About Stewart Purvis

Formerly: CEO and Editor-in-Chief of ITN,President of EuroNews,Ofcom Partner for Content and Standards,Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford University,Professor of Television Journalism at City University London,Advisor to House of Lords Committee on Communications. Currently: Non-executive director of Channel Four Corporation,Trustee of SSVC,Member of DCMS Advisory Committee on BBC Charter Renewal,Chairman of Royal Television Society TV Journalism Awards and co-author of 'Guy Burgess -the Spy Who Knew Everyone'.

The New York Review of Books on the ‘excellent read’ that is ‘Guy Burgess:The Spy who Knew Everyone’.

The following review appears in the 22nd December edition of the New York Review of Books: Weird Success of Guy Burgess by Ian Buruma

Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie,St. Martin’s, 433 pp., $29.99

Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert
London: Biteback, 470 pp., £25.00
One of the oddities about Guy Burgess, the most colorful of the so-called Cambridge spies, was that in his usual state of extreme slovenliness, with food stains all over his rumpled suits and the stink of raw garlic and alcohol permanently on his breath, he always insisted on wearing his Old Etonian tie. He wore it in protest marches as a student at Cambridge; as a government official and BBC program director, trawling in his spare time for rough trade in the bars and public toilets of London; and even among the comrades in Moscow, after he exiled himself there in 1951. It is an oddity, because old boys of the most privileged private boarding school in England don’t normally advertise their status in this manner. The superiority of Old Etonians is taken for granted: they know who is who. To wear the light blue and black OE tie is, not to put too fine a point on it, really not done.

Like his choice of buying a secondhand gold Rolls-Royce, there was something distinctly vulgar about this flaunting of the old school tie. Indeed, not being quite a proper gentleman, despite his elite education at Lockers Park prep school and Eton, and membership in the finest London clubs, was something most people who disliked Burgess held against him. Joseph Alsop disapproved when they met at the British embassy in Washington in 1940 because Burgess neglected to wear socks. When the Foreign Office decided—bizarrely, considering Burgess’s reputation as a sloppy, indiscreet, anti-American lush—to send him to the Washington embassy after the war, one British diplomat objected: “We can’t have that man. He has filthy fingernails.” Maurice Bowra, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, put it a little more graphically: “Shit in his fingernails and cock-cheese behind his ears.”1

And yet it is a common claim that Burgess’s career as a Soviet mole inside the British establishment was an abject example of class privilege. Burgess, like his fellow spies Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and Donald Maclean, was barely vetted before getting sensitive jobs in the British government or the intelligence services, despite many examples of appalling behavior, a history of left-wing activism at university, and several instances of drunken boasting of being a Russian spy. The right connections, a discreet word in the appropriate ear, lots of charm when it was needed—these were enough to shield even the decidedly louche Burgess from serious scrutiny.

There has been a great deal of speculation about why the Cambridge spies, all of them children of privilege, embarked on their lives as Soviet agents. This question has spawned a literary cottage industry, a bit like the obsession with the Mitfords or the Bloomsbury group, and mainly for the same reason. When Burgess was living out the latter years of his life in Moscow, he said that the thing he missed most about London was gossip. As he put it to the actress Coral Browne, who visited him there: “The comrades, tho’ splendid in every way of course, don’t gossip in quite the same way about quite the same people and subjects.” All accounts of the Cambridge spies are heavily larded with gossip, about high life and low, hence their enduring fascination in Britain.

Many books have appeared on Philby over the years.2 There is at least one biography of Donald Maclean and a superb study of Anthony Blunt.3 Now, rather late in the game, there are suddenly two big biographies of Guy Burgess. The same juicy anecdotes can be found in both books. And both are excellent reads. The authors of Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone have found a bit more material in the archives, but for anyone who is not a true fanatic on the subject, reading just one of the two books should suffice.

Like Andrew Lownie, author of Stalin’s Englishman, I think Eton might well have had much to do with Burgess’s decision to be a spy, not because the school is a natural breeding ground for traitors, but because it instills an exaggerated sense of entitlement, which can spoil certain men for the rest of their lives. In his part memoir, Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly, who was at Eton before Burgess, described the various hierarchies at the school perfectly. He developed a theory that

the experiences undergone by the boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development…. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.

The pinnacle of social success at Eton was to be elected to an elite group known as Pop. Members of this exalted society could lord it over the other boys, wear multicolored waistcoats, and walk arm in arm. Once a person had risen to this vertiginous height, everything after was bound to disappoint. Cyril Connolly was made a member because he was witty. Guy Burgess desperately wished to become a member, but failed. He was in fact a clever student, admired for his brilliant talk, spiced with amusing mimicry, and already marked by bolshie ideas. But a contemporary at Eton recalled that when “it came to getting Guy in [to Pop], I discovered to my surprise how unpopular he was. People just didn’t like him.”
It must have rankled deeply. Afterward Burgess made sure to get into every exclusive club or society that lay on his way. He made it his business to know everyone who mattered, from Victor Rothschild to Winston Churchill, and if he didn’t he would pretend that he did. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Burgess joined the posh Pitt Club, and was keen to associate with fellow Old Etonians. Again, there were hurdles. According to another OE and fellow Cambridge student, he was shunned because “my lot generally regarded him as a conceited unreliable shit.”

