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 ffrench-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.

The strange place that doesn’t exist where ‘Goodbye Lenin’ is alive and well.

I have just spent the morning in a strange place that the outside world considers doesn’t exist. It appears to be a land stuck in a time warp called the USSR, rather like the German movie ‘Goodbye Lenin’ where a young East Berliner tries to keep it from his mother that the wall has fallen and her beloved Communist government is collapsing. In this real life ‘Goodbye Lenin’ the statue of the man himself is still standing and hammer and sickle logos are everywhere but so too is the brand of a monopoly business, co-founded by the son of a President, that controls everything from a football club to supermarkets, petrol stations, car dealerships and a TV channel.

Welcome to ‘Transnistria’ or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic as it likes to call itself. No member of the UN does, not even its mothership Russia whose troops are on the ground today as ‘peacekeepers’.The peace has spectacularly failed to be kept in this part of the world for the past two centuries. In a local cemetery I found the tombstones of Tsarist soldiers who fought the Ottoman Turks in the nineteenth century and French soldiers who fought with the Tsarists against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Nearby are the graves of locals who fought with the Soviet Red Army in World War Two and those locals who fought for the other side,the German Army,alongside Romanians and Hungarians who also threw in their lot with the Nazis. A nearby memorial commemorates the victory of the Red Army in 1945, the local conscripts killed during the disastrous Soviet campaign in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s and, when that war hastened the fall of the Soviet Union, the local volunteers who died in the fighting which carved out ‘Transnistria’ as a Russian loyalist colony as the rest of what was the Molodovan Soviet Socialist Republic opted for independence as the Republic of Moldova in the early 1990s.

If by now your knowledge of the geography of Eastern Europe is well past its natural limit,think of Molodova as sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and Transnistria as the right hand side of that sandwich.There is no land border between Molodova/’Transnistria’ and Russia which makes the Russian presence seem rather odd. But in the days of the USSR the Soviet 14th Army established its HQ in the area and when the Soviet Union fell apart those troops were the military might that enabled the rebel ‘Transnistrians’ to force back the forces of the independent  Molodovan Government.

Although the breakaway region has never been formally recognised by Moscow there is now talk of it being absorbed into the Russian Federation. The local currency is called the rouble, the Russian flag often flies alongside that of ‘Transnistria’, the supermarkets are packed full of Russian goods ( no USSR-style empty shelves here), Russian is the official language (Moldova prefers a dialect of Romanian) and the streets are in a better condition than some in Moscow.

But even more common than the Russian and Soviet symbols is the brand name ‘Sheriff’.You see it first on the road into the capital Tiraspol on an modern football stadium ‘Sheriff Football Club’,which puts its separatist views aside each matchday to play in the Moldovan League and thus win a place in the UEFA Europa League. The stadium complex also houses businesses like the Mercedes Benz dealership which have adopted the Sheriff  brand. What became the Sheriff company was founded by two former members of the secret police and they linked up with the son of the country’s President, who helpfully ran the country’s customs service. Sheriff used its economic and media muscle to influence local politics but the current President Yevgeny Shevchuk issued a decree abolishing all preferences granted to Sheriff by previous regimes.There is no obvious sign of the Sheriff’s businesses suffering too much.

Nor is there any sign that the  economic advantages of life in ‘Transnistria’, essential services such as electricity are cheaper here than in Moldova, attract many migrants to join the half a million population who may eventually end up as Russians. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, on the Sunday I was in the capital Chisinau hundreds of people lined the streets trying  to sell a few spare belongings. It is also one of the most corrupt, which is why Moldova’s application to join the EU won’t become a reality any time soon. But after centuries occupied by Ottomans,Nazis and Soviets the people of Moldova seem to value their new found freedom too much to move down the road to a bizarre mix of Soviet communism and monopoly capitalism.




Revealed: newly-released files in the National Archives show how Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet rejected privatising Channel Four.

