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’

 

 

‘Fox/Sky’ looks like a done deal but the goings-on at Fox News keep rocking the boat.

Your know your channel is in big trouble when 18 advertisers/sponsors don’t want their names mentioned anywhere near your biggest talent because of a sexual harassment scandal. Not to mention the arrival of the third law suit from black female members of staff alleging racial discrimination. Those are just some of the problems facing Rupert Murdoch at Fox News in New York. Just as well that here in the UK the deadline has now passed for submissions to Ofcom on the proposed acquisition by Twenty-First Century Fox,Inc of the shares in Sky plc does it not already own. My own view from the start has been that this is a process that politically needs to be seen to be done and that the deal will go through.
So if I was Rupert Murdoch I would now be asking ‘would those people at Fox News please stop rocking the boat’. The problem is that he’s very much the captain of that particularly troubled ship and that there are definitely echoes of the phone-hacking scandal.
The DCMS Secretary,Karen Bradley, has asked Ofcom to report by 16 May on three issues:
1. ‘The need, in relation to every different audience in the United Kingdom or in a particular area or locality of the United Kingdom, for there to be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving that audience’
2.’The need for persons carrying on media enterprises, and for those with control of such enterprises, to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in section 319 of the Communications Act 2003’
3.Ofcom has an ongoing duty under the same Act ‘to be satisfied that the holders of broadcast licences are fit and proper to be licensed’.
The argument for letting the deal go ahead is that last time round in 2011 all the regulatory hoops had been jumped through and it was only the politics triggered by phone-hacking at Murdoch’s papers that did for his long cherished ambition to bring all his broadcasting assets in the US,UK,Germany and Italy under one corporate roof. Since 2011 Murdoch’s share of the UK media has got smaller and his empire is now divided into separate though connected print and TV companies. In addition Ofcom’s metrics for measuring Murdoch’s share of the cross-platform news cake have always been arguable.
On the ‘fit and proper test’, Twenty-First Century Fox already has Ofcom licences in the UK for TV channels  and Ofcom has never previously suggested Fox were not ‘fit and proper persons’ so why now?
So if the regulatory course is set for a smooth run what’s the problem? Simply put it is that the wider lessons of last time don’t seem to have been learned and at the Fox News Channel there are beginning to be parallels with the phone-hacking affair. That has possible implications for the ‘commitment to broadcasting standards’ part of the Ofcom brief.
We even have a potential candidate for the investigative role played in revealing phone-hacking by the Guardian reporter Nick Davies. His name is Gabriel Sherman and his work is well worth following at @gabrielsherman. Sherman is a contributing editor at New York magazine and a regular broadcaster, sometimes at Fox News’s left-of-centre equivalent MSNBC.
In 2014 Sherman wrote a best-selling biography about the founding CEO of Fox News Channel,Roger Ailes, called ‘The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country’. This alleged that Ailes had offered a television producer a pay increase if she would sleep with him. Fox News strongly denied the allegation. Since then Sherman has chronicled the subsequent goings on at Fox News.
In 2016 a former Fox News anchor,Gretchen Carlson, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes. Ailes denied it. New York magazine later reported that after an internal review of the evidence against Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James decided Ailes had to go but couldn’t agree on the timing. Then one of the network’s stars Megyn Kelly, perhaps best known outside the U.S. for confronting Donald Trump with his own attitude to women, told investigators that Ailes had made “unwanted sexual advances toward her” at the start of her career.
New York magazine reported that the Murdochs had given Ailes an ultimatum—resign by August 1 or be fired. He resigned and reportedly received a pay-off of 40 million dollars. Rupert Murdoch succeeded him as chairman and as interim CEO.
In a recent interview on the ‘Trumpcast’ podcast ( also recommended) Gabriel Sherman offered these thoughts on what Murdoch wants to do with Fox News:
‘Fox News was the one part of his empire that for much of its history he really had very little to do with. His relationship with Roger Ailes was chummy at times but there was a competitive aspect to it and Ailes throughout his nearly 20 years running Fox News created a lot of headaches for Murdoch.
