02:30 GMT25 January 2021
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    The British media had a much more intimate relationship with the nation's government than it wanted the public to know, UK Cabinet papers released by the National Archives reveal. And the British government was not averse to "dirty work" both on domestic public opinion and foreign allies alike.

    The latest release of UK Cabinet papers nearly coincided with the death of George Blake in Moscow. The latter is believed to have done more damage to western interests than Kim Philby of Cambridge Five fame.

    Between 1953 and his arrest in 1961 Blake, an officer with Britain's intelligence service MI6, handed over scores of vital documents to Moscow, betrayed a secret Anglo-American spying tunnel under the Berlin Wall to the Russians, and revealed the identities of hundreds of western subversives in the USSR and the Soviet bloc. Betrayed by a Polish defector, he was jailed for an unprecedented 42 years but served only five, having made a daring – and embarrassing to the Home Office – escape from the Wormwood Scrubs Prison in West London. He later emerged in Moscow, where he lived to his death this month at the age of 98.

    No less embarrassing than the escape itself was the Home Office and MI5 having failed to properly scrutinise Blake's correspondence, constantly changing methods of surveillance, thus failing to spot the preparations for the escape.

    George Blake, a British defector who spied for the Soviets in Britain, gestures during a news conference in Moscow, Jan. 15, 1992
    © AP Photo / Boris Yurchenko
    George Blake, a British defector who spied for the Soviets in Britain, gestures during a news conference in Moscow, Jan. 15, 1992

    London's embarrassment ended in humiliation and acrimony in 1967 when Kim Philby used The Sunday Times to get at the British establishment with his disparaging recollections about the Foreign Office and British intelligence community. The paper and the rest of the British media presented this as a great investigative coup by the paper's Editor Harold Evans and his "Insight" team of journalists. The British government, however, thought that it was a propaganda coup for the Russians.

    The Myth of Independent Media

    As the papers reveal, the government had its own spies in the British media, while ostensibly independent-minded editors were not averse to striking deals with the government.

    The released documents put an end to the myth of the intrepid editor of The Sunday Times and "legendary giant of British journalism" Harold Evans, who challenged the government and its "D" Note censorship system by publishing Philby's revelations in the face of government opposition.

    True, he did breach the "D" Note security clearance required for media stories on intelligence matters, when in October 1967 he published a series of stories based on information provided by Philby via his son John. They created an outcry among the public and in parliament, and brought about a rebuke from Foreign Secretary George Brown both in parliament and privately to the owner of The Sunday Times, Lord Thomson. The rebuke made Evans "extremely chary of doing anything further lest he attract additional criticism". From then on he sought advice and guidance from Denis Greenhill, Deputy Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office.

    As the Cabinet documents show, when having published the first articles Evans received an invitation from Philby to send an interviewer to Moscow for the full story, he immediately went to seek permission from the Foreign Office.

    On 30 October 1967, Denis Greenhill reported to Sir Burke Trend, Cabinet Office Secretary:

    "Mr Harold Evans, the editor of The Sunday Times, rang me on Saturday evening to tell me on a personal basis that he had received a telegram from Philby in Moscow. This telegram invited The Sunday Times to send someone to Moscow to make contact with him. Mr Evans said that he was in some doubt as to how to reply and would like my personal views, which I could give him at his private address on Monday".

    After the Foreign Office voiced its displeasure and warned The Sunday Times might again be in breach of the Official Secrets Act, Evans stepped back. He rang Denis Greenhill and told him that his paper wouldn't be sending anyone to meet Philby in Moscow and wouldn't be paying any money to the "traitor". Evans, however, told Greenhill that he had passed the project to a reputable literary agent, George Greenfield. If Greenfield agreed and brought the manuscript to London, Evans promised to submit it for "proper security clearance" and only if it was cleared would he consider using it. The Foreign Office leaned on Evans' boss Denis Hamilton to dissuade Greenfield from pursuing the matter.

    In the meantime, Evans continued his informal meetings with Sir Denis Greenhill keeping him abreast of The Sunday Times dealings with Philby.