In July 2016 the British National Archives  released official files from 1986-1988 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Amidst the hundreds of pages of Cabinet documents I found  CAB 130/ 1345-1348 and 130/1357 -1358 which are the papers of the Cabinet Committee considering the future of broadcasting in the run-up to what became the Broadcasting Act of 1990. My personal interest is that I was Editor of Channel Four News from 1983-1986 and Deputy Editor of ITN from 1986-1989. I am currently a non-executive director of Channel Four but I write here in a personal capacity. 

Cabinet papers from the 1980s just released into the National Archives show that when it comes to Governments and broadcasting policy what goes around certainly comes around. Two major policy issues of 2016 -the possible privatisation of Channel Four and the potential role of subscription on the BBC -were just as controversial in 1987 and 1988 as they are now.
A Cabinet committee,‘the Ministerial Group on Broadcasting Matters’, was chaired by Margaret Thatcher and among the the principal protagonists were William Whitelaw, Douglas Hurd,Nigel Lawson and Lord (David) Young. They made the decisions that led to the Broadcasting Act of 1990, a process best known for what it did to the ITV companies who, according to the committee’s papers, were ‘a commercial cartel..exploiting their monopoly position on commercial television’. The ITV companies were made to bid for their licences in an auction and they also lost both the right to sell advertising on Channel Four and control of ITN.
The Act also created important new rights for independent producers partly because,the papers record; ‘restrictive practices and over-manning were widespread in both BBC and ITV productions’.
In the Cabinet Committee papers the focus on what was seen as broadcasters’ inefficiency created some early warnings for what lay ahead for the BBC many years later; ‘by our squeeze on BBC income through a form of indexation well below their traditional rate of cost increases we have set a clear agenda for the BBC to become more efficient and effective’.
Warnings too in 1987 that subscription might be seen as the answer to a BBC funding system which,it was assumed,would reach a sell-by date.
‘The BBC licence fee would become increasingly anachronistic as new services,financed by advertising or subscription,gained ground’.Therefore ‘the Home Secretary should inform the BBC that the Government proposed to authorise them to encrypt their services so that they could raise money through subscription and that in setting the licence fee from 1991 onwards the Government would take account of the other income which the BBC could reasonable be expected to raise’.
But it is what the committee’s papers say about the possible privatisation of Channel 4,then just five years old,that have the most resonance with a current,as yet unresolved,debate.
The starting point was a meeting in July 1987 at which ministers instructed their senior civil servants ‘to report on the modalities for privatising Channel 4 and the implications of that step’.
If that sounds vaguely familiar compare it with ‘Work should proceed to examine the options of extracting greater public value from the Channel 4 corporation, focusing on privatisation options in particular’, the sentence in a September 2015 document accidentally revealed to a photographer in Downing Street.The 1987-1988 Whitehall discussion about what to do about Channel Four went on for a year. The current process is at ten months and holding.
In 1987 the Home Office under Douglas Hurd was in charge of broadcasting and he and his team of civil servants wrote most of the papers put to the Ministerial Group.The minutes summarise what Hurd said and what the Prime Minister said before,as was custom and practice,the Ministers ‘took note,with approval,of the Prime Minister’s summing-up of the discussion’.Sadly we don’t get to see what other committee members said.
But the clear constant thread that runs through the papers is Douglas Hurd’s concern ‘that the [privatisation] proposal could harm the ability of Channel 4 to provide, as it is statutorily required to do, a service of distinctive character,catering for tastes and interests not served by ITV and encouraging innovation in the form and content of programmes. It is widely accepted both that Channel has discharged its remit with outstanding success and that the remit should continue’.
But something very odd happened. In September 1987 Hurd signed off a typed up policy paper to the Committee which set out non-privatisation options before surprisingly concluding:
‘I therefore invite colleagues ..
(b) to endorse the proposal that the contract to operate Channel 4 should be awarded by competitive tender subject to specific requirements about the nature of the programmes to be provided’.
It appeared that Hurd’s resistance to privatisation had collapsed in the final paragraph.But bizarrely in the official minute of the meeting that paragraph is crossed out in red ink and replaced with a hand-written non-privatisation alternative. Was it all some Whitehall clerical cock-up or a last minute policy flip-flop?
Hurd was sent away with new orders from his Prime Minister; ‘the Home Secretary should give further consideration to the scope for providing further safeguards against the risk of a privatised Channel 4 going downmarket. He should bring forward a further paper on the ITV system and Channel Four dealing with these issues’. If Douglas Hurd was worried about the risk of a downmarket Channel Four, Margaret Thatcher wanted him to find a way around that risk.
At one meeting the Ministerial Group agreed that the remit must be maintained and that Channel Four should sell its own advertising but crucially Margaret Thatcher summarised that Ministers were ‘not able to reach a view on securing these objectives while keeping pressure on Channel 4’s costs’. That old bugbear of economic inefficiency was still nagging away at the Prime Minister.
Officials were sent away to come up with recommendations and after a full eleven pages of analysis came to the conclusion that ‘It would be possible to re-constitute Channel 4 either within the public sector or as a private sector enterprise’.
Hurd was slowly,quietly, winning the war.By August 1988 -a full year after the debate began- the group of officials working behind the scenes offered up a draft sentence for the forthcoming White Paper. It was, in true Whitehall mandarin style, presented in square brackets so that it could be discarded if necessary.[‘The Government believes that Channel 4’s special role is best fulfilled by an organisation not under a duty to maximise returns to shareholders’].

