From one line spotted in an MI5 archive file to pages 1,2,7 and 20 of the Sunday Times -the story behind a front page exclusive.

It was just a line noticed last summer on one page of the hundreds of thousands of documents in the National Archives. It became Page One of the Sunday Times (25th February 2018) not to mention pages two, seven and twenty.
The months in between are testament to the scholarship and commitment of historian Jeff Hulbert as well as the importance of the Freedom of Information (FoI) laws which survived a brief encounter with the Cameron Government anxious to dilute them.
The exclusive itself is best summed up in the opening paragraph of the Sunday Times front page;
‘A former British diplomat who became the communist affairs ­correspondent of The Daily Telegraph is today revealed to have escaped prosecution in the 1950s after he confessed to spying for the Soviet Union. The Foreign Office covered up the scandal. David Floyd, who was described on his death in 1997 as “one of Fleet Street’s most knowledgable Kremlinologists”, admitted having passed information to Russian intelligence agents while based in Moscow at the end of the Second World War’.
The origins of this exclusive lie in one man’s search for the truth about what happened more than half a century ago inside the British Foreign Office. Jeff Hulbert worked in local government before focusing on his passion; the history of where politics meets media and espionage. I first met him when I was CEO of ITN and Jeff was brought in for his other expertise-how to digitise film and video archives. He found valuable film clips in the ITN archive that we didn’t know existed and when I left and became a Visiting Professor at Oxford I asked Jeff to help with the archive research. That collaboration later led to two books ‘When Reporters Cross The Line’ and ‘Guy Burgess,The Spy Who Knew Everyone’.
During the Burgess research Jeff submitted many FoI requests including two that produced archive gold. One was on the FBI to release an audio tape of Burgess telling of a 1938 meeting with Churchill, thought at the time to be the only recording of his voice. This was somewhat superseded when, in conjunction with the Canadian broadcaster CBC, we released to BBC Newsnight a TV interview CBC had done with Burgess in Moscow, never seen since its one-off 1959 transmission. Jeff’s other five star FoI was on the Foreign Office to release their internal inquiry into the defection to Moscow in 1951 of diplomats Burgess and Donald Maclean. The so-called ‘Cadogan Report’ was named after the Foreign Office mandarin who had both hired Burgess from the BBC and then inquired into how and why Burgess had been hired. We gave this exclusive to Michael Crick of Channel Four News.
Our Burgess book was published after weeks of intensive research, drafting and re-writing that followed the release to the National Archjves of the MI5 and Foreign Office files on Burgess and Maclean. We then took a break from each other and followed our own slightly separate interests. I created ‘The Hampstead Spies’ a monthly guided walk from London Walks and Jeff went back into hibernation at the National Archives looking for more exclusives. But we stayed in touch, Jeff deputises for me on the walk and if I find something in my own research that’s useful to him I pass it on.
Which is how last summer Jeff told me he was onto something completely new. He’d been helping me research one of my Hampstead spies and while on the high-speed train from Kent he downloaded from the National Archives an MI5 file in which he spotted a passing reference to somebody in the Foreign Office confessing to spying for the Soviet Union in 1951. It was a name which had never appeared in any spy book or file before, but it was a vaguely familiar one, that of David Floyd, once known as the Telegraph’s expert on the Soviet Union and a regular BBC pundit on the Kremlin. He’d died in 1997.
Jeff submitted an FoI to the Foreign Office to discover more about Floyd’s time in the FO. In November they responded saying they did have material about Floyd but would have to consider the public interest and national security. They needed more time .The same reply came in December and January as they met each 20-day deadline for responding to FoIs.
Then last Tuesday (20th February 2018) more than 300 pages of Foreign Office documents arrived in the post at Jeff’s home. Some had been heavily edited because in the FO’s view on public interest and national security there are still some things from half a century ago that we cannot know. The whole of Floyd’s signed confession had been withheld, possibly because of other people he may have named.
I suggested to Jeff that the Sunday Times would be a good place for the story to surface .I had placed an exclusive there before and it had been well handled. I sent them a pitch and underlined the need for speed:
‘We need to move very quickly, the documents released to Jeff look as if they have been handled at the National Archives which could mean that the Foreign Office is planning a release. They would not normally do a spoiler on an FOI release but you can never be sure’.
The Sunday Times came back immediately and reporters Nicholas Hellen and Tony Allen-Mills met up with Jeff and got to work. Credit to all three of them, in a very short time the details were all checked out, more background added and Floyd’s son, a senior judge, given the news for the first time. “It is very shocking for me to hear this’ he said.
For this long-standing broadcast journalist it was a timely reminder of the surviving and impressive power of print.


3 thoughts on “From one line spotted in an MI5 archive file to pages 1,2,7 and 20 of the Sunday Times -the story behind a front page exclusive.

  1. Most fascinating and airing. There appears to be a release into the public domain as making/creating something wholesome. Where as leaving it where it was- was festering. All credit to you and Geoff and the Sunday Times! Are the walks accessible to an “outsider”? With kind regard Heather Bolton

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