the country’s criminal history’.
When Dr Adams went for trial at the Old Bailey Hallworth was in the press box each day alongside Mail legend Vincent Mulchrone writing jointly by-lined court reports. Mulchrone was always more of a wordsmith than Hallworth. Together they planned major pieces to run in the Mail once Adams was convicted. Then came a small hitch – Dr Adams was found not guilty, the jury accepting what he told Hallworth and others ‘all I ever did was to make my patients as comfortable as possible towards the end’.
In 1960 the Daily Express poached Hallworth from the Mail and soon he was at the front line of a story that combined crime and politics. In the Express archive is an extraordinary front page from March 25th 1963 ‘CHRISTINE -AT LAST’. Hallworth and fellow Expressman Frank Howitt had tracked down Scotland Yard’s most sought after woman and reported that ‘Christine Keeler swing her high-booted legs over a swish chair in a Madrid flat tonight and said ‘Suddenly I feel a load has been lifted from my mind’. She was now safe in the hands of Hallworth and the Express. When Conservative Minister John Profumo finally resigned over their affair Hallworth again made the front page with exclusive quotes from Keeler about ‘Our Secret Dates’. Hallworth was also an Express ‘minder’ to Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies and they were often photographed together.
But there was a sting in the tale during Hallworth’s time at the Express . The undoubted doyen of the crime corps  was Expressman Percy Hoskins, Hallworth’s bitter rival, who had outmanoeuvred him in the Bodkin Adams case by keeping open the possibility that Adams would get off and getting an exclusive with the acquitted doctor who apparently had merely  ‘eased the passing’ of his elderly patients.
In the British Journalism Review in 2004  Victor Davis wrote  ‘I was an admirer of Rodney Hallworth at the Mail…who foolishly allowed himself to be bought up by the Express. He thought that by joining the staff he would inherit Percy’s mantle. What the paper actually did was to leave Rodney to wither on the vine so that Percy could carry on into old age without a serious rival’.
After a brief return to the Mail, Hallworth walked out of Fleet Street and set up in Devon as ‘Hallworth of Exeter’. Fleet Street loved to think that they had the country staked out by such colourful freelance characters as Hallworth and Lino ‘Dan’ Ferrari, father of broadcaster Nick Ferrari, whose manor covered Kent and South-East London. By the time I first met Rodney in 1968 the walls of his office in Exeter were already covered with front page photographs of the Aberfan disaster in 1966. A tip off from the Devon police that something big was happening across the Bristol Channel led him to put a photographer on a light aircraft to get the first aerials. He had the most extraordinary relationship with the Devon and Cornwall police, after a night’s drinking with detectives they would provide a patrol car to get him home safely. When I returned to Devon in 1976 to lead ITN’s investigations into the Jeremy Thorpe-Norman Scott saga, those old contacts held good and a senior detective tipped me off that the the Liberal Party had ‘good reason to be fearful’ of their inquiries.
So I don’t regret my time at Devon News Service. I learned a few of the black arts of tabloid journalism but most importantly I realised this was not for me. I could never write the intros built around a pun and never master getting into a jail to get quotes from a prisoner. I was never happy inventing quotes from somebody who didn’t exist despite Rodney’s advice to give them an address in a very long road -Stockport Road,Manchester was his favourite- because nobody would ever walk that far to check.
When in much later life I was a Visiting Professor at Oxford University researching the concept of ‘crossing the line’ in journalism I dedicated my first lecture to Rodney. He had inadvertently taught me not to cross that line.

UPDATE

This blog prompted other journalists’ memories of Hallworth in particular and their own time in local agencies.  Tom Mangold of the Daily Express and later the BBC remembers:

‘Rodney,Frank Howitt and I did Keeler/Ward for two years solid. Rodney was the archetypal tabloid reporter, a bit too grand for foot in door stuff (he left that to me and Frank) and an arch plotter and schemer and a man to whom we L plate hacks gravitated naturally. I’m certain that when Mandy Rice-Davies asked him what she should say in court if Lord Astor denied sleeping with her it was ‘Rodders’ who suggested the now iconic reply ‘Well he would,wouldn’t he’.

Paul Potts, who worked on the Daily Express before becoming Chief Executive of the Press Association said the blog evoked  ‘echoes of a bygone age when expenses were paid and the bridal suite an acceptable upgrade. He saw a parallel between Devon News’s lack of nautical knowledge and his own episode ‘with the weather off the coast of North West Spain, an abandoned Greek oil tanker and vulnerable shellfish beds’. His  bad luck was that ‘the night editor was a keen yachtsman and weather bore’.

Turning to the world of local agencies, broadcaster Nick Ferrari confirmed that his father was ‘Ferrari of Dartford’ who started what is now the 2nd longest running press agency in the land although there is no longer any family involvement. He explained that the oldest is Cassidy and Leigh out of Surrey.