‘Now that Ailes is gone,what I hear from people inside Murdoch’s world is that he wants to show everyone that Roger Ailes was not as central as people like to think and that Rupert Murdoch really had the guts and the foresight to create Fox News. He’s spending all of his time now working out of Roger Ailes’ former office, he personally decided to promote Tucker Carlson to the 9 o’clock show , so this is Murdoch’s time to put his stamp on Fox News. He would like nothing more than to show Roger Ailes ’listen under my watch the ratings were actually better than when you ran Fox News’.
‘Since Trump’s ‘inauguration there has been a very strategic direction from the top down by Rupert Murdoch that Fox will be the in-house channel for the Trump White House. All stories have be filtered through the prism of whether they help Trump or not.’
Sherman thinks that this is partly driven by Murdoch’s wish to beat Ailes’ ratings but partly very personal. He says Murdoch has never had a close relationship with a recent US President, even though he met all of them and Fox News supported George W Bush. ‘It was never the case that Murdoch had the President of the United States on speed-dial and that is now what Rupert Murdoch has achieved with Donald Trump’.
Measured by ratings, profits and closeness to President Trump the new era could be judged to be going well for Murdoch but there have been a catalogue of problems that range from editorial issues to a federal investigation and can often be traced back to the man Murdoch left to run Fox News.
Sherman has reported how, for example, ‘a grand jury in Manhattan will be hearing new testimony in a federal investigation of Fox News… and people familiar with the investigation say the government is looking into a number of potential crimes, including Fox News’ alleged surveillance of journalists, and whether network executives misled investors by hiding Ailes’s sexual-harassment settlements’.
The Financial Times has reported that the former Chief Financial Officer of Fox News,Mark Kranz,has been offered immunity to cooperate with prosecutors.
In a process reminiscent of the post phone-hacking scandal deal-making, Fox News is now making a series of financial settlements,  some with their own employees who are suing them. One recent lawsuit alleges racial discrimination. More claims were reported to be on their way and indeed they were.
The New York Times reported that Fox News’s most famous and controversial anchor man, Bill O’Reilly, had paid out thirteen million dollars million in secret settlements to five women who had alleged that he harassed them. The Times duly noted that Mr O’ Reilly said the claims had no merit. A follow-up opinion piece in the Washington Post called O’Reilly ‘an awful, awful man’. Advertisers and sponsors like Mercedes and BMW began pulling out of the show.  O’Reilly’s future is now in Murdoch’s hands and Sherman  thinks his instincts will be to protect him as long as possible but quotes an insider as saying ‘O’Reilly will be gone if Murdoch thinks it will help the Sky merger get approved’.
To pile up the pressure  a former political strategist who became a Fox News contributor,Julie Roginsky, filed a suit in the New York Supreme Court alleging that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Ailes in 2015 and was demoted after rebuffing his advances. Roginsky’s allegations go wider into the current Fox News’ management team, claiming that among other things they denied her job opportunities after she spoke up.
Sherman tweeted: ‘The Murdochs say they want to create a safe environment for women, but this suit shows how Fox News executives continued to silence one’. He said Roginsky’s suit describes in detail how Fox staffers pressured employees to publicly defend Ailes against Gretchen Carlson’s suit and that that even after Ailes was forced out, Fox News’ general counsel Dianne Brandi didn’t investigate her claims. Again echoes of phone-hacking.
Its not as if life has been any easier on-air. Fox’s ‘judicial analyst’, Andrew Napolitano, (according to Trump ‘a very talented legal mind’)  said Britain’s GCHQ had helped President Obama spy on Trump, a claim that was repeated by White House spokesman Sean Spicer, rubbished by GCHQ and even disowned by Fox’s own news department. Napolitano was said to have been suspended, Sky News reporting  that ‘A legal expert who claimed GCHQ helped Barack Obama to spy on Donald Trump during the presidential campaign has been removed from air by Fox News’.
Commentators speculated that he had been taken off-air because of the danger that his remarks, which had so enraged the British Government, might affect the chances of the Fox-Sky deal going through.
But Napolitano was soon back on the air.
‘FOX ANCHOR : you put out a statement, I think it was 10 days ago ―
NAPOLITANO: Right.
FOX ANCHOR : Saying you were confident in the story that you reported here in the past month.
NAPOLITANO: Yes.
FOX ANCHOR : You still stand by that or ―
NAPOLITANO: Yes, I do, and the sources stand by it. And the American public needs to know more about this rather than less’.
Anybody expecting a Rupert Murdoch-style ‘the most humble day of my life’ mea culpa would have been very disappointed. The Twenty-First Century Fox lobbyists in their London offices in Soho Square might have been among them.