But not everyone thought so. Burgess did succeed in being elected to the secretive student society called the Apostles. His sponsor was the art historian Anthony Blunt, another brilliant public schoolboy with rebellious left-wing ideas. Blunt, who was said to have had an affair with Burgess, “became fascinated by the liveliness and quality of his mind and the range of his interests.” Old members of the Apostles, known as “angels,” included E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes. Arcane rituals, a peculiar jargon, and clever philosophical discourse gave Apostles a sense of being in a choice brotherhood elevated far above the common herd. The prevailing Apostolic ethos in the early 1930s overlapped with the Bloomsbury set’s: sexual honesty, friendship, and a keen appreciation of beauty. Homosexuality, at a time when it was still a criminal offense, was not only tolerated but rather cultivated as a form of love superior to common bourgeois breeding.

Lownie writes that it is “perhaps not surprising that the Apostles should prove to be so open to communist infiltration.” It is true that Burgess and Blunt brought in fellow sympathizers. There also seems to be evidence that the Soviet secret service targeted gay recruits in Britain, because they tended to form cagey social networks through necessity. But the claim that the Homintern (a term attributed to Maurice Bowra) was the key to British membership in the Comintern is probably an overstatement. Most of the spies were not gay. And Burgess, for one, never made a secret of his sexuality; quite the contrary, in fact.

This never seemed to have unduly bothered his British superiors, who had often gone to the same school or university as he had. When Brian Urquhart, the distinguished UN official and frequent contributor to these pages, once complained of Burgess’s appearance at a UN meeting in Paris, when he turned up “drunk and heavily painted and powdered for a night on the town,” Sir Alexander Cadogan (Eton and Oxford) replied that the Foreign Office traditionally tolerated “innocent eccentricity.”

Steven Runciman, the historian who befriended Burgess at Cambridge, found that “communism sat very strangely on [Burgess]. But one didn’t take it very seriously.” It is easy to underrate the attraction of Marxist ideology for men of Burgess’s generation. The Great Depression and the bumbling response of Western governments to the rise of fascism had seriously undermined confidence in capitalism and liberal democracy. The brutality of Stalin and his purges do not seem to have fazed the Cambridge spies. Goronwy Rees, a university contemporary, whom Burgess had tried to recruit without success, said about his friend that “it was as if his communism formed a closed intellectual system which had nothing to do with what actually went on in the socialist fatherland.” Communism was thought to be the only serious antidote to fascism. Class guilt might have had a part. In the words of Purvis and Hulbert, authors of the second book under review: “Communism seemed the answer to the challenge for those who were ‘lost’ and for the rich idealist young it provided some form of remission from the economic sins of their families.”

Marxism, then, was in the air, especially at Cambridge. To be on the far left was also a way for high-minded young people to distinguish themselves from the conventional mainstream and feel morally righteous about it, a superior form of épater les bourgeois.

The previous generation of aesthetes and “bright young things” had reacted to the horrors of World War I by affecting a deliberate air of decadence and frivolousness. Burgess was not immune to such pleasures. There he was in Salzburg in 1937, dressed up in lederhosen, being chased around the table with a purple whip by Brian Howard, the most dissolute of the aesthetes. A fellow Communist at Trinity College, the splendidly named Francis Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce, observed that Burgess “liked breaking things. He was very irresponsible.” But he was also funny, “a kind of court jester.” A peculiar rootlessness and lack of morals, as well as a surplus of mental and physical energy, meant that he “had a need to commit himself to something.”

Burgess’s commitment to communism gave him a moral anchor, something to live for, even as he tuft-hunted the high-born, seduced truck drivers and boy scouts by the dozen (most memorably in Cologne, after Hitler came to power, in the company of a sadomasochistic French political operator), and regularly drank himself into a stupor. His recruiter to the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB, in the mid-1930s, an Austrian Comintern agent named Arnold Deutsch, known as “Otto” to his contacts, understood Burgess’s yearnings well. In a psychological profile, quoted by Lownie, he wrote that Burgess

became [a homosexual] at Eton, where he grew up in an atmosphere of cynicism, opulence, hypocrisy and superficiality. As he is very clever and well educated, the Party was for him a saviour. It gave him above all an opportunity to satisfy his intellectual needs.

This sounds accurate, but the same might have been said about many privileged young people of Burgess’s age, homosexual or not. Only a tiny number of them became Stalin’s secret agents. Again, Deutsch, referring not only to Burgess this time, had a plausible explanation. He listed three attributes of a successful spy: class resentment, a love of secrecy, and a yearning to belong.4 Burgess’s tendencies appear to have matched all three: a lifelong outsider who tried to be on the inside, keen to flaunt his status even as he sought to undermine the very establishment from which it derived. Lownie writes:

You don’t want to betray if you belong. It is all relative, but Burgess never felt he belonged…. At Lockers Park the fathers seemed more distinguished, at Eton he resented his failure to make Pop, at Cambridge the Etonians didn’t want anything to do with him, in the Foreign Office he wasn’t taken as seriously as he would have liked. Small slights grew into larger resentments and betrayal was an easy revenge. Espionage was simply another instrument in his social revolt, another gesture of self-assertion.

