BBC – influences at work,  1950s – 1980s

Vetting Files

“For decades the BBC denied that job applicants were subject to political vetting by MI5. But in fact vetting began in the early days of the BBC and continued until the 1990s. Paul Reynolds, the first journalist to see all the BBC’s vetting files, tells the story of the long relationship between the corporation and the Security Service.” Click here, BBC website, 2018

Influences at work,  1950s – 1980s

From the outset of its creation in 1948, the Information Research Department  (IRD) in the Foreign Office set out to influence  the BBC’s output. Ralph Murray, the first head of the IRD is quoted as saying “our situation is now such that it seems essential that we should approach the BBC and cause them, by persuasion if possible, to undertake such programme developments as might help us”.

Michael Nelson, who was allowed access to the BBC archives notes, “The Foreign Office regarded the BBC as by far the most important propaganda weapon it had in Eastern Europe”. He disclosed that BBC correspondents in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, including the veteran broadcaster Charles Wheeler, were fed classified material gleaned from covert intercepts of Soviet bloc communications to generate anti-communist propaganda broadcasts during the cold war. In another private arrangement between the BBC and the Foreign Office, confidential letters written to BBC correspondents by people living in the communist bloc at the start of the cold war were passed on to the MI6.

Some of the BBC’s senior management was unabashed with this propaganda role, notwithstanding public statements of impartiality and objectivity. In the 1950s, shortly before he became Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green devoted much of an address to the NATO Defence College in Paris on psychological warfare to a description of the BBC and propaganda. He did not hesitate to use the word propaganda repeatedly.

The BBC’s covert links with the intelligence community has continued in a variety of forms. In July 1985 the Special Branch used the roof of Bush House to film and photograph people taking part in a demonstration protesting against the plan to abolish the Greater London Authority and introduce rate capping.

It was also reported to be established practice for the MI5 to send three-monthly security surveys to the BBC and that it had been the job of the Chief Assistant to the Director General to receive these secret briefings and also to liaise with MI5 on behalf of the Director General. The Chief Assistant to Alisdair Milne at the time was Margaret Douglas, who denied this role. The job position was later renamed ‘political assistant’ to the Director General.

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In August 1985 the BBC admitted that MI5 vetted its senior staff. The British press carried a report that an applicant, Isabel Hilton, had been denied a job as a reporter in Scotland in 1976. This block was linked to her membership of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. At the time, being ‘pro-Maoist’ was considered a security risk! The Guardian also named Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, formerly of the Signals Regiment and now an MI5 officer, as responsible for vetting job applicants and appointments to senior posts. Professor Alastair Hetherington, former controller of BBC Scotland confirmed the existence of the vetting system, adding “I did not like it and was unhappy about it”.

Arabic broadcasting

In the 1950s British Intelligence secretly ran an influential Arabic radio station, Sharq al-Adna, under the cover of a commercial station. It transmitted anti-Israeli commentary, readings from the Qur’an and music. During the Suez Crisis (1956) it became the ‘Voice of Britain’, broadcasting propaganda with sanitised BBC news bulletins. When some BBC staff complained, the government threatened deep cuts in BBC grants.

(Sources: Overt and Covert: The Voice of Britain and Black Radio Broadcasting in the Suez Crisis, by Gary D Rawnsley, 1956.
Intelligence and National Security, 11:3 (July 1996), pp. 497-522
MI6. Fifty Years of Special Operations by Stephen Dorril, Fourth Estate)

Disinformation on Bosnia

If the recollections of the renegade MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson are a reliable guide, it is claimed that the MI6 planted at least two articles in the weekly ‘Spectator’ magazine in the course of the Bosnian war in the 1990s. The articles, which included bitter attacks on British journalists, including the BBC correspondent Kate Adie, were written with a Sarajevo dateline under the name of Kenneth Roberts, during the civil war in Bosnia.

The Spectator described ‘Roberts’ as someone working with the UN in Bosnia as an “advisor”, and that the author’s name “has been changed at his request”. It did not say that the writer was an MI6 officer. The officer has already been publicly identified as Keith Craig. These MI6 articles appeared to be part of an attempt to influence public opinion during the Bosnian crisis by suggesting atrocities were being carried out by all sides – and not just Bosnian Serb troops. This was consistent with Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd’s attempts to block all attempts on lifting the arms embargo placed on the Bosnian Muslims and to suggest a moral equivalence between the Serbs and Muslims.

