The reporter who filed to MI5 and MI6 but not to his own paper

Newly-discovered Cold War files reveal that Britain’s most authoritative commentator on Soviet affairs befriended the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess in Moscow and reported back to the British authorities but never to his own newspaper,the Observer. Research which I have done with my fellow co-author of ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’ and ‘Guy Burgess,the Spy Who Knew Everyone’, Jeff Hulbert, has been given to the Observer and extracts from the 1959 report on Burgess have now finally been published by the paper in an article by Robert McCrum ( 5th June 2016)

Edward Crankshaw met Guy Burgess three times in Moscow in January 1959. The Observer’s Soviet expert was able ‘to keep pace’ with Burgess’s drinking ,and went with him to a Russian Orthodox church to see a priest with whom the former KGB spy was ‘head over heels in love’. Crankshaw then visited the British Embassy and typed out more than two thousand words with details of Burgess’s life which had never previously been reported: his salary ,5,000 roubles a month, and the size of his favourite tipple ,‘200 grammes of vodka with 200 grammes of tomato juice’, which was effectively a pint glass of Bloody Mary. Crankshaw managed five of these ‘shockers’. He also wrote a character study of ‘B’s brilliance and charm’ and an analysis of Burgess’s likely next moves including the spy’s attempts to return to Britain. Crankshaw’s conclusion was that ‘the man is half dotty,not actively vicious’ and the ‘whole situation is the sort of personal tragedy that can only be ended by death’. Four years later Burgess died of multiple health problems accelerated by alcohol.
The British Ambassador in Moscow,Sir Patrick Reilly, thanked Crankshaw  for ‘the most interesting and perceptive report on Burgess that we have had’ and sent it back to the Foreign Office where it was passed on to MI5 and MI6. Jeff Hulbert and I have read numerous other reports by journalists and diplomats about Burgess’s time in Moscow and we agree with the Ambassador’s view that Crankshaw’s was the best informed account.
Within his four page debrief was ample material for what would have made a fascinating and exclusive piece for the Observer but, Sir Patrick reported to the Foreign Office, ‘Crankshaw told me that he does not intend to write anything about Burgess himself’. The Observer man said he was giving the Ambassador the report ‘as a friend’.He knew what he’d written would be passed on to ‘the authorities concerned in London’ but if Burgess ever returned home and was tried Crankshaw wouldn’t want to be a witness.
Crankshaw published a series of long articles on the Soviet Union over the next three months in 1959 but never mentioned meeting Burgess. The paper’s diarist ‘Pendennis’ was in Moscow at the same time and his two half-page specials would have provided another suitable setting for Crankshaw’s anecdotes about Burgess but again not a word appeared. Only with the release of Foreign Office and MI5 files on Burgess to the National Archives can Crankshaw’s exclusive report to the British authorities be read outside Whitehall.
Ironically the only mention of Burgess in the Observer in January 1959 was an article by the actor, Michael Redgrave, about a performance in Moscow after which ‘I remember the face of Guy Burgess, his eyes red with tears and his voice only just in control’.
If Crankshaw wasn’t as interested as Redgrave in writing in his paper about Burgess he was certainly interested in staying in touch with the former KGB agent who had defected to Moscow with Foreign Office colleague Donald Maclean in 1951. On Crankshaw’s return to London he wrote two letters to Burgess in  his new role as the defector’s record collector. These letters were intercepted by MI5 and are now also in the National Archives. In May 1959 Crankshaw wrote ‘Dear Guy,you must have been wondering what was happening about your gramophone records’. He explained that he’d been very busy but had now passed on Burgess’s requests to a record shop who were trying to track the records down. A fortnight later he reported to Burgess that he had dispatched ‘all the gramophone records with the exception of the Mozart operas’ plus ‘a new cartridge for your pick-up’. He offered his help ‘if there is anything you want me to do’ . MI5 files show Crankshaw also acting as a postman hand-carrying back from Moscow Burgess’s letters to friends to avoid MI5 interception.
So why would a respected British journalist go to so much trouble building contacts with Burgess when according to his newspaper’s database he never wrote about him in 1959 or any other year while Burgess was alive. The answer seems to be that Edward Crankshaw was not a normal journalist. During World War Two he was recruited by MI6 and sent to Moscow as Lt-Colonel Crankshaw in the signals intelligence section of the British Military Mission. After the war he was hired by the Editor of the Observer, David Astor, co-incidentally an Eton contemporary of Burgess,and Crankshaw worked for the paper for 20 years.In 1956 Crankshaw had mentioned at the Observer editorial lunch held each week at the Waldorf Hotel in London that he had obtained the full transcript of the speech in which Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev denounced the crimes and the ‘cult of personality’ of his predecessor Joseph Stalin. The Observer printed the whole thing, all 26,000 words of it. Crankshaw never said where it got it from but most accounts suggest the CIA was involved.

According to Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University because Crankshaw became the most authoritative commentator on Soviet affairs with a global following he was also ‘the most prominent British journalist targeted’ by the KGB. They tried various methods to bring pressure on him including photographing him in 1959 while he was engaged in what KGB notes described as ‘sexual frolics’ in Moscow. This attempt to blackmail Crankshaw apparently failed as did other attempts to pressurise him. In a further twist Crankshaw wrote in his report for the Ambassador that Burgess said he’d once stopped a Foreign Office colleague denouncing Crankshaw to his editor as a ‘suspected Soviet agent’. In fact Crankshaw worked with the Foreign Office’s own secret propaganda operation,the so-called Information Research Department,IRD.
Crankshaw wasn’t the only reporter who passed on useful information about Burgess to the British authorities.The Daily Telegraph correspondent,Jeremy Wolfenden,who was,like Burgess, gay and and a heavy smoker and drinker,kept the Embassy informed but he did at least share some of his insights with his Telegraph readers.
Perhaps Crankshaw regarded Burgess as just another useful but anonymous source for his articles on Soviet policy.He did tell the Ambassador he would ‘draw on his conversations’ with Burgess for articles.Maybe the Colonel thought all this spy stuff a little beneath his public dignity as a distinguished commentator, but that giving his former colleagues in Western intelligence an exclusive would be a thank you for their past favours to him and an invitation for future ones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s