John le Carré, a British spy himself for a short time, once described the secret service as a kind of masonry, an exclusive club for loners. One way of looking at the Cambridge spy ring is as the most exclusive and secretive club of all.
What made Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess, whose Huguenot ancestors arrived in England in the sixteenth century, feel like an outsider? Why the resentment? As so often in England, class is the most obvious place to look for an answer. His father, Commander Malcolm Burgess, was a naval officer who felt that his promise was never quite fulfilled. There had been disputes with superior officers. The highest ranks remained out of reach. He retired early. Possibly some of his resentment carried over to his son. When Guy was only thirteen, his father died of a heart attack while making love to his wife. Guy claimed to have found his mother pinned down under the commander’s body just after it happened.

Other notorious British misfits who kicked at the upper classes to which they aspired had a similar background. David Irving, the Holocaust-denying amateur historian, had a father of the same rank. The Royal Navy is of course a deeply stratified institution within a deeply stratified society. To be a commander is to be an officer, but not a flag officer. In civilian terms, the family would probably have been classified as lower-upper-middle-class, in the words of George Orwell, who was at Eton with Cyril Connolly. It is a tricky stratum to belong to: its members are not grand enough to feel easily accepted by the upper class and anxious about sliding down into the middle class. A defensive snobbery can be one consequence, or a desire to undercut the society that caused so much unease by embracing revolutionary ideas. Or both.

In any case, because of their education, oddballs like Burgess or Philby, whose father St. John Philby was an anti-Semitic Arabist suspected of Nazi sympathies, were perfectly placed to infiltrate the British establishment, as they could so easily pass as fully fledged members of it. Burgess had it both ways: lunch at Chartwell with Churchill, drinks at White’s or the Reform, late nights at the Gargoyle Club with Harold Nicolson and Laurence Olivier, a Rolls at his disposal, and working for the Communist revolution all the while.

After joining the BBC in 1936, Burgess was recruited by an MI6 officer named David Footman to investigate Communist activities inside the BBC, as well as the universities. He was even encouraged to study Marxist theory to make his Communist sympathies look more plausible. All the while, Burgess was turning over secret information he got from Footman to his real masters in Moscow. Footman never suspected anything, because of his “class blinkers,” as Burgess explained to his Soviet contacts. People like him were “beyond suspicion.”

Cool operators such as Philby or Blunt were usually assumed to have been more effective spies than the outlandish Burgess. But the two biographies offer a different picture. In 1938, Burgess was the first of the Cambridge spies to secure a full-time job in British intelligence. After resigning from the BBC, he joined Section D of MI6, in charge of covert anti-Nazi propaganda abroad. And it was Burgess who helped get Philby into MI6 soon after that. Exactly what information Burgess passed on to the Soviets is still not fully known. But he was in MI6 at a sensitive time, when alliances against Nazi Germany were being considered. Burgess reported to the Russians that the British thought Hitler could be defeated without an alliance with Stalin. In August 1939, Russia signed a nonaggression pact with Germany.

In that same year, Blunt was withdrawn from an intelligence course because his Communist sympathies at Cambridge became known. Nevertheless, Burgess managed through his connections to smooth the way for his friend to join MI5, the domestic secret service.

In 1943, Burgess was offered yet another sensitive job, in the news department of the Foreign Office, where he had access to diplomatic cables and secret documents that he passed on to Moscow. But if the Cambridge spies were beyond suspicion in London, perhaps for the reasons Burgess alleged, the same was not always true in Moscow. They were handing over so much material to the NKVD that the Russians at first suspected a double cross. They simply could not believe that the British were naive enough to let so many men with known Communist sympathies worm their ways into the heart of British intelligence.

According to his Soviet minder after the war, Burgess was in fact a highly efficient spy. Burgess, said Yuri Modin, “was punctual to a fault, took all the customary precautions and again and again gave proof of his excellent memory.” On the British side, however, Burgess’s behavior was often egregious: he was frequently turning up late, or not at all, at the office, padding his expenses, getting wildly drunk, insulting people for no reason, and bragging in pubs about being a spy. This was another reason for Soviet distrust. How on earth could the British tolerate such a man?

In fact they did not always tolerate him. He was thrown out of his department at the Foreign Office just after the war because, in the words of a colleague, he was “lazy, careless, unpunctual and a slob.” People in MI6 had wanted to get rid of him because of some wild indiscretions. And he was called home from the Washington embassy after launching into drunken public diatribes against the Americans and offending important contacts. But he always landed on his feet, protected by one senior figure or another, and was never suspected of being a spy.