Nick Pollard, former Head of Sky News and currently Chairman of the Ofcom Content Board, recalls ‘Blyth of West Lancs’. He says Roger Blyth ‘relished his reputation (as I suspect did most agency proprietors) as ‘that bloke who sends little boys up chimneys’. Nick’s particular chimney was ‘to drive from my parents’ house in Birkenhead to East Lancashire (quite a long way actually!) to do an early shift on Radio Blackburn from 0600 to 1400 and then drive to Liverpool to do the Radio Merseyside late shift from 1500 to whenever the work was finished – usually after midnight. And of course, like all good agency hacks, I was required to provide newspaper copy from every story I came across on the radio shifts’

Blyth became best known from his time as a reporter/presenter on Granada TV in  the North-West where he was married to Judy Finnigan for a time. He had also taken over Liverpool’s Mercury Press Agency from founder Terry Smith who’d gone to become MD of Liverpool’s first commercial radio station Radio City where Roger Blyth and Nick Pollard also worked for a time.

Nick’s abiding  image of Roger is ‘him dictating copy  in the late morning on one phone with another tucked in to his neck already dialling, a cup of coffee with four sugars in front of him (probably his tenth of the day), grazing from a plastic tray of fish and chips and lighting the next Players Untipped from the stub of the previous one’. Like Rodney Hallworth who died at 56, Roger Blyth didn’t make it past his fifties. Nick says: ‘I’m amazed he made it into his thirties, let alone any further!’

 

‘echoes of a bygone but rather wonderful age when expenses were plentiful and the bridal suite an acceptable upgrade!’ and  ‘smiled at your prevailing winds copy.I had a similar problem with the weather off the coast of NW Spain – Corunna – with an abandoned Greek oil tanker and vulnerable shellfish beds!

Main problem was the night editor was a keen yachtsman and weather bore.Just my luck’.

 

 

 

Revealed: why MI5’s Spycatchers thought two ITV bosses were Communists with KGB links

Newly released Security Service files from the 1960s show that MI5 officers suspected that two senior executives in the ITV network had been secret supporters of the Communist Party with links to Soviet Intelligence. Previously secret documents now in the National Archives show their inquiries into possible Communist connections inside ITV ended with no conclusive evidence of a KGB link and the suicide of one of the men.

The investigations had started in the wake of the defections to Moscow of three Cambridge graduates Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. MI5 were trying to find out if there had been an equivalent recruiting network at Oxford University in the 1930s. Bernard Floud, son of a leading civil servant Sir Francis Floud, came under suspicion partly because of his friendship with one of the Cambridge recruiters, James Klugman. ‘The case for suspecting that Floud may have worked for the Russians as a talent-spotter rest on his early association with James Klugman. It seems highly possible that what Klugman was doing at Cambridge was echoed by Floud at Oxford’. Floud and Klugman had both been at school with Donald Maclean and had travelled to China in 1938 to meet leading Communist Chou En-Lai. MI5 tracked this visit and because of Floud’s Communist activities at Oxford monitored his subsequent career in the wartime Intelligence Corps and Ministry of Information and post-war Board of Trade. In 1951 when he was an Assistant Secretary MI5 got a report that ‘he is a fanatical Communist. It must be assumed he is still a Communist partisan, the more dangerous because of his concealment’

Despite this shadow over his civil service career Floud was progressing up the ranks when suddenly in 1951 he resigned to become a farmer. In an equally sudden career shift five years later he became one of the first employees of Granada Television, which had won the ITV franchise for the North of England. Floud was put in charge of personnel and he represented Granada at network meetings becoming the chair of the Labour Relations Committee, in effect the ITV employers’ lead negotiator with the TV  unions. From 1959-1964 he was also Granada’s man on the board of Independent Television News (ITN) and unusually for a director of ITN he once reported on air. In 1967 Floud happened to be in Northern Nigeria, where Granada had a stake in a TV station, when the regional Premier and his wife were shot by rebel troops.His eye-witness report is still in the ITN Archive.

MI5’s interest in Floud was rekindled when they learned that while at Oxford he ‘had been concerned in recruiting CP members of the University for long-term undercover penetration of the Civil Service. In one known case, that of Jenifer Fischer-Williams, later Hart, he nurtured the student’s development as a Communist at Oxford, advised her to join a department of the Civil Service from which information of value could be made available to the CPGB and gave her guidance on the question of concealing her Party membership’.

MI5 wanted to know what exactly Floud was doing at Granada and wrote to I.R.D. the secret anti-Communist propaganda arm of the Foreign Office which often paid professional journalists to work for them. The letter said ‘I am in need of a reliable contact in Granada Television network in London to whom I could entrust a somewhat delicate enquiry. I wonder whether by any chance you can suggest anyone suitable for this purpose’. They linked their enquiries into Floud with the name of the man at the very top of the ITV company: ‘It is worth remembering that Sidney Bernstein, the head of Granada, has an extremely interesting file which you may like to consult. It may not be fortuitous that Floud obtained a position with this firm’.

In a later file MI5 officers put on record that Bernstein ‘has been considered, by reason of his great wealth and influential positions’, a potential source of support for the Communist powers, both financially and in the sphere of propaganda’. While conceding that they had no hard proof Bernstein had ever been a formal party member they recorded that ‘two independent sources who are believed to be reliable reported-in 1936 and again in 1955 – that he was a secret member of the Party’. Bernstein was, they noted, a friend of Ivor Montagu, a film-maker and Communist activist and a referee for Cedric Belfrage, who would later be revealed as an important Soviet agent.