On the 7th November 1988 Douglas Hurd told the Commons ‘The distinctive remit of Channel 4 will be retained and reinforced to sustain high quality programmes in the commercial sector’.There was no mention of privatisation.


As Noreena Hertz makes her ITV News debut hopefully the lessons of the past will have been learned

This is based on my article in ‘The ITN 55 Club Newsletter’ produced by and for ITN alumni.

“It went down like a cup of cold sick.Another ‘name’ on a massive salary, but this time with no obvious TV reporting experience.”
A warm ITN welcome to ITN Noreena Hertz,the new Economics Editor of ITV News.
Whether or not an ‘insider’ actually gave that quote to a Guardian reporter we shouldn’t be surprised that newsrooms of high quality broadcast news people are unsettled by the arrival of somebody with no broadcast news experience. Ms Hertz,best known as an academic economist,wisely told her new colleagues “I know that I have a lot to learn”.
It is not the first time this has happened.I can think of two previous occasions,both involving women economists, and neither turned out well.But I’m left wondering whose fault that was.
Ruth Lea was a star City pundit in the mid-1990s,a regular guest on all our programmes when David Mannion persuaded her to leave Lehmann Brothers and join ITN’s staff.She soon moved on to a series of high profile roles in organisations such as the Institute of Directors and last year was awarded a CBE.
Last month she came over to me at a restaurant and happily reminisced about her short time at ITN. But the consensus ITN view would probably be that Ruth didn’t work out because she ‘wasn’t good at packaging’ .She wasn’t but maybe we should have worked around that to utilise her talents. It reminded me of Sarah (now Baroness) Hogg’s time as Economics Correspondent in the early days of Channel Four News. She too left to build a successful career elsewhere. In Sarah’s case it was my decision to rebuild the troubled C4N around Peter Sissons as the main anchor that precipitated her departure but Sarah had remarkable and often exclusive insights into the British political economy that were lost because ‘we can’t work out how to turn them into a package’.
Things have changed a lot. Specialist correspondents now have their own producers who can help them with the packaging,they can show their own expertise in two-ways with Tom Bradby and in online blogs.
The best example I can think of is the new National Editor of ITV News,Allegra Stratton. When she was appointed as Michael Crick’s successor as Political Editor of Newsnight in 2012,she had little on-screen reporting experience and my goodness it showed.But Allegra and Newsnight persevered and she began to emerge during the last election campaign. Now she has made a real impact on ITV by her reporting of the issues in the EU referendum campaign and her role as Robert Peston’s side-kick on ITV’s ‘Peston on Sunday’.
Noreena Hertz has now made an understandably nervous debut on ITV news   (http://www.itv.com/news/update/2016-07-05/economics-editor-on-bank-of-englands-challenging-outlook-warning/) but hopefully  her editors and colleagues will show a little patience .