The authors of The Spy Who Knew Everyone conclude that Burgess used his indiscretions deliberately as a brilliant smokescreen. A messy drunk spouting Soviet propaganda in public couldn’t possibly have been a spy for the Russians. Like Steven Runciman at Cambridge, no one took him seriously enough to suspect such a thing. By hiding in full sight, Burgess might have pulled off an extraordinary stunt. But if that is so, then why did he continue to behave in precisely the same way in Moscow? Isn’t it more likely that his drunken buffoonery and sexual recklessness were part of his ostentatious, devil-may-care sense of entitlement? Why not appear at an embassy party without socks, or take off his shirt in the middle of a dinner party, or bring a rent boy to a gathering of grandees? Screw them.

There was, however, an ideological hard core in Burgess that made him more than a debauched class rebel. His Marxism was rather abstract perhaps. His contacts with members of the actual working class, apart from bedding them, seem to have been limited. And Russia, however much he idealized the Soviet system, left him cold on his first visit in 1934 and became loathsome after he was compelled to live there. But Marxism agreed with him, because Burgess believed in unstoppable historical forces and had an unsentimental view of power. Growing up in the twilight of the British Empire, he was keenly aware that British power was waning, and like many Englishmen of his generation he deeply resented American dominance.

Antifascism was no longer an excuse for supporting the Soviet Union after Hitler’s defeat, which is why Blunt seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for spying. But not Burgess. He believed that with the rise of new postwar empires, one had to choose the Soviet Union or the US. The possibility of a united Europe he dismissed. And without its empire Britain was washed up. He must have known about Stalin’s purges, but they didn’t seem to matter. So he stuck to the Soviet Union, in Lownie’s words, as “a perverted form of imperialism.” Having seen the death of one empire, he “decided to attach himself to another.” But he always insisted that he was a British Communist. When he prepared to accompany Maclean on his way to Moscow in 1951, Burgess packed a tweed suit, a dinner jacket, and the collected works of Jane Austen.

There is some mystery about why Burgess went all the way to Russia with Maclean. After all, it was Maclean who had been unmasked, not Burgess. Once there, it was probably impossible to go back. The Soviets would not have wanted him to. And although the British never had solid evidence against him, they too did everything to stop his return to London. There had been enough scandals already.

And so Burgess lived out the last dozen years of his life in relative comfort—a nice apartment in Moscow, a dacha, evenings at the Bolshoi, and an accordion-playing lover named Tolya—and in a more or less permanent state of misery. He desperately missed the country he had betrayed. Shunned by the British embassy, he latched onto visitors from England for gossip from home. People who met him in Moscow remember Burgess as a rather pathetic figure, a drunken relic of the 1930s, playing the same Jack Buchanan songs over and over in his apartment filled with British periodicals, hunting prints, and a chest of drawers filled with Old Etonian ties.

 

Revealed:how Thatcher battled with Geoffrey Howe,and lost, over TV in the Commons.

Previously secret Cabinet papers show how Margaret Thatcher, defeated in a free vote in the House of Commons in 1988 over the principle of televising Parliament, battled on unsuccessfully against her deputy, Sir Geoffrey Howe, over the details.
‘Ministers were never consulted or even told about this- contrary to previous practice’ she wrote on a written answer in which Howe updated MPs on negotiations with the broadcasters . As Leader of the House Howe had taken over responsibility from John Wakeham for setting the rules for Commons TV. He accepted the arguments against some of the restrictions imposed by Wakeham, such as limiting camera shots to the head and shoulders of the MP who was speaking. In a hand-written note on the text of the Commons answer Thatcher said of Howe’s compromises ‘I am very against some of these things’. She singled out one which would allow camera shots ‘showing the reaction of a group of members’ because ‘the group shots will be particularly damaging’.
The Cabinet papers for 1989-90, now released to the National Archives, show her Downing Street team trying to stop Howe, then Lord President of the Council, making any more compromises without her having the chance to challenge them. In February 1990 her Principal Private Secretary,Andrew Turnbull, told her ‘you were understandably irritated by being taken by surprise over the changes to the guidelines for televising the Commons’. Turnbull explained that ‘the origin of the problem is that when John Wakeham was Leader of the House he had a good working relationship with Bernard Ingham…the original guidelines drew heavily on Bernard’s advice.With the new Lord President that channel does not exist’.
He outlined a procedure which ‘would give us what we want without having to deal directly with the Lord President. It would also allow the Lord President to stand on his dignity and claim that as  the Chairman of a Committee of the House, he is not mandated by Government’. To which the Prime Minister added ‘Nor as Lord President is he entitled to ignore his colleagues’.The next year Howe resigned from Thatcher’s Government with a speech that many saw as the start of her downfall.
The files also show Downing Street staff preparing for the inevitable day when the Commons would be shown live, focusing on the lessons to be learned from not-for-transmission TV experiments in the Commons. In October 1989 Dominic Morris, who later worked at TV regulators ITC and Ofcom, sent the Prime Minister a video of a Commons statement she had made and the subsequent exchange with the then Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock. He explained that ‘the tapes of proceedings have been made available by the House authorities only to you and to Mr Kinnock’. Morris had studied the tapes with Thatcher’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale (later the Culture Secretary), and ‘both of us can only say you need only do in the future as you did yesterday. The pitch of voice is just right as is eye level and stance (Mr Kinnock appears to have rather more to learn)’.
Morris wrote of ‘two points which struck me’ and these read like firm advice to his Prime Minister rather than mere observations:
‘1.The extent to which television sanitises the proceedings of the Chamber. It takes out a great deal of the passion. That puts a premium on calm debaters and (in the material we provide you) on the telling quote quietly deployed. The extracts you used yesterday from Labour Government spokesman and from Bishop Tutu on sanctions were devastating.
2.The importance of reaction shots of front bench colleagues. It looks much better if, rather than sitting solemn, they show obvious approval (as did Mr Baker on one occasion’) when telling points are made’.
Thatcher accepted an invitation from Morris to attend a seminar by Anthony Jay, one of the creators of her favourite TV series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’.The seminar  would use clips of ‘good and bad points of ministerial performances to reinforce best practice’. Her presence would ‘strongly reinforce the message to colleagues that mastering the cameras in the early days is going to be very important’.
In the same month Morris sent Thatcher another Commons video so that she could see ‘how the lighting and eye angle comes across from the different cameras.You may also want Crawfie to have a quick look at it to help ideas on clothes for Questions Time’.
‘Crawfie’ was Cynthia Crawford, who had been a member of Thatcher’s local Conservative constituency party in Finchley, went on to become her personal assistant and a close friend until the former Prime Minister’s death in April 2013, aged 87.