Bernard Floud’s career had taken a further twist when this civil servant turned farmer turned TV executive started a fourth career and it was one which he developed simultaneously with his TV work. In 1964, at his third attempt he was elected as a Labour MP, representing Acton in London. Two years later MI5 noted ‘It may be postulated that as a member of parliament, although as yet only a backbencher, Floud has potential as an agent of influence. His value to the Russians as an executive of Granada Television and a director of Independent Television News is more immediately apparent. Proof or disproof of these suspicions is yet wanting’. MI5 officers, prominent among them Peter Wright who wrote in ‘Spycatcher’ about the Floud case, set about finding out more. Floud told them he ‘got into television through an introduction from an MP who was a friend of Sidney Bernstein. And he had been there ever since.’

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The search for evidence against him became particularly relevant when it became known that the Prime Minister Harold Wilson was considering promoting Floud to Ministerial rank. With the agreement of the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, Floud was interviewed by MI5 on five occasions between August 1966 and March 1967. In the MI5 files the notes by Peter Wright and his team on the Floud interrogation make fascinating reading. There are accounts of how Floud ‘prevaricated’, was ‘less than candid’ admitting ‘conspiratorial Communist activity’ but denying any knowledge of Russian Intelligence connections.
After the final interrogation in March 1967 Wright wrote; ‘At the end I could only conclude that Floud has been less than frank with me, since under pressure he has shifted his ground on many issues’. The typed document ends ‘I felt that I had been dealing with a dedicated Communist’. Wright seems to have had second thoughts about that line because he crossed out the words ‘a dedicated’ and in his own handwriting changed it to ‘dealing with someone who was using the techniques of a Communist’.
Another entry in the file says ‘we have not so far been able to break this case by interview, partly because we have had to handle Floud with care as an MP’. MI5 never did ‘break the case’ but by the end of it Floud was a broken man. He had a long-term depressive illness and  his wife, to whom he had been devoted, had died during the interrogation process. Wilson never did make him a minister, he went back to work at the Commons and at Granada but told colleagues he was ‘unable to go on’. He committed suicide in his home in October 1967 by a combination of alcohol, barbiturates and coal gas.
In the official history of MI5, Professor Christopher Andrew concluded that ‘There was – and is – no evidence that he had any Communist contacts after 1952. His pre-war contacts with Soviet intelligence are also unlikely to have been of great significance’. As for Sidney Bernstein MI5 concluded ‘there is no firm evidence to show where Bernstein’s political loyalties now lie’ and he was never questioned or challenged by MI5 during his illustrious career in television.

(The story of Bernstein’s later encounters with the UK’s TV regulators is told in ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’,written with Jeff Hulbert)

The national treasure who didn’t pass on clues about two Cambridge spies

On 28th November the Security Service MI5 released a few more of their files to the National Archives. I have prepared this joint blog post with Jeff Hulbert, my co-author on ‘Guy Burgess, the Spy Who Knew Everyone’. Here’s what we make of just one of the released files.