Dominic Lawson, Spectator’s editor in this period, vigorously denied working for the MI6, though Tomlinson claimed that Lawson’s MI6 identity was “Smallbrow”. In his recent published compilation about MI6, the author Stephen Dorril points out that Dominic Lawson’s brother-in-law at the time, Anthony Monckton, was himself a serving MI6 officer, who was to take over the Zagreb station in the Balkans in 1996.

Tomlinson himself was sent to Bosnia in 1992 posing as a journalist. He also claimed he was given cover by the Spectator magazine while on a mission to Macedonia to develop contacts with ethnic Albanian politicians.

(The Big Breach by Richard Tomlinson, ZAO Narodny Variant, 2000;,3604,428597,00.html)

BBC and Balkan war coverage

Brendan Simms, author of ‘Unfinest Hour – Britain and the destruction of Bosnia’ writes:

“Far from being a full paid-up supporter of the Bosnians in their quest for international intervention, the Corporation often unconsciously or uncritically absorbed Whitehall rhetoric and became easy prey to FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] and MoD [Ministry of Defence] briefings. The most obvious and insidious sign of this was the persistent reference to ‘all three warring sides’ or the ‘three warring factions’, thus equating the internationally recognized authorities in Sarajevo with Serb and Croat rebels. The Bosnian government forces, which in some theatres included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents, were routinely – and not quite accurately – described by the BBC as ‘the Muslims’ or ‘Muslim forces’. In time, this elision became second nature: when an ethnic Croat – who had been clearly identified as such prior to the programme – appeared on Newsnight as a spokesman for the Bosnian government, he was described on air by the presenter Kirsty Wark as a ‘Muslim’. Subsequent protests elicited the response that viewers believed the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Bosnian’ so synonymous that departure from this rule would only confuse them. Moreover, in the attempt to provide ‘balance’, the BBC gave exaggerated exposure to the Serb viewpoint. As Lee Bryant, the press officer at the Bosnian embassy for much of the war, remarked in August 1995, it was almost impossible to get Newsnight to interview his ambassador. Many editors and journalists at the BBC,’ he said, ‘get bored of hearing the Bosnian case because it is so simple. So they’ll take the Serbs every time because they’ve always got something extreme to say and it’s good television.’

Even more egregious was the way in which straightforward news reports on the World Service were ‘spun’ by officials in Whitehall. As Vladimir Lojen, an employee of the BBC Croatian Service through most of the war, observed, ‘The sad fact is: Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office Briefings have been seeping in an undiluted form into the World Service programmes.’ This was reflected in the tendency to conceal the extent of Bosnian Serb atrocities and suggest a moral equivalence between the ‘warring sides’. Thus in March 1993, the UN stated that the aircraft which had bombed the enclave of Srebrenica had not been formally identified but were seen flying off in the direction of Serbia. In the BBC broadcast this was rendered as : British sources say checks are being made to determine where the planes had come from’. In June 1995, three years into the siege of the Bosnian capital, one news bulletin reported that ‘Targeting of residential districts of Sarajevo with mortars and rockets, apparently fired from Bosnian Serb positions is a relatively new development.’ In August 1995, an American official was quoted by dispatches and agencies as saying that although both Bosnian government forces and Croats were responsible for isolated ourtrages, ‘The vast majority of ethnic cleansing since 1992 can be attributed to the Bosnian Serbs.’ In the subsequent World Service news broadcast this was rendered as ‘An American official said that Croatian and Muslim forces had also carried out atrocities’ without any mention of the original distinction on which the thrust of the original story rested. As Lojen observes, ‘The effort to obscure the obvious, question the indisputable and balance the unbalanceable [was] one of the cornerstones’ of World Service coverage throughout the war. As such, it had become a mere extension of a British policy designed to blur the distinction between aggressor and victim and to keep demands for international military intervention at bay.”

[Unfinest Hour – Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Sims, Allen Lane, 2001]

(A Letter to the BBC World Service – from Vladimir Lojen a former employee


21 February 2003

The ‘Spooks’ TV programme of a heroic Algerian infiltrating a mosque-based suicide bombing cell, broadcast on 9th June 2003, bears uncanny similarities with the adventures and experiences of  one Reda Hassaine, who “went undercover to find out about terrorist activities in Britain”, including Finsbury Park Mosque in 1998 (Jason Burke in The Observer, 18 February 2001).