Michael Nicholson -the reporter the news sometimes came to.

Michael Nicholson who has died aged 79 wasn’t just a reporter who went to lots of wars for ITN. A combination of ability,luck, judgement,sheer hard work and journalistic cunning meant that sometimes news seemed to come to Michael Nicholson.

The best known example was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.The conventional wisdom was that Turkish troops would land by sea in the north of the island. The press corps duly set off from the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia. But half-way to the northern coast the ITN crew car broke down. The rest of the media convoy sped on, some competitors laughing at the plight of Nicholson and his team. But Mike or ‘Nick’ as he was as often known, had the last laugh as he suddenly saw Turkish paratroopers landing in the fields around them. He rushed around shaking hands with the troops as they landed on Cyprus soil and telling some ‘welcome to Cyprus’.His exclusive film was flown back to Britain for distribution around the world as rivals returned to Nicosia to try  to catch up on the story.

I was Mike’s producer on another Nicholson special. In 1975, as the IRA bombed not only Northern Ireland but also the UK mainland, Scotland Yard announced that a woman called Margaret McKearney was the most wanted woman terrorist. All that was known was that her family came from County Tyrone, that she had lived in Dublin and that she liked to wear green tights. I was Mike’s producer on a story in Belfast and I immediately asked him to drive down to Dublin to try to find McKearney. His first reaction was that this was a rather fanciful idea and he wanted to do some shopping first.

But then he set about the task with vigour and a few hours later rang me from Dublin to say that he had tracked down McKearney’s home and that he could see green tights hanging up inside. As he staked out the house  a car suddenly drove up and there was McKearney inside. He stood in front of the car and the Volkswagen reversed at speed back up the street. That night our report led News at Ten, ITN had found the wanted woman Scotland Yard couldn’t.

Mike was the only correspondent to get back an eyewitness  report on the sinking of the British troop-carrier Sir Galahad by Argentinian jets during the Falklands War. He realised that the Ministry of Defence minders would want to block reports of the human carnage that day. With classic Nicholson journalistic cunning he not only described the human costs of the attack but also emphasised the bravery that was displayed by so many of the soldiers. I can remember standing in the sound recording room at ITN and hearing the military voice on the line declaring that Brian Hanrahan’s report for the BBC was not released for broadcast but Michael Nicholson’s piece for ITN was.

Then there was the day Mike returned from a stint in Sarajevo,came into the office and told me that he had brought back with him a young Bosnian who he had declared at immigration at Heathrow. Her name was Natasha ,he had met her at an orphanage and he intended to adopt her. He hadn’t yet told his wife Diana.

It was a story that had a very happy ending. Mike and Diana brought up Natasha at their home in Surrey as part of a happy family.

 

 

 

 

 

New from MI5 files;the journalist who became what British Intelligence were proud to call their ‘brainwasher’.

Douglas Hyde was the News Editor of the Daily Worker newspaper who broke with the Communist Party denouncing it in a 1950 book ‘I believed’. MI5 files just released to the National Archives show that he didn’t just cross over from being pro-Communist to anti-Communist. He went one step further and became in MI5’s own words a professional ‘brainwasher’ of Communist prisoners, on hire to Asian governments keen for his expertise. Hyde’s special technique was to live alongside the prisoners in what MI5 called the ‘squalor’ of their prison cells. And the files show he became so successful that MI5 wondered if his expertise could be of value back in Britain.