Nowadays he’d be called a ‘national treasure’, a broadcaster with a special gift for using his hands-on experience in diplomacy, politics and journalism to communicate with listeners. Sir Harold George Nicolson KCVO CMG (1886-1968) had earned respect opposing appeasement at a time when his views and those of others like Winston Churchill were censored by the BBC and cinema newsreels. He had a celebrity wife, the writer Vita Sackville-West, but like some national treasures of more recent times he also had a private sex life that broke the law of the land at the time, in his case the law on homosexuality.
Among his friends and probably his lovers was the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. When Nicolson was a BBC Governor he went as far as recommending that Burgess would make ‘an ideal parliamentary correspondent’. The two men were so close throughout their lives up to and including their regular correspondence when Burgess ended up in Moscow that in our book ‘Guy Burgess, the spy who knew everyone’ we wondered why it was that MI5 showed so little interest in him. We pointed to gaps in the files where we thought Nicolson’s name would and should have appeared.
Now one file of documents on Nicolson has finally arrived in the National Archives, and if anything the release confirms our suspicions. From the moment in 1951 when the British establishment realised that within their midst had been two KGB spies, Burgess and Donald Maclean, MI5 pursued anybody who might have been in their ring. However, the files confirm that MI5 didn’t do much about Nicolson, other than intercept his correspondence with Burgess which may have been more of a by-product of opening Burgess’s post than his. At a time when people like Anthony Blunt were having their phones tapped, post opened and facing interrogation, Nicolson seems to have been left well alone.
Could it be yet another case of what Burgess himself called ‘class blinkers’, judging somebody solely by their family, their education and their intellect? Nicolson scored highly on all counts: the son of a diplomat, the 1st Baron Carnock, school at Wellington then Balliol College Oxford, a prolific biographer of literary greats and King George V.
What the files reveal is that nearly 25 years after the defection somebody in MI5 thought that one document in particular was worth a second look. In our book on Burgess we highlighted a 1951 file revealing that the writer John Lehmann had tried to pass on information about him to the authorities. He chose to do it ‘through Harold Nicolson, who found himself unable to assist owing to a heavy list of engagements’. We commented ‘there is no record of whether MI5 followed this up by asking Nicolson himself what he meant by this extraordinary statement’.
What we can tell from the newly released file is two things: firstly that indeed there was no follow up in 1951 and secondly that somebody in MI5 finally put pen to paper in 1974 – 6 years after Nicolson’s death. 1974 is also near the end of Peter Wright’s investigation into possible moles in MI5, the so-called Fluency process. Hand written annotations on the original 1951 file reveal that Nicolson’s curious inability to pass on information to the authorities involved details not just about Burgess but also about Donald Maclean. The extract in Nicolson’s file was taken from Lehmann’s 1951 MI5 interrogation. The Burgess element was when John Lehmann recounted his sister Rosamond’s story of how she had been told in the 1930s that Burgess was a communist agent. That had first come to light when in June 1951 the Daily Express had published a leaked letter by Lehmann repeating his sister’s story. The 1974 annotator adds ‘Nicolson had suggested that he might speak to Sir William Strang to introduce Rosamond Lehmann’s story to him but eventually found himself unable to help’. But John Lehmann also told Nicolson about Donald Maclean recounting ‘secondhand information…the story of how Maclean defending Alger Hiss in a brawl with Philip Toynbee’. The newly released file confirms that MI5 never seems to have got around to asking Nicolson why he had been too busy to pass on Lehmann’s story, even though by that time his friend Guy had already disappeared.
According to Nicolson’s unpublished diary John Lehmann went to see him about the story on 13 June. Nicolson wrote ‘I tell him to get her up to see me first…’, which suggests that Nicolson wanted to check out her version of the story before acting. Within days Lehmann’s letter had been leaked to the Daily Express and events had presumably overtaken Nicolson.
Apart from class blinkers, MI5 ’s failure to follow up with Nicolson may have parallels with the members of the Foreign Office committee of inquiry into the Burgess and Maclean affair who especially noted that it would be ‘distasteful’ for members of the Service to be expected to have to watch colleagues and, ‘in school parlance, to “blab” about them to the “Head”. A clue to Nicolson’s attitudes is revealed by an unpublished diary observation, written in 1940 while he was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Information. He described MI5 as a ‘silly and hen-minded Gestapo’ who that holding left-wing views made people a security risk. He opined: ‘this is the sort of thing which I can smash.’
Nicolson’s file covers the years 1929 to 1963 and contains letters exchanged between him and Burgess, additional to those already released in Burgess’s MI5 file. Occasional references show that the two men were well aware that MI5 was probably reading their letters, but carried on regardless, sometimes using risqué expressions that must have shocked their uninvited audience. In one letter, for instance, Nicolson, then aged 75, confided to Burgess that although he was still fit and healthy, ‘I hope that I die clasping a naked body to by [sic] chest. That is the way to die, like Felix Faure.’
Some letters concern Burgess’s desire to return to Britain for a visit. He was curious about what information the British government had on him, more so in 1962 after arrest warrants for him and Maclean had been issued at Bow Street. Coming from someone as sophisticated and as ruthless as Burgess it is unlikely to have been just an innocent enquiry. Nicolson, was cautious however, saying he was unable to help: ‘I wish I could tell you something strong and reliable about what evidence the authorities have against you. It is no good my asking anyone – one might as well ask an oyster to give one a sex kiss.’
In 1949 Burgess apparently suffered a serious injury, but concrete details have always been elusive. Nicolson’s file now gives us something more concrete. The story is that Burgess and his FO colleague and friend, Fred Warner, had a drunken argument and Burgess was pushed down a flight of stairs. Earlier this year, while working with George Carey on the film Toffs, Queers and Traitors, Jeff asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if it still had any Burgess papers that would prove that Burgess had received a bad enough injury to keep him off work. The FCO confirmed that nothing about it was on file. Letters in Nicolson’s file now show that in February 1949 he wrote to Burgess about the head and brow wounds that he had sustained, together with a painful broken elbow. In addition, Nicolson’s secretary, Elvira Niggemann, asked Burgess if he would like to borrow a special book rest, useful for ‘those who hurl themselves down stairs’ and are confined to bed.
There is also a letter that confirms that Burgess’s use of drugs was known to friends. In March 1944 – the day on which Burgess resigned from the BBC to accept a job at the FO, Nicolson advised Burgess: ‘Meanwhile, for God’s sake, stick either to stimulants or narcotics – & don’t mix the two. In any case keep up your optimism and don’t give way to dark misgivings.’
Nicolson’s file also reveals him willingly helping to make openings in influential circles for Burgess, including trying to get him into Pratt’s club, where many up-and-coming Tory politicians were members. He was unsuccessful, but happy to keep trying if Burgess wished.
In 1945, Burgess was worried about his ‘temp’ status in the FO. Nicolson’s file confirms that Burgess had been talking to people such as Nicolson and his future boss, Hector McNeil MP. Nicolson offered a word of advice: be patient and stop banging on about it: ‘received a very strong hint from the top storey that any future prospect would be prejudiced by any suggestions or gossip’.
If we were asked what strikes us most about Nicolson’s file it has to be that, after having established a clear and close connection between Burgess and Nicolson, including the intimate secrets and gossip that they shared in their letters, MI5 didn’t seem to think that Nicolson was a person of sufficient interest to receive closer attention. It is clear from the file – and Nicolson’s unpublished diaries – that he was never formally questioned or approached by MI5. According to this file the organisation never placed a telephone tap or a postal intercept on him or his addresses, never collected statements about Nicolson’s associations or connections, never followed up Nicolson’s involvements with other people in whom MI5 were interested. Was it cock-up, a lack of resources, or that Nicolson was untouchable because he was just too well connected? MI5’s files show that other politicians and illustrious figures were not immune from investigation. The question from our point of view has to be why Harold Nicolson was left alone.