    "Mr Harold Evans of The Sunday Times came to see me at my flat at lunchtime on Saturday. He said that their man Murray Sayle had now returned from Moscow, where he met Philby. Evans said that he would get Sayle to record the details of his exchanges but there was nothing very much to report".

    Greenhill told Evans that it would be advantageous for them to publish details of the exchanges between Sayle and Philby "as they showed Philby very much in his true colours". Evans asked whether the Foreign Office would be prepared to give him a letter saying the publication of this was welcome to them, adding that he probably ought to try to keep his independence on this matter and not be seen to be doing the government’s bidding. But bid he did!

    "Evans said that he had been reading the proofs of the 'Insight' team's book on Philby and had made some deletions which he thought would be welcome to us. For example, he had erased reference to the British Council which I had originally told him would be very much against our interests. I said he would be very well advised to check very carefully many of the assertions which I expected were in the book".

    Evans asked Greenhill whether the Foreign Office was alarmed by the possibility of Philby's memoirs being published and whether he could take "some defusing action". He would be very glad to cooperate in any way to achieve this.

    Taking Greenhill's cue about writing up the exchanges between Sayle and Philby, Evans did exactly that and showed the piece to Greenhill before publication. Greenhill asked him to "toughen it up in certain ways", which Evans did. The result, Greenhill reported back to his bosses, "was not entirely unsatisfactory". Evans again asked for a letter approving his action. Greenhill had to dampen his enthusiasm for a very close a relationship between The Sunday Times and the Foreign Office.

    "I said in my view neither of us would benefit from an exchange of letters to this effect. If the exchange became known, I thought The Sunday Times would appear in the undignified position of having the government pat it on the head. Equally, we would be shown in a relationship with The Sunday Times which I did not think was of advantage to the Foreign Office or the newspaper".

    Evans was not alone in offering his services to the government. Sidney Bernstein, the boss of Granada Television who also bid for an interview with Philby asked Greenhill:

    "…whether it might be possible that during the interview Philby would reveal information of value to us. …he said we would be perfectly willing for us to let him have questions for his people to put to Philby. I thanked him but I really did not believe that the interview would give us information of any real interest".

    MPs on Secret Payroll

    Philby's memoirs exposed other no less unsavoury relationships between the government and MPs. Alarmed by Philby's claims, Prime Minister Harold Wilson requested information from the secret service on whether MPs were being unduly influenced by secret payments. The reply was that a number of serving MPs had indeed been receiving money from secret funds. Some were on the payroll, while others received one-off expenses for "special missions".

    One of the paymasters was the Information Research Department (IRD), the propaganda arm of the Foreign Office, and dubbed the UK's "Cold War Fake News Factory" for manufacturing anti-Soviet and anti-communist propaganda in coordination with MI5, MI6, and the BBC World Service.

    IRD commissioned MPs to write books and articles on anti-communist and anti-trade unionist themes. The list provided by MI5 makes for interesting reading.

    • Francis Noel Baker, who made his name campaigning against MPs having outside interests that led to political corruption.
    • John Baker White, a colourful personality who toyed with fascism in the 1920s, then became an amateur anti-German spy and during WWII honed his skills as a master of disinformation.
    • John Strachey, a one-time disciple of Oswald Mosley, the leader of British fascists, then a communist, then Secretary of State for War in 1950-51.
    • Christopher Mayhew, Labour spokesman on foreign affairs

    IRD paid MP Woodrow Wyatt for his role in the "redemption" of the Electrical Trades Union from communist influence. The alleged communist rigging of votes in the ETU was "exposed" by Wyatt on the BBC programme Panorama and in an article for the New Statesman.

    Bugging British Communists

    Philby's memoirs touched upon government subversion of the British Communist Party.

    "Although Hollis [MI5] had achieved little in respect of Soviet activity, he had been successful in obtaining an intimate picture of the British Communist Party by the simple expedient of having microphones installed in its King Street headquarters".

    This passage, among others, was brought to the PM's attention by the Foreign Office and he inquired whether MI5 still operated eavesdropping devices at the headquarters. "The answer is that we do and the devices are very productive".

    One may wonder if it was indeed those MI5 devices that informed the BBC's Panorama about the Electrical Trades Union.

