Of secrets and spies

August 17, 2003 · 0 comments

in Articles,propaganda,spying

Published in The Independent on Sunday, 17 August 2003

The Hutton Inquiry has surprised everyone. It was meant to look at the circumstances surrounding the death of the government scientist Dr. David Kelly. Instead it has been revealing who wields power in Britain and how.

Most of the facts in the Kelly affair were clear in the public mind long before Lord Hutton called his first witness at the Royal Courts of Justice this week: Tony Blair wanted to attack Iraq and hoped for help from the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in making the case for war.

SIS’s response was wishy-washy. Government propagandist Alastair Campbell did the best he could with the material but SIS was unhappy with the result and in their subtle, manipulative way, let their unhappiness be known. The media picked up on this unhappiness, homed in on one source in the secret world, Dr. David Kelly, and he told them more than he should have and probably more than he had intended.

The resulting stories threatened the Prime Minister’s credibility and were a challenge to Alastair Campbell, so a search began for a scapegoat. Dr. Kelly was an obvious candidate. He was “outed” and killed himself.

Nothing Lord Hutton finds is likely to change this broad outline but we are glued to hearings because of what they are revealing about power centres in modern Britain–10 Downing Street, Whitehall, and the secret services–and their relationship the media, especially the BBC.

All believed that they had the skills to “manage the news”, especially the intelligence services which has always been adept at planting in the media stories that have furthered the services’ ends. Many SIS officers have their favourite contacts in the media and pass on stories to help SIS policies. Some stories are trivial but others, especially those which originate with the CIA, can be brutal.

Khidhir Hamza, a former Iraqi general who worked on the Iraqi atomic weapons programme in the 1980s was on a visit to Libya when, he claims, a “bogus story” in the Sunday Times on 2 April 1995 announced that he had been kidnapped in Greece and probably assassinated. The story reported that Hamza had revealed the secret Iraqi weapons programme and referred to documents he possessed which confirmed this.

Until then the authorities in Baghdad had not been concerned about Khidhir Hamza’s absence from Iraq but the Sunday Times story changed everything. Hamza had to make a run for it and ended up a refugee in the United States. He eventually discovered that the CIA had planted the story and the forged documents in order to smoke him out. (see the London Review of Books, 17 October 2002.)

Over the years some journalists have tried to change the relationship with the power centres and rather than being used by them instead subject them to the same media scrutiny as existed in the United States–at least until 9/11.

Back in the 1960’s The Sunday Times appointed journalist and author Tony Howard as its “Whitehall correspondent”, announcing, “The job of a newspaper is to bring into public information the acts and processes of power. National security alone excepted, it is the job of newspapers to publish the secret matters of politics whether the secrets are are the secrets of the Cabinet, of Parliament, or of the Civil Service.”

The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was having none of this. He quickly shut Howard down. Howard remembers: “He said he understood I was only trying to do my job but he had a job to do, too, and his was more important than mine. He made it very plain that all conventional sources of information would remain shut until I was willing to return to the cosy but essentially sham game of being a political correspondent.”

The BBC’s Today programme wanted Andrew Gilligan to be a new Howard. He was to break stories instead of reacting to them, get behind the scenes of government, be critical and controversial. The very nature of this assignment mean that it was unrealistic to demand that he had more than one source for every story. Many–some say most–stories in today’s British media have only one source. It is the quality of the source and the judgement of the journalist that count.

Whatever conclusions Lord Hutton reaches, important issues will remain unresolved. Downing Street considers the intelligence services to be no different from other government departments and should therefore get behind government policy when asked to do so. The services believe that their loyalty is to the realm, not the government of the day, and that their duty is to remain impartial and objective.

Whitehall believed that it was possible for a civil servant to have a “controlled” relationship with a journalist, one in which the civil servant–in this case Dr. Kelly–was authorised to tell the journalist some things but not others. But this ended in tragedy and will have to be rethought.

The media is showing some interest in covering Whitehall properly. But this is seen as a danger to the power of all government press officers–many of whom were journalists themselves before they took the walk of shame. The end of the Hutton Inquiry will not be the end of the story.

Phillip Knightley is the author of ‘The Second Oldest Profession‘, a history of spies and spying.

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