The biggest ‘mea culpa’ by journalists and journalism in recent years- my review of ‘Brexit,Trump and the Media’.

‘Brexit,Trump and the Media’ was launched at a Media Society event at the Groucho Club in London on 5th July 2017. The book is published by Abramis academic publishing and edited by John Mair,Tor Clark,Neil Fowler,Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait. It covers the 2016 EU referendum in Britain, the 2016 US Presidential election and the 2017 British General Election. There are over 50 contributions from journalists, academics and campaigners  such as the self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’, Andy Wigmore and Jack Montgomery, who give a four point guide to ‘how you manipulate the media as an outsider’ using the tactics they and Trump used.

At the launch I was on a panel which discussed the book and the implications.These are my speaking notes:

This is a terrific book, my congratulations to the editor and the authors, many of whom are here tonight.

I’ve got four points to make at this stage:

Point number one.
This book is a ‘mea culpa’ by journalists and journalism. Probably it is the biggest ‘mea culpa’ of recent times. Nick Robinson of BBC News says ‘We didn’t get it right on Brexit. We didn’t see it coming. We must try harder’. Dan Martin of the Western Mail in Cardiff is quoted as saying ‘with hindsight, I should have spoken to more of our readers about Brexit and fewer politicians’. James Mates of ITV News talks about the long-term lack of proper coverage of the EU as ‘a failure of journalism’. ‘An epic fail’  is how the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan described American coverage of Donald Trump.
In his introduction to the book Jon Snow goes as far as offering to take some of the blame for not spotting the populism that would take Trump to power, after witnessing him in action in a sports hall in North Carolina. We’ll let you off on that one Jon. Then of course, the day Britain like America produced an unexpected election result, Snow humbled himself on air: “I know nothing. We the media, the pundits and experts, know nothing.” I wonder if it wasn’t so much that we knew nothing, but that we thought we knew better than the voters. For some the failure of the coverage of Brexit and Trump was that they didn’t forecast the outcome, but for others it was the outcome that was the failure.That they didn’t get the result they wanted.
Traditionally we frame these big electoral moments as left versus right or remain versus leave. But academics such as Professor John Curtice encourage us to see them more as, for instance, socially liberal versus socially conservative or, as Professor Eric Kaufman intriguingly concludes from his research, people who want their kids to be ‘considerate’ versus those who want them to be ‘well-behaved’. In media terms I see it as conventional tribal wisdoms against challenger populist brands.

Point Number Two.

One obvious cause of the ‘failure’ in journalism on Brexit was the so-called London media bubble. This is best observed in the book by an outsider, Diana Zimmerman of the German public television network ZDF. Out of London she found ‘very often not a single person had anything positive to say about the EU and believed it was responsible for all problems facing the UK’. Back in the capital  she would  ‘soak up the predominantly pro-European sentiment, and the analyses by political economists that ‘people will always vote for economic security’.
But at least she can say: ‘Whenever I returned to London from these trips I gave a truthful report of how it seemed increasingly unlikely that the UK would remain in the EU’.
How many British television and radio reporters can say that they did the same? Which takes us to my next point.

Point Number Three
Professor Jay Blumler writes that ‘the broadcasters’ news coverage sometimes seemed to have been governed less by ‘due impartiality’ than by ‘impartiality carried to an extreme’! We do all seem are a bit confused about what the requirement for due impartiality in British broadcasting means in practice.
Here’s an example from the Brexit referendum campaign coverage. It is from Jamie Angus, then Editor of the Today programme, talking on the Radio 4 Media Show in June last year. Asked by Steve Hewlett ‘What do the BBC guidelines require you to do?’. Angus replied: ‘Well the BBC has signed up rightly to provide both sides in the referendum with equal airtime, fair treatment and the ability to get their campaign messages across without favour to one side or another’.
But what did the BBC guidelines actually say? ‘Guideline 3.1 Broad balance’ says:
‘Due impartiality is not necessarily achieved by the application of a simple mathematical formula or a stopwatch, but the objective – in a referendum with two alternatives – must be to achieve a proper balance between the two sides’. In the book David Jordan and Ric Bailey of the BBC say ‘Contrary to received wisdom, there is no general set of onerous rules corseting the broadcasters into a ‘false balance’, thus enforcing perfect equality of time’.My own experience is that this particular conventional wisdom was very conventional inside the BBC.