BBC journalism, Ofcom and a bit of regulatory gobbledygook’

From Monday 3rd April 2017 the BBC has had an external regulator for the first time. Well almost. Actually Ofcom had regulatory oversight of much of the BBC’s content since its foundation in 2003. Before that the Broadcasting Standards Council oversaw editorial standards at the BBC and other broadcasters . But now with the death of the BBC Trust,there is only one regulator and that’s Ofcom and its responsibilities for the BBC go much wider than any previous outside body. But thanks to a bit of regulatory gobbledygook there’s a loophole.

As a member of the DCMS’s advisory committee on BBC Charter Review, written off early on by former BBC Chairman Lord Patten as ‘a team of assistant grave diggers’, I am pleased to report that the patient has survived surprisingly well. Overall it is a good result for the Corporation. However, the elaborate consultation processes have been under-reported and some important issues missed.
I’m not breaching any confidentiality agreements because they weren’t any for committee members, a sign that we were in truth only the ‘sounding board’ DCMS always said we were, encouraging them about some ideas for change, cautioning them about others.
On Wednesday 29th March somebody who doesn’t work for the BBC, the CEO of Ofcom Sharon White, read out a list of things the BBC must do in future or risk a fine. After Ms White’s speech at the Nations and Regions Media Conference in Salford senior BBC executives popped up in the audience to say the draft requirements she had set out were ‘stretching’ but there was no hint of criticism. The speech marked the publication of Ofcom’s draft ‘Operating Licence’ which eventually will become its bible for how it will regulate the BBC’s performance under the new Royal Charter. A formal BBC statement said the draft licence was ‘a balanced but properly stretching and challenging document.We will consider the details carefully’.Nobody has yet said the quotas can’t be achieved.  So we can assume the BBC will spend more of its programming budget outside London, meet minimum network quotas for the individual nations of the UK, achieve increased quotas for news output and children’s television plus enforce a new diversity code (noticeably without Ofcom targets on BAME employment ). The next step is for the BBC -under its newly appointed Board- to publish an Annual Plan .

Under-reported point number one is that Ofcom would have preferred not to have had this job. Those who thought the communications regulator was hungry for more duties were wrong. So too were those who thought Ofcom Chairman,Dame Patricia Hodgson, would want to complete unfinished business from her time at the BBC.
Instead Ofcom, wary of the history of problems in BBC regulation and governance, has consistently pushed back against taking on more of the BBC than it wanted to chew. It was clear something was up the moment the newly appointed Ofcom CEO told the Commons Media Select Committee in July 2015 she wanted to ‘put a line in the sand’ between the things Ofcom already did, such as content regulation, and the responsibilities they did not have ‘the competence to discharge’. Very different from her predecessor Ed Richards’s normal line: ‘we do what parliament asks us to do’.
White said she did not see a role for Ofcom doing the “core job” of the BBC Trust, in terms of auditing the BBC, setting the strategy and measuring how it was performing against its targets and budgets.
Once Sir David Clementi’s independent report to DCMS came out for regulation by Ofcom, rejecting the creation of a regulator just for the BBC, it was clear the Government would accept this simpler, lower-cost option. And then Clementi got the job of BBC Chairman. But Ofcom had continued to push back on the detail of what it did and didn’t want to do. Which explains much of why the draft operating licence is the way it is. Ofcom has escaped on auditing and budgets, but has had to accept that it will be monitoring how the BBC is performing against its targets. Indeed Ofcom will set those quotas and targets. But to avoid having to offer any subjective views on performance the monitoring will be full of numbers not judgements; in particular the numbers of hours broadcast of specific genres. Don’t expect any judgements like; ‘It has been a good/bad year for the BBC’, more a summary of boxes ticked and occasionally unticked.
Under-reported point number two is the one particular push back on which Ofcom has had a clear-cut success; its resistance to regulating BBC News Online ,the most powerful player in British digital journalism.
Ofcom will have the final say on whether, for example, the BBC is impartial in its TV and radio coverage of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations but not on whether the BBC’s coverage online has been. That will be a matter for the BBC Board .
To avoid Ofcom coming to one conclusion and the BBC Board to another about the same piece of journalism depending on where it appeared, an elaborate piece of regulatory gobbledygook has been drafted ; ‘Ofcom will be required to “consider and give an opinion, including such recommendations as they consider appropriate, on whether the BBC has observed the relevant editorial guidelines on the content of online material in its UK Public Services” and must enter into an arrangement with the BBC making provision for this’. In other words Ofcom won’t ‘rule’ if BBC News broke the rules online, it will only ‘give an opinion’, and presumably the BBC Board will be expected to agree with that opinion.What happens if it doesn’t?
This is all about Ofcom not wanting to set a precedent for regulating online news anywhere else, such as on other broadcaster’s websites or newspaper websites. The BBC’s stated aim for the next charter period is to become a Public Service Broadcaster for the internet age, yet the increasing importance of digital and social media will sit outside the regulator’s ambit other than the occasional ‘opinion’.The BBC’s external services,increasingly digital, are also outside that ambit.
So for the foreseeable future when we say Ofcom is now the BBC’s first external regulator we should really add ‘for most but not all content’.