The BBC, in its rebuttal of complaints that this was negative stereotyping of Muslims, stated that “at its [the ‘Spooks’ programme] heart there is a Muslim hero (Ibn Khaldun) who is moderate and peace-loving and who works to stop the suicide bombing happening. This character is inspired by the true story of an Algerian agent, who greatly assisted the British Security Services undercover.”

Mr Hassaine walked into the offices of Scotland Yard and offered his services to Special Branch, in return for asylum. In the TV programme, the character Ruth Evershed identifies a crack Algerian agent who has turned up at Scotland Yard. Mr ‘Khaldun’ was screened enjoying a drink in the spooks’ staff bar – “Hassaine has a sad face and a stammer that improves with each bottle of Chianti” (interview with Jake Tapper, Times online, 16 January 2003).

More seriously however the real-life Hassaine also told his handlers about a dirty tricks campaign against Muslim activists in London being run by the French intelligence agency, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure), the MI6 counterpart.

The continuing arrests of Algerians – the most recent being the arrest of ten men in London and Manchester on 23 September 2003 under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000, on suspicion of “commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” – point to the close coordination between security organisations in Britain, France and Algeria. More often than not, the tip offs lead to inconclusive ‘fishing’ expeditions.

The much publicised Ricin factory raid of 5th January this year was based on a lead from the French intelligence services. The eleven men, including two teenagers, charged with “conspiring to develop a chemical weapon” remain incarcerated, probably in Belmarsh, preferring this to deportation. Similarly in November 2002, three Algerians arrested in a blaze of headlines ‘Plot to attack tube’ were subsequently cleared of any threat of a poison gas attack on the London underground (see The Independent, 18 November 2002).

Intelligence forwarded to the UK by French sources will remain less than reliable because of the French Government’s alliances with the Algerian regime and the vested interests of key intellectuals. France’s MI5 equivalent, the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire) is implicated in supporting the Algerian military clique in its agenda of eradicating every kind of political opposition: Yves Bonnet, an ex-Director of the DST, is allegedly a  lobbyist on behalf of the junta (p.708, ‘An Enquiry into the Algerian Massacres, Hoggar, Geneva, 1999). Algerian strongman Smaïn Lamari, in charge of a covert Algerian internal security body (the PCO – Operationnel de la Police) that acted above the law, served in a liaison role with the DST.

Smain Lamari has also been incriminated by the former intelligence officer Habib Souaidia in the use of troops disguised as ‘mujahideen’ to commit atrocities (p. 186, ‘La Sale Guerre’, La Decouverte, Paris, 2001). An open letter from French and Algerian journalists, lawyers and civil rights workers published in Le Monde on 9 February 2000 noted that French involvement included the training of officers “in the techniques of electronic warfare”. A more recent letter, submitted to President Chirac by the ‘SOS Algeria’ Collective in March this year, noted that “…the DGSE is perfectly aware of the implication of Belkheir Lamari [the French-backed Algerian general responsible for Intelligence] death’s squads” (la DGSE savent parfaitement l’implication des escadrons de la mort aux services de Belkheir Lamari).

An apologist and “traditional friend” of the Algerian regime – the description used by Al-Quds Al-Arabi (12 April 2001) – Bernard Henry-Lévy – himself born in Beni Saf in Algeria, is a celebrity on the French intellectual scene with deep-seated antipathy to Muslims: his recent book ‘Qui a Tué Daniel Pearl?’ (Who killed Daniel Pearl?’) delves in the intelligence world with depictions of ‘evil’ Muslims with “Pakistan is the most roguish of the rogue states today”.

The BBC stated that “the [Spooks] programme was extensively researched and the BBC’s usual rigorous editorial policy and legal requirements have been followed”. This ‘extensive research’ is a reference to Diligence, a security company with offices in Washington and Mayfair that acted as advisors to ‘Kudos’, the TV company responsible for the production of ‘Spooks’. Most likely involved was Diligence’s London CEO Nick Day, formerly of MI5 and with experience of ‘counter Middle Eastern terrorism’. Intriguingly, the Diligence web site’s administrative contact address is in France, rather than the UK or US.