Point Number Four

In his chapter Gary Gibbon, Political Editor of Channel Four News says of the Vote Leave campaign;‘Dominic Cummings has written of how broadcast journalists in particular didn’t have a clue what his campaign was up to mining data on voters and to this day don’t have the newsroom skills to keep up with modern campaign methods. He may have a point’. Gibbon’s own view was that ‘the EU Referendum was a contest like no other: conducted in unique times by unconventional political forces and driven by data not used to the same extent before. The broadcast media coverage, I think it’s true to say, didn’t keep up’. He has a point too.

 

News just in: in a digital world where entertainment is everywhere people want TV news.

For years we TV news hacks have been told by ‘proper’ TV people that in a digital world where people can get news everywhere what viewers really want from television is entertainment. Comedian John Bishop assured viewers during his week on The Nightly Show which displaced ITV News at Ten why would they want to watch bad news when they could have a laugh with him.
Now the numbers are in and they show that in a digital world where you can get entertainment everywhere (Netflix subscribers are averaging an hour a day there alone) what many people want is news and news they can trust.
The Quarter One 2017 ratings for TV viewing show the BBC 1 News audience has increased at 1pm, 6pm and 10pm. With the decline in total TV viewing highest in the TV news averse 16-24 year-olds and non-existent in the news loving 65 plus audience, the proportion of linear TV watchers that choose news is going up not down.
The figures also show that ITV’s experiment replacing news at 10pm hasn’t worked. This is probably the best evidence yet that the old assumptions are wrong.
1. The Nightly Show averaged about one and a half million viewers compared with the two million ITV News had been getting in that slot. ITV’s share of people watching TV at that time of evening fell from the 12% who watched news to 9% for entertainment . According to analysis by Broadcast magazine the hoped for increase in younger audiences  resulted in the grand total of just 37,000 extra young viewers.
2. As is often the case, the ratings inheritance from the previous programmes was important. The Nightly Show’s biggest audiences, the only time it reached two million, were all after the very successful drama series ‘Broadchurch’. But ITV News has similarly done well, in fact even better, after big shows like ‘I’m a Celebrity’ when it sometimes got three million viewers.
3. At 10.30pm the audience of about one million for ITV News was half what it was at 10.00pm. Those who did watch were very loyal normally staying with the programme until the end compared with the normal drop off in news audiences at ten on BBC and ITV. This benefitted the regional news which follows ITV News although its overall ratings were similarly dragged down by the Nightly Show effect.

It can, of course, be argued that the problem was the Nightly Show itself. One of the rota
of presenters,Jason Manford, wrote on his Facebook page that he had challenged
the production team ‘’Being funny isn’t enough’. Viewers might have responded ‘Being
funny would have been a start’.
Leafing through the TV ratings books to try to monitor the failure of ‘The Nightly Show’
helped me to stumble across a wider truth. We shouldn’t be surprised that news
gets more viewers than entertainment and drama because, it turns out, that often happens nowadays.
Take the week beginning 6th March 2017. In that week the ITV Evening News at six thirty got an average audience of 3.37 million viewers. That was higher than, for example, ITV’s new prime-time entertainment shows such as ‘Little Big Shots’,’Play to the Whistle’ and ‘Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule’. It was also higher than the imported American drama ‘Lethal Weapon’ and the travelogue ‘Schofield’s South African Adventure’. It is the same story on BBC1 where news audiences are much higher. Apart from the high-rating soaps and the high cost dramas on BBC 1 and ITV, news is just as likely as entertainment to be in the three or four million range that is now more like the norm in early and mid-evening and it is much cheaper. On Tuesday 25th April the ITV News at 1830 with three and a half million viewers was the second highest show on the network all day, only Emmerdale had more, and nothing else in prime time even got three million.
So where does that leave the later evening news on ITV now returned to its normal slot at ten? We’ve only had a few days so far and the headline is that the news is back doing better business than The Nightly Show did but not surprisingly some loyal news viewers who deserved a medal for keeping track of its time slot have got lost along the way and the audience is down by an average of ten per cent on what it was before ‘the experiment’.
The failure of the Nightly Show at ten may have helped us realise some new truths about viewers’ preferences but if if anything it has made ITV’s problem in that time slot even worse.

Why I fear for the future of party leaders TV debates in UK elections.

“We won’t be doing television debates”. Theresa May adopted the royal ‘we’ to confirm that she wouldn’t be taking part in any 2017 General Election leaders debates. Strictly accurately by saying ‘we’ she wasn’t correct, plenty of Conservatives will take part in debates with counterparts from other parties on national,regional and local television and radio over the coming two months.

But what we won’t get this time is what we had for the first time in 2010, the leaders of the three largest political parties in the UK parliament facing each other and debating together. We didn’t really have it in 2015 where David Cameron’s tactics meant that there was a variety of formats, none of them the three leaders head to head without any other party leaders. In one ‘debate’ David Cameron and Ed Miliband appeared in the same Sky News-Channel Four programme but were interviewed separately.