Douglas Hyde was born into a non-conformist Bristol family and originally planned to be a Methodist minister but in 1928 he joined the Communist Party at the age of 17. In 1939 he was told by the party to join the Daily Worker and while the paper was banned by the wartime Government he helped produce what were illegal editions. Once the Soviet Union joined the war against Hitler and public sympathy was with the Russians the ban was lifted and the Worker became successful, even respectable.
By the start of the Cold War Hyde was News Editor and a party ‘political commissar’ with an inside track on almost everything the Communist Party was up to. So when in 1950 he ‘defected’ and swopped Communism for Catholicism he had a lot of useful information to pass on, first publicly in his book and then secretly in a series of debriefings with MI5. For example he gave MI5 a list of Communists inside the BBC.
The files show that in the late fifties he was embarked on an even more colourful transition. There are documents from the colonial Government of Malaya, then in the final stages of its ‘Emergency’, a decade long guerrilla war with Communist insurgents; ‘The Federation Government want to enlist the services of Hyde ‘to undertake the rehabilitation (by brainwashing) of hard-core Communist detainees’ . The memo goes on to say that discussions are underway with MI6 about Hyde’s possibilities as a ‘brainwasher’.
The reply came back that ‘Hyde is agreeable in principle to the proposal’ but that the Malaya Government ‘would be expected to foot the bill- roughly estimated at 10,000 dollars’. Among Hyde’s conditions was that he wanted to spend time with the internees not with officials and that he would be allowed to use his own techniques without interference.
Hyde’s reputation had been built by his work in the Phillipines which had been having its own problems with Communist insurgents. A British intelligence visitor to Manila in 1958 reported back that he was ‘able to see something of Douglas Hyde during my visit and also of the prison squalor in which, at his own request, he was living’. A former Huk resistance fighter against the Japanese, Luis Taruc, had linked up with the Communists but then surrendered to the authorities. Living with Hyde in prison ‘brought Taruc round to a much healthier frame of mind’ and Hyde was even able to persuade Taruc to send the number 3 Huk a letter urging him to surrender too. Hyde had made ‘an enormous impact…by his guts in insisting on living exactly the same life in prison as those with whom he was dealing’. There had been ‘an extraordinary meeting alone with 175 Huk internees’ and Hyde had persuaded a group of young Chinese students to see ‘the error of their ways’ as Communist sympathisers.
No wonder that the British Foreign Office’s clandestine anti-Communist propaganda operation, the IRD (Information Research Department), wanted to help publish a book Taruc was writing with Hyde’s help,once it had been vetted by Maurice Oldfield, later the head of MI6. A MI5 memo on ‘the incipient cold war operation involving Douglas Hyde’ said it should be known as ‘Operation Baroque’.
No wonder too that the colonial Government in Malaya wanted some of Hyde’s valuable time. By July 1960 they were reported to be pleased with ‘a most profitable investment’. Two leading Communists had been released from prison- one after 12 years detention- ‘due to their successful brainwashing by Mr Douglas Hyde’ .
There had been one unexpected development on Hyde’s flight out to Malaya. A fellow passenger on the plane was a former Communist colleague, Harry Pollitt, once the General Secretary of the British Communist Party and by then its Chairman. Pollitt was on his way to visit New Zealand. The two men sat together on the plane and had a long chat which Hyde later reported in detail to MI5.
Douglas Hyde was becoming something of an international anti-Communist celebrity. He was invited to Venezuela and a lecture tour of America plus TV appearances with Sir Edmund Hillary and Hermione Badeley. He went on a trip to India paid for by MI6 and was said to be ‘under their control’. MI5 officer Dick Thistlethwaite retorted that ‘we have had a liaison with Hyde ever since he was interrogated after his defection’. In a classic piece of inter-agency rivalry he reported that ‘although MI6 help with his travel,his primary loyalty is to us’.
The relationship ‘continues to pay dividends’ and Hyde’s should be ‘the initial approach’ in the case of the interrogation of a Mrs Ellison .’We might keep Hyde in mind for counter subversion purposes at home and abroad’.
Thistlethwaite once wrote of Hyde ‘others regard him as ‘something of a turncoat. I think this attitude unjustified but understandable’.
Douglas Hyde died in England in 1996 aged 85.

How David Aaronovitch and Jenny Abramsky were on MI5 files from their birth

David Aaronovitch and Jenny Abramsky have had glittering careers in the BBC and beyond. Aaronovitch, who was a BBC producer, is now a Times columnist and successful broadcaster and author. Abramsky who ran BBC Radio and went on to chair the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Royal Academy of Music is now Dame Jenny.

What they also have in common is that their mothers and fathers belonged to the same North London branch of the Communist Party during the early 1950s. The Security Service, MI5, tapped the phones of Chimen Abramsky and Sam Aaronovitch, intercepted their post and kept detailed records on their wives and families. They listened to gossip about Sam, Chimen and others inside Communist Party HQ in London via a listening device. When MI5 gained entry into the building as part of ‘Operation Party Piece’ and photographed files these included a 1950 biography Chimen had written about himself pledging that ‘I have never had any difference on policy with the Party’ (he subsequently left the party in 1956 after Hungary). When Chimen went to Amsterdam on party business Dutch authorities sent back a minute by minute timetable of where he’d gone and what he’d done.When Sam went on a demonstration about housing in North London Special Branch logged the chants he led such as ‘not a penny on the rents’. But MI5 never found any evidence that the two men or their wives were spies.Interested as they were in detecting espionage, MI5 were also focused on monitoring political activists from the far left.

