Published in The Independent, 11 May 2012

All intelligence services rely on convincing the public there is a monster at large waiting to grab them

The British undercover agent in the underpants bomb plot that has emerged so sensationally in recent days, was recruited using a technique pioneered by the founder of the KGB, Felix Dzerzhinsky. And Dzerzhinsky would be looking down from wherever he is now and smiling with satisfaction at the latest twists of an episode in which Western intelligence agencies have apparently foiled a plan to attack a US-bound plane.

Dzerzhinsky took over anti-terrorism duties in the newly-emerged Russia at the end of the First World War when the country was riven with revolt and violence. He realised that he had no chance of identifying all the terrorist threats and those planning to perpetrate them. Instead he developed a questionable technique that has become part of espionage theory throughout the international intelligence community: you lure the terrorist to you.

When the story of the foiled bomb plot first broke it seemed too good to be true. The security authorities had intercepted a man carrying a supposedly undetectable bomb which was being examined at the FBI laboratories in Quantico, Virginia. This suggested an amazing piece of intelligence work. What had led the authorities to the man? Why were they suspicious of him? Had they been tipped off? As details emerged it became apparent that the action was rather more straightforward.

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It is becoming clearer day by day that the Wikileaks saga has changed journalism and citizen’s relationship with government forever. This is not about some temporary embarrassment to governments and their leaders but a sea change in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect about how decisions about our future are made.

Journalists have always known in their heart of hearts that their reporting on government has only been half the story. How to get the other half? How to sort out the truth from the propaganda? How to learn what is really going on—as distinct from what our leaders tell us is going on. Julian Assange and the whistle-blowers who have provided his organization with its sensational material have answered this.

Naturally, governments are not pleased. Assange is in jail in Britain over what looks like a very weak case—suspicion of rape in Sweden earlier this year. He has been labeled “a criminal” for facilitating the release of the secret documents, although no one can say what crime he has committed. The US authorities continue to do their best to close down the Wikileaks websites. Many of its bank accounts have been frozen. The more extreme elements on the American political scene have called for Assange to be kidnapped and “rendered” to the USA for trial, or failing that, for him to be assassinated.

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Published in The Independent on Sunday, 24 May 2010.

The Duchess of York offers to “sell” her former husband’s services to a businessman for a promise of £500,000 and $40,000 in cash now.

The businessman turns out to be “the fake sheikh”, the News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood, and the Duchess finds herself splashed all over the front page of the newspaper.

Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman, tells a young lady of his acquaintance about an alleged plot by the Spanish and Russians to bribe World Cup referees in South Africa. The young lady has a concealed tape recorder and Lord Triesman finds himself splashed over the front pages of the newspapers.

A good week for undercover reporting? Or a shameful example of invasion of privacy, entrapment and shoddy, lazy journalism?

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Reporting from the war zone

May 20, 2010

Published in The Khaleej Times. With the war in Afghanistan taking place in a news vacuum — when did you last read in the mainstream media a report on what is happening there — journalism academics have turned their attention to previous wars to see what lessons, if any, have been learnt. In the current […]

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The trite age of Twitterati

April 30, 2010

Published in The Khaleej Times. One of the most exciting features about the general election campaign currently being fought in Britain has been the relegation to the sidelines of the media, especially the political commentary writers. This has been due partly to the introduction of TV debates between the leaders on the three parties, Labour, […]

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When they’re dying for a cause

April 19, 2010

The big unanswered question in the never-ending war on terror, the question the West is afraid to tackle, is: how can we win against an enemy who is prepared to die for the cause he or she espouses? How can we beat the suicide bomber? The West has tried to play down their role in […]

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Of masters, slaves and scandals

April 5, 2010

Every now and then you can come across a book that is so startling that it changes your view of the world. I found such a book this week. It is one of the great love stories of all time and it concerns Queen Victoria, Empress of India, and a humble Muslim man from Agra, […]

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‘War on Terror’, Excuse Me…

March 20, 2010

It is nearly nine years since President Bush declared a global war on terror so it is fair to ask: how is it going? Well, the first point to make is that it is not called a war on terror anymore. It is the “global struggle against violent extremists”. But whatever it is termed, the […]

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Peace Correspondents

January 17, 2010

Some years ago I attended a conference outside London run by a Buddhist organization who wanted to know why the Western media had dozens of war correspondents on their staffs but not a single peace correspondent. It was a simple, fair and important question and although we argued about it for hours no satisfactory answer […]

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