Episodes concerning journalists

Jon Snow – The newscaster who said ‘No’

“The manner of the British intelligence services’ invitation to me to work for them persuades me that enlisting journalists was, and possibly still is, commonplace.

The letter and subsequent interview came as I was joining ITN. A Mr D Stilbury, writing from the old War Office Building, had done his stuff. He certainly knew a great deal about me, relationships, friends, politics and career prospects. He was also pretty certain that I would accept his tax-free offer to double my then salary and that for years to come would be able to count on me to continue in the media, whilst at the same time keeping tabs on subversive or left-wing journalists on Fleet Street. My refusal, after two interviews, to have anything to do with him or the SIS for which he said he worked angered him considerably. I left his office 18 years ago flattered and appalled in equal measure, recognizing how easily it would have been to give in….

Mr Stilbury’s annoyance at my failure in this regard, centred on a perceived lack of patriotism, less to my country, I suspected, than to my class and to the establishment I was fast joining. Yet the greatest defense of democracy, we have been taught lies in a free press. I sometimes wonder what kind of compromise might have had to have been entered into for me to present a major television news programme at 7 pm, a few hours after a dash from some clandestine salaried encounter to disclose or receive intelligence about some issue of interest to the security services. How often has the viewer, or reader been denied the full facts as to precisely where the “messenger be he or she a television news operative, or a newspaper columnist – is coming from?

We fiercely protect our sources, not least because we depend on them. But that protection serves another purpose too- shielding our viewer or reader from the true nature of the relationship we enjoy with the authorities …. This is not a matter of spying, nor taking payment for information and services exchanged – at least not usually. This is about singing up to an unwritten clutch of rules, to join an undescribed club, in which both the journalist and the subject of interest enter into a pact to deny the “information consumer” the full facts of what is going on.”

[The Guardian Friday December 30 1994]

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The Saif Gaddafy libel

In November 1995, the Sunday Telegraph linked Saif Gaddafy, son of the Libyan dictator, with currency counterfeiting and money laundering. The story was written by Con Coughlin, the paper’s then chief foreign correspondent, and it was falsely attributed to a “British banking official”. Saif Gaddafi took the newspaper to the High Court in London in a libel action, and in April 2002 it admitted that there was no truth in the allegations.

The full background to this episode has been documented by David Leigh:

“The paper was unable to back up its suggestion that Gaddafy junior might have been linked to a fraud, but pleaded, in effect, that it had been supplied with the material by the Government. In a long and detailed statement, which entered the public domain in the course of a judgment given in an interlocutory appeal on 28 October 1998, the paper described how, under Charles Moore’s editorship, a lunch had been arranged with the then Conservative foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, at which Con Coughlin had been present. Told by Rifkind that countries such as Iran were trying to get hold of hard currency to beat sanctions, Coughlin was later briefed by an MI6 man – his regular contact. Some weeks afterward, he was introduced to a second MI6 man, who spent several hours with him and handed over extensive details of the story about Gadafy’s son. Although Coughlin asked for evidence, and was shown purported bank statements, the pleadings make clear that he was dependent on MI6 for the discreditable details about the alleged counterfeiting scam. He was required to keep the source strictly confidential.

Throughout the formal pleadings, the Telegraph preserved the fig-leaf of its sources by referring to a “Western government security agency”. But this veil of coyness was blown away by City solicitor David Hooper in his book on libel published in March, Reputations Under Fire, where he says briskly: “In reality [they were] members of MI6” So, unusually, an MI6 exercise in planting a story has been laid bare.”

(David Leigh, ‘Britain’s security services and journalists: the secret story’, in British Journalism Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2000, pages 21-26;

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Sandy Gall in Afghanistan

Seamus Milne, in his book ‘The Enemy within’ notes:

“ More recently, Sandy Gall, the ITN reporter and newsreader, boasted of his work for MI6 in Afghanistan during the 1980s and his liaison meetings with MI6 officers at Stone’s Chop House in Piccadilly. ‘Soon after I returned to London’, Gall wrote in his memoirs, ‘I received an invitation to have lunch with the head of MI6….I was flattered, of course, and …..resolved to be completely frank and as informative as possible, and not try to prise any information out of him in return, This is not normally how a journalist’s mind works.’  Indeed not.”