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

Newly-discovered Cold War files reveal that Britain’s most authoritative commentator on Soviet affairs befriended the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess in Moscow and reported back to the British authorities but never to his own newspaper,the Observer. Research which I have done with my fellow co-author of ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’ and ‘Guy Burgess,the Spy Who Knew Everyone’, Jeff Hulbert, has been given to the Observer and extracts from the 1959 report on Burgess have now finally been published by the paper in an article by Robert McCrum ( 5th June 2016) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/28/cambridge-spy-guy-burgess-charmed-observer-files

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

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


A few more steps towards a fully diverse TV news industry

This is a version of an article which will appear in next month’s edition of the ITN 1955 Club newsletter. Disclosure: I was the chairman of this year’s RTS TV Journalism awards.

This year’s RTS Television Journalism awards felt like something of a sea change in our industry and I don’t mean the debate over the new rules (Head of Sky News,John Ryley, praised them as ‘fair and transparent’ but then Sky did win 5 awards). The industry is beginning to look more like the society that it reports on.
Consider winners like Nima Elbagir and Ramita Navai. More women,more ethnic minorities. Overall it was a good night for the sisterhood;Julie Etchingham,Jackie Faulkner and Alex Crawford all won big awards.Julie told me afterwards she also sensed it was a turning point,more nominations from a wider field of entries,more competitors and good ones too. Nobody can afford to rest on their laurels,not even veteran British correspondents like the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen ,worthy winner of Interview of the Year for his encounter with President Assad.Not when there are up and coming TV journalists like Young Talent of the Year Benjamin Zand who explained in a wonderfully youthful way on stage that he’d decided he had to learn to do everything himself -report,film,edit- and had persuaded the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Programme to let him do that. And last year’s Young Talent now this year’s Camera Operator of the Year ,Mstyslav Chernov of Associated Press ,who gave the most thoughtful comments of the evening on the ethics of news coverage.
The privilege of chairing the event (and therefore knowing the results in advance) gave me the chance to make a point about diversity at the start of the evening.The increased number of neutral jurors enabled more women to be on juries and more jurors from ethnic minorities.The entries also showed greater diversity and that was reflected in the nominations and the winners.But we all know that more needs to be done. The jury for Camera Operator of the Year couldn’t but help notice that for all the political correctness of the title there were 20 entries and all were from men.One news cameraman in the room offered the view that there were no ‘ladies’ because there was so much war coverage.I pointed out that of the three finalists in the international news category none was for coverage of a war.
The winner who gave me most cause for thought was Nima Elbagir whose CNN portfolio of stories from Africa about the human rights of children won her Specialist Journalist of the Year and a nomination for TV Journalist of the Year.Nima was born in Sudan,came to England and graduated from the LSE.She freelanced for Reuters and in 2005 her break into broadcast journalism came at ITN where she did some reports on More4 News.She then worked for Channel 4’s Unreported World.In 2011 she joined CNN where,under the stewardship of former Channel Four News executive Deborah Rayner, her career has blossomed winning awards in the USA .
After her success at the RTS people in the business were gossiping about the offers Nima is already getting and how keen CNN were to keep her under contract.It reminded me of the diversity debate about why black British actors like David Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor seem to have to go to Hollywood to get big roles.ITN should feel some pride that it helped develop Nima’s career but ITN and other British broadcasters might also ask themselves why she had to go to CNN to get a job as a mainstream foreign correspondent.
To try to help push the diversity cause along Sue Lloyd-Roberts’s family were at the RTS to launch an appeal to help young female journalists study for a year at Cardiff University.The Sue Lloyd-Roberts Scholarship will be a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman and hopefully will provide practical help to those inspired by Sue.