The Security Service have now made public the Cold War files on the two comrades of the ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ branch as part of an annual release to the National Archives of documents about ‘Communists and Suspected Communists including Russian and Communist Sympathisers’.
The latest release raises two issues;
As a journalist and author who has made frequent use of released MI5 files with my colleague Jeff Hulbert, particularly in ‘Guy Burgess, the Spy Who Knew Everyone’ ,I  welcome greater openness and accountability from the security services. The files do have value to historians which is why I am making some use of them in this post. But I also think all the families whose files are being made public deserve the simple courtesy of being told in advance. Jenny Abramsky wasn’t told. David Aaronovitch was. Often family members have asked for access to these files and had this refused, sometimes the very existence of the files has even been denied.
Secondly, while MI5 holds back many documents (over 20% of the Burgess files remain ‘closed’) does the releasing of personal details on much lesser figures  serve as a useful distraction from what they are keeping secret half a century later?

Perhaps the most striking example of MI5’s surveillance of post-war Communist Party members  in these particular files is dated 8.7.1954. It is no coincidence that this is the date of birth of David Aaronovitch. An MI5 internal memo of that date summarised a phone call made from Communist Party Headquarters. ‘Sam Aaronovitch phoned HAM 6333 Queen Mary’s Maternity Home to ask after his wife.He was told that she had had a boy.Both were well’. This is how MI5 got to hear about the birth of David Aaronovitch at the same time as his father.

In Jenny Abramsky’s case her birth was not spotted by the Security Service  but soon afterwards MI5 picked up the news in a call between Sam and Chimen that the family ‘has a newborn daughter’. Those listening in managed to transcribe this despite the fact that sometimes ‘Chimen’s broken English makes him very incoherent’.

The two fathers both came from Russian Jewish families. Sam’s parents came to Britain at the turn of the century and he was born in Cable Street in East London, later the scene of the 1936 anti-fascist street battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts. Chimen’s father was a Rabbi who sent him to Palestine, Chimen first came to Britain in 1932 and finally settled here at the end of the 1930s.

Both became active in the post-war British Communist Party, Sam as  a paid ‘party functionary’, Chimen in an unpaid role on the National Jewish Committee. They knew people who MI5 had good reason to think were connected with espionage, including two contemporaries of the Cambridge spies, James Klugman who helped recruit John Cairncross to the KGB and David Guest. But there is no evidence  in the files that  any member of the Aaronovitch and Abramsky  families ever did anything illegal. One ‘source gained the impression that Aaronivitch might himself be in some way involved ..the impression however was based on very slender foundations’.

Espionage in those times was seen as very much a family activity.One MI5 document on Sam Aaronovitch says he was ‘connected with an espionage family through his [second] wife Kirstine Uren’. Her brother Ormond had been sentenced to 7 years imprisonment in 1943 for passing classified information to a Communist Party official who spied for Russia.

MI5 took a particular interest in families and love lives especially those of Sam who was married three times. In 1948 they asked the Deputy Commander of Special Branch for ‘any help you can give us in clearing the matrimonial tangles’ of  Sam Aaronovitch. They asked for an update in 1956.

Being in the Communist Party was sometimes very much a family business. Chimen’s wife Miriam was recorded by MI5 as being a young Communist League member in Hendon who joined the party in 1937, was the secretary of Hampstead Communist Party  during World War Two,l isted as ‘willing to give rooms to party colleagues in London’. According to one internal document seen by MI5, Miriam was ‘a real comrade’. Even getting a family doctor was a party matter; ‘Comrades ..should be told that they should register as an ordinary N.H.S patient with their nearest Party G.P’.

But one set of documents reveals how none of the families should ever have been in any doubt that ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin and his successors were really in charge. In 1954 there was ‘general agreement at HQ’ that Sam Aaronovitch was suitable for ‘S.C.R job’. ‘The Society for Closer Relations with Russia’ was a purportedly independent group which over the years included members such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells. But HQ knew there would be a snag which might stop Sam  getting the ‘S.C.R job’. Staff were heard saying that ‘they had to expect some opposition from the Russians for political reasons and also because of his [Sam’s] name being a Russian one. Apparently they always did object to somebody who was of Russian origin or with Russian name for that kind of job’.There is no record of this lifelong supporter of Russia ever getting the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death of a secret psychological warrior

Neil St John ffrench-Blake

4th November 1941-24th August 2016

 

His family buried Neil fffench-Blake in a churchyard on the top of a Berkshire down looking out over middle England. He’d lasted longer,much longer than his doctors had predicted two years ago. The mourners included a former Radio 1 disc-jockey and people from British intelligence. All very Neil.The tributes told of his ‘adventures’, his ‘eccentricity’ and his drinking .