The best indication of the mood of resignation amongst broadcasters was summed up by the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan who posted on Facebook today ‘TV Debates during elections can be good for democracy. But I totally get why for Theresa May, it makes no sense whatsoever to agree to them’. Saying it makes ‘ no sense’ for a politician to agree to debate their policies before voters on national television seems a bit far for the BBC’s own media man to go but he is free to depart from the corporate line (once there is one).

However it suggests there won’t be much appetite inside the BBC for so-called ’empty-chairing’, inviting all three party leaders  into the studio and going ahead with whoever turns up even if it is only Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron.  There was a moment in 2015 when this was an option discussed by broadcasters as a tactic to deal with an evasive David Cameron but in a process never fully reported or revealed the BBC did a deal with the Conservative Party which avoided an empty chair but gave us a range of formats, few of them worthy of remembering.

Other broadcasters could still have gone ahead with their own empty chairing but none did. This time, according to Media Guardian, ‘The BBC and ITV are pushing ahead with plans for leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election’ ..News executives at the BBC and ITV confirmed they were “working hard” on plans to televise the debates between leaders because of the “overwhelming” public interest in doing so. ITV has even announced that “ITV will hold a leaders’ debate as we did in 2010 and 2015. We will announce more details in due course.”  But when I read in Media Guardian that neither BBC or ITV ‘ want to antagonise the prime minister or any other leader and have made it clear that they are willing to work on reaching an agreement for all’ this suggests a re-definition of what is a ‘leader’ and no empty chairing.

I wouldn’t rule out one broadcaster,possibly Sky News, coming up with some original idea/stunt  but there’s little sign this particular lady is for turning on this particular core point. In the current climate where election fatigue seems to have exhausted voters before the campaign even begins ,what is the pressure that would make her change her mind?

And that is the number one reason why I think it may be a long time before we see again what we saw in 2010.  In the euphoria then at how the debates had brought politics alive for a young generation we feared would never be interested I cautioned that we should never assume it would be the same in every future election. I cited the 16 year gap after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate before the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates debated again.

I take little joy in saying my fears have been realised. The reasons:

1.It just needs one Prime Minister to say ‘I’m not going to do them at all’ rather than ‘There are too many of them’ or ‘They are too near voting day’ or  conversely ‘There aren’t enough leaders in the debate’ (yes,David Cameron did say that) and it emboldens future PMs to just say no. Theresa May has done that. On twitter today I asked ‘It was 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon debates before next Dem-Rep one in US,how long till another Con-Lab-LD leaders election debate in UK? Among the replies:‘Until the incumbent PM feels they could gain rather than lose votes by taking part?Sadly cynical..’   @helen_purvis (parental pride allowed).

2. Even if a future Prime Minister agrees, there is no agreed way of defining who should and shouldn’t take part in such debates. In 2010 the broadcasters chose Labour,Tory and the Liberal Democrats claiming they were the three parties whose leaders had a chance of becoming Prime Minister. Trouble is it wasn’t true. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system the Liberal Democrats had no realistic chance of winning and even with the ‘I agree with Nick’ momentum from the debates were still miles away from  being the largest party. They did of course became part of a coalition government but other parties with seats in the Commons might have been involved in coalitions under different hypothetical electoral arithmetic and that didn’t give them a place in the 2010 debates. The American way is for a Commission to set a criteria for taking part which is normally done by specifying  a minimum ranking in the opinion polls. There has been no appetite in the UK for a Commission or such a criteria which would  logically  lead to what broadcasters would privately prefer ,a head to head between the leaders of the two largest parties.

3.Things have got even more complicated when  it comes to comparing ‘third’ parties. UKIP has often overtaken the Liberal Democrats in the polls, arguably making them the most popular third party across the UK although they no longer have a parliamentary seat. The Greens still have a seat but a lower ranking in the polls. The SNP are by far the largest third party measured by seats in the UK Parliament but inevitably no ranking in a UK  wide poll. And all this at a time when the issue of broadcasting to the nations and regions of the UK is more politically sensitive than it has ever been.

 

 

 

 

MI5 files show why they thought they’d found a sixth Cambridge KGB spy.

The latest release of MI5 files to the National Archives is reported in some of this morning’s UK papers (12th April 2017) and in a good blog on the National Archives website by Dr Richard Dunley http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/paddy-costello-soviet-spy-political-intellectual/

Surprisingly there is little or no mention of the fact that the man MI5 was so sure was a KGB agent, Desmond ‘Paddy’ Costello, would have been the sixth Cambridge spy they detected rather late in the day. ‘The Cambridge Five’, all bright young men from ‘good families’ studying at Trinity College or nearby Trinity Hall, were Kim Philby,Guy Burgess,Donald Maclean,Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Costello, a New Zealander, was doing a post -graduate degree at Trinity College in the 1930s when the Cambridge Communist cell was at its busiest. He knew Burgess and Philby who went on to become full-blooded spies and James Klugman who helped to recruit Cairncross as a spy. Klugman would later describe Costello as ‘one good comrade’.