    French Connection

    Having been tipped off by Evans that the magazine Paris Match was about to serialise Philby's memoirs, London asked its Ambassador to France Sir Patrick Reilly, and incidentally Philby's former supervisor, to raise the matter with Jean Prouvost, the proprietor of Paris Match and the newpaper Le Figaro.

    The British asked to see the manuscript but the French reminded them it would be a breach of literary rights to do so. The British then pressed "gently but firmly" and Prouvost said if he were to let them see the manuscript this had to be on a strictly personal basis and "there must be no risk that anyone else in his organisation should know that we had seen it".

    Denis Greenfield lamented that despite the British government taking "all reasonable steps to impede Philby in this matter…, I much regret it if the French have finally agreed to pay him a considerable sum".

    He could not resist a swipe at France:

    "…treachery is more familiar to the French than it is to us and no doubt the publisher was for this reason better able to accommodate himself to the fact that he was liberally rewarding someone who had damaged his own country's interests".

    In one of his regular meetings with Harold Evans, Denis Greenfield suggested The Sunday Times write an article entitled "Is there a French Philby?"

    "I suggested that the article might start from the point that Philby's memoirs seemed likely to appear in Paris Match and then go on to speculate whether the French had escaped the penetration which Philby and company had successfully achieved here".

    Harold Evans obliged and informed the Foreign Office that The Sunday Times had prepared such a story for publication and even offered it to Life magazine in the United States. He said they had interviewed the Frenchman suggested by Greenhill and were happy to show the text to him for approval but the Deputy Under-Secretary asked him not to show the text to anyone in the government.

    Such a publication Greenhill told his boss would "show the French government in a rather indifferent light (to put it mildly), and we should be able to say that we had nothing to do with the text and did not even see it in advance". His boss agreed:

    "There's no harm in a bit of dirty work at this particular crossroads".
    Government spies in media

    Whether the French obliged and showed Philby's memoirs to the British or not, London "obtained covertly" a typescript copy from their source in the British press.

    "We have secured a sight of the memoirs from a member of the staff of The Sunday Telegraph and we have now made copies. It is, of course, essential that the action of The Sunday Telegraph employee in passing us the memoirs should be in all circumstances protected".

    The storm around the Philby memoirs had hardly subsided when a new beast came from the East:

    "I hear George Blake, who has been writing his memoirs, is now at or near the end of his manuscript".

    How did the Foreign Office know? They had their sources on the inside.

    "B.B.C. Television have been in touch with a member of George Blake's family about a possible television interview. In order not to reveal the source we should have to say only in very general terms that we had heard there might be some idea of a television interview".

    The BBC had already been urged by the Foreign Office to "put a stop to any proposition of this kind" regarding Philby. Lord Hill, Chairman of the BBC Governors, an ostensibly independent supervisory body,

    "…appeared to be fully sympathetic. He asked that our interview, however, should be regarded as not having taken place".

    Shortly afterward BBC Editor Aidan Crawley called Ministry of Defence censors to say the BBC had decided to drop the idea of an interview with Philby.

    "Crawley showed complete sympathy and stated that although his journalistic instincts would be to agree with the interview nevertheless his personal feelings were dead against it".

    Lord Aylestone of the Independent Television Authority also promised to:

    "…exclude from Independent Television programmes any interview with Philby that might be arranged by one of its companies; and it will discourage the pursuit of such a possibility by any company that shows signs of entertaining the idea".
    Blurring the Truth

    As if the press articles and TV interviews were not enough of a headache for the government, there was a flood of book projects on Philby from various publishers.

    At a special meeting at the Cabinet Office on 21 November 1967, it was decided to ensure that books on Philby were looked over by carefully chosen reviewers who could refute with authority any inaccuracies and "false emphases" in the publications. But it was recognised that however forcefully this point was made by reviewers, the reader would still be the final arbiter between the world of Philby and that of the reviewer.

    "The effect would be to blur the issue but such blurring was in itself desirable".

    Coincidentally or not, shortly after that Cabinet Office meeting The Evening Standard carried a short article claiming there were several Philby manuscripts making the rounds among British publishers and it was impossible to know which one was authentic.

    Dirty work in action.

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