DJ Mike Read, recruited by Neil to Radio 210 in Reading on the basis of his sporting prowess,told wonderful stories of Neil keeping wicket in sunglasses for the station cricket team.

There was one oddity that Neil, being very English and a journalist turned psychological warfare expert, would have understood. Nobody said what he’d actually done on his ‘adventures’.

For that try my blog from last year or his novel based on those adventures.

 

How one of the UK’s top news providers got Margaret Thatcher to tell its owners ‘you’re fired’

According to Ofcom data, Independent Television News (ITN), producer of ITV News, Channel Four News and Five News, is still the UK’s second biggest ‘news wholesaler’. That puts it behind the BBC but ahead of Sky,News Corp ,the Daily Mail Group and all other broadcast and print news providers. (http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/media-ownership/morr_2015.pdf page 15).

Decisions made by ITV at the end of the 1990s mean the ITN brand is no longer so well known as it once was and ITV’s News at Ten trails the BBC competitor in audience. But the company remains a formidable force in UK news. In an article for a newsletter distributed to former ITN staff, I have used official documents just released to the National Archives to fill in an important missing part of the company’s history. At the time of these documents I was Deputy Editor of ITN.

It has been one of the best secrets in commercial television, just how did the management of ITN persuade Margaret Thatcher’s Government to fire ITN’s owners, passing a law that said ITV couldn’t own a majority of shares in its own news supplier. Some of the secrets are now out, revealed in 1987 and 1988 Cabinet files released into the National Archives. .
The owners of ITV and ITN realised very late in the day what was going on, shocked by yet another blow from the Government that in the subsequent Broadcasting Act of 1990 also made them bid for their licences in an auction and stopped them selling the advertising on Channel Four. To the then Prime Minister,Margaret Thatcher, quoted in the files, ITV was ‘a commercial cartel..exploiting their monopoly position on commercial television’ and ‘restrictive practices and over-manning were widespread in both BBC and ITV productions’.
But it is also clear from the documents that if ITV were regarded as the bad guys, ITN were the good guys. ‘It is important that our reforms [to ITV] should do nothing to put at risk ITN’s achievement as a source of a high quality news service of integrity’.
As a result, in the autumn of 1987 a special paper called ‘Constitution of ITN’ was drafted for a Cabinet Committee, chaired by Margaret Thatcher herself. It frequently quoted the views of ITN management who had been lobbying the Government, and very successfully too.No manager is mentioned in the files but behind the scenes the Editor of ITN,David (later Sir David) Nicholas and the presenter of News at Ten,Sir Alastair Burnet,who was also a director of ITN, had been talking to government officials and advisers.  I will never forget the board meeting when Alastair announced his resignation as a director, walked out of the room and went down to the newsroom to prepare to read the news on the network he had just broken with. It was an interesting day to be supervising News at Ten.
After explaining ITN’s diversification into Channel Four News and Superchannel News the 1987 paper went on ‘ITN management believe that the mutual company structure [each ITN franchise holder had a share in ITN depending on how big it was in the advertising market] is no longer sensible given the diversification outlined above.First there is insufficient risk capital for successful expansion.Second,expansion is also being inhibited by growing conflicts of interests between its shareholders’. There had been a lot of tension between those  ITN shareholders who were investors in the new pan-European Superchannel and those who weren’t.
The Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who was responsible for broadcasting, signed off a paper arguing for a new system that would widen the shareholding beyond the ITV companies thus diluting their control. He also wanted to create a news contract with a profit margin, a revolutionary and to some people heretical idea.
But then his officials began asking if there was to be a contract why shouldn’t other bidders be allowed. ‘It is hard to see why their [ITN’s] exposure to the competitive pressures of the market should not at least be contemplated’. Margaret Thatcher herself spelt out the compromise at a Cabinet committee in February 1988; ITN would have a monopoly for a transitional period while it became ‘more cost conscious and effective’ before the next contract period starting in 2003.At that point others could bid for the ITV contract.
By October 1988 Douglas Hurd had decided to do a bit more ‘buttressing’ to make sure ITV was required to show high quality news in peak periods. This would help to ‘ensure that the BBC did not emerge with a virtual monopoly’. Thanks to the release of these files we now know that it was at that meeting Margaret Thatcher delivered the coup de grace for ITV in her summing up. ‘Although the body or bodies providing Channel 3 News serves [it was decided to use this form of words rather than give away it was meant to be ITN] might start with a minority of external shareholders the objective should be to build up outside shareholding into a majority’.
By the time this became legislation it had been hardened up further and a majority of non-ITV shareholders was demanded for what were now called ‘nominated news providers’, another proxy for ITN.
Nowhere in the documents is there any sign that the Government ever asked ITV’s views during ITN management’s secret’s one year campaign. It would take over fifteen years for ITV to persuade a Government to remove the restrictions on its ITN shareholding but even to this day ITV only owns 40% of ITN,it has never got back to majority ownership.