Unlike Burgess,Philby and some other Cambridge Communists, Costello had a PF (Personal File) at MI5 while still a student. In October 1934 he donated £5 to the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker via a letter from a friend to CP headquarters in London. The letter only described him as ‘Comrade Costello who is at present in Germany’ but that was enough to get MI5 started on the trail. Using passport records they identified him as a student at Trinity  who in the words of MI5 chief Sir Vernon Kell ‘has come under Left intellectual influence during his time at college’. Kell consulted the police in New Zealand  who reported back that letters which Costello had sent from Berlin to his mother in Auckland showed ‘that her son is very much against the Nazi movement’.
After Cambridge Costello was appointed as a lecturer in classics at what was then known as The University College of the South West, later the University of Exeter. He and his wife, Bella or ‘Bi’, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, both joined the Exeter Communist Party. Costello took time off from lectures in 1937 to travel to Bombay carrying a gift of £500 from the British Communist Party to its Indian counterpart.
Costello’s academic career came to a sudden halt in 1940 when, as the files reveal, the Principal of the University College of the South West,Dr John Murray, wrote to the Chief Constable of Exeter to report that ‘I have today suspended Mr Costello from the service of the college’. MI5 were ‘quite clear from the Chief Constable’s file that this was on account of his Communist views’. Two days before his suspension an Exeter student who Costello knew well had been sentenced at the Old Bailey to six months in prison under the Official Secrets Act. The Council of the college later called upon Costello to resign and he did. Two other Exeter students were sent down for their Communist activities.
Now unemployed, Costello joined up and was promoted to a Captain in the New Zealand forces. In 1944 he was discharged in order to take up the post of Second Secretary at the New Zealand legation in Moscow. MI5 were told that ‘in spite of his left-wing tendencies he was selected for the post on account of his knowledge of Russian and his academic record’.

Roger Hollis of MI5 began an MI5 campaign to get Costello sacked. He contacted the Dominions Office in Downing Street which was the link with what later became the ‘White Commonwealth’ countries. By coincidence a former Cambridge left-winger of the same period, the splendidly titled Francis Edward Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce, better known as Francis Cumming-Bruce, was working at the Dominions Office and vouched for Costello as a ‘decent, honest man, who like many undergraduates was seriously interested in Communism’. Coincidentally Cumming-Bruce went on to become the British High Commissioner in New Zealand, his own youthful interest in Communism having been forgiven or overlooked.

Hollis then got the Dominions Office to write to the New Zealand High Commission in London about the Exeter episode to say that Costello’s ‘close association with the man convicted necessarily raises a doubt whether he is a safe and suitable person to be employed by the New Zealand Government in his present capacity’. The High Commission wrote back to say that Costello had been ‘interviewed and as far as possible vetted by the Prime Minister’. He had an excellent war record that showed ‘he could be relied upon’. But they were not aware of Costello’s dismissal in Exeter and would raise it with the New Zealand Prime Minister. Later MI5 followed up by pointing out that Costello’s wife ‘still apparently a member of the Communist Party’ was on her way to Moscow to join her husband.
The New Zealanders did not take kindly to being reminded again about the Costello case. He was ‘one of the best people the New Zealand Department (of External Affairs) had’ and the advice from Wellington at the end of the war was that it would be ’wise not to pursue the question of Costello with the Department of External Affairs any further’.
Imagine Roger Hollis’s reaction at the Savoy Hotel in London four years later, in 1949, when a New Zealand diplomat told him that Costello was now being promoted to Charge d’Affaires in Moscow after the New Zealand Prime Minister decided Costello was ‘trustworthy’.

The following year Costello was promoted again, this time to a post in Paris, but on a trip back to New Zealand he went out drinking with old friends, was arrested for drunkenness and ‘spent the night in the cooler’.While there some remarks he made ‘caused the police sergeant to consider he possessed Communist views’,what Hollis called ‘in vino veritas’ evidence.

Eventually the New Zealand Government, constantly lobbied by the British and by now in the shadow of the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, found it convenient to  force Costello out. He returned to academia but this time at the rather more exalted rank of a Professor, as Chair in Slavonic Studies at Manchester University.

MI5 now zeroed in on him and his wife. The files show the extraordinary lengths they went to in order to find evidence about ‘Desmond Patrick COSTELLO and Bella COSTELLO, who are known to have been Communists in the past, are suspected of working for the Russian Intelligence Service. It is desired to investigate their current activities and contacts.’ Among the documents is a very home-made ‘Map of Costello’s Home Area’ near Manchester and hour-by-hour reports from those MI5 and police men tasked with following the Costellos around the streets of Manchester and London .

At the end of it all MI5 had two things that convinced them the couple were spies but which would never have been enough for a court conviction. Mr Costello was seen having clandestine meetings with two Soviet officials believed to be intelligence officers and Mrs Costello’s handwriting was ‘written proof’ linking her to a document which could have been used to transfer the identities of long dead children to KGB spies.

Desmond ‘Paddy’ Costello died unexpectedly from coronary thrombosis in 1964 aged 52. MI5 closed their file without ever finding clear-cut evidence that they’d got their ‘sixth man’