7th January 2012
In mid-1980 the BBC informed the British government that they were putting together an episode of flagship documentary series Panorama that would focus on the Intelligence services. Over the following several months there was intense negotiation between the government and the BBC, resulting in a heavily-censored version of the documentary being broadcast in February 1981. The files of the Office of the Prime Minister describing this process have recently become available via the National Archives (reference PREM 19/587) and they shed light on how and why the censorship took place.
A letter marked Top Secret from Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outlined the problem and possible responses. Included among its suggestions was the idea that the government intervene and actively veto the broadcast, preventing the BBC from airing the programme. This is a provision of the BBC's charter that has, to my knowledge, never actually been used. Though Armstrong explained that use of the veto would inevitably lead to a 'hoo ha' of criticism and increased interest in the very issue they were trying to keep quiet - the Intelligence Services - Thatcher wrote at the top of the letter that she was 'prepared to use the veto'.
You can download the full letter here. So what were the government's concerns? For one thing, no BBC documentary had ever been made before about the Intelligence Services, though of course the James Bond film series (which portrays a fictional MI6 agent) had been going for two decades by this point. The film's reporters and researchers had gained access to a high grade of interviewees, people in a position to answer important questions. This was a watershed moment - official policy at that point was still to refuse to answer questions about MI5, MI6, GCHQ and Special Branch and to not even acknowledge the existence of the first three.
Indeed, discussion of these institutions and their practices was effectively forbidden by D-Notices. Copies of the two relevant notices are included in the National Archives file and can be downloaded here. The problem with D-Notices is that they are requests - firmly worded requests and with the implication that action will be taken against those who refuse the requests, but requests nonetheless. Furthermore, much of the information the BBC were intending to use was already in the public domain, just not consolidated together.
It is clear from the documents that the Tory government also suspected that the BBC documentary was part of a Lefty plot to discredit the Intelligence Services. At the time all this was going on, Labour MP Robin Cook was attempting to introduce a bill providing greater oversight, or rather at least some oversight, of the Services.
Cook had a conflicted relationship with the Western security establishment - as a young MP he tried to get the bill off the ground and failed miserably. When Labour won the 1997 election he was appointed Foreign Secretary to oversee Britain's all-new 'ethical' foreign policy. While in that position he presided over the Shaylergate affair, where MI6 were accused of sponsoring terrorists in an assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi. He then resigned from the cabinet on the eve of the Iraq war, in what appears to be a genuine moment of moral objection. As the 7/7 bombings happened he was writing an article published by the Guardian the day after the terrorist attacks which decried Al Qaeda as 'a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies.' He died weeks later.
Indeed, more so than the issue of the existence of British security services, more so than their covert spying methods, the question that seemed to bother the British government most was that of accountability. They saw any raising of the question - by Cook or the BBC - as an attack on the Services, a point made by Sir Robert Armstrong in a meeting with BBC director general Sir Ian Trethowan. Ultimately, pressure on Trethowan led to him showing a 100-minute version of the documentary to Bernard Sheldon, the legal adviser for MI6. Sheldon then recommended a large number of cuts, butchering the film before it was broadcast.
This is perhaps the moment at which the policy of Spook Publicity in the UK changed forever. As the BBC comment in their article on these documents:
The actual content now looks relatively tame compared to the kind of press coverage given to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ in the modern era but at the time the institutions were barely acknowledged to exist and shied away from anything about them being brought into the public domain.
How things have changed. Only 30 years ago the British government went to the extent of directly pressuring the director general of the BBC to actively censor a documentary about the Intelligence Services. Today, we have this:
This is episode 1 of a 2004 BBC TV series called Spy. Unlike the James Bond films or companion BBC shows such as Spooks, Spy is a reality TV show, using real members of the public and having them trained by real former spies - one MI6, one CIA, and one unspecified former 'Intelligence Officer'. The members of the public are competing against one another in 'Spy School', where they are taught how to lie, cheat, manipulate and invade people's privacy.
From denial of existence to glorification on mainstream TV in less than 25 years, the Intelligence Services now occupy a major position in the propaganda. Spies have for a long time been shown to be sexy, cool and highly enviable characters, but this show goes further, as what we see is to a large extent what actually happened when they made the show. Perhaps most importantly, and beyond the superficial propaganda of 'look how great the spooks are' is the continually reinforced message that the spying 'game' is nowhere for people to have moral objections. Over and over the 'recruits' are told that they need to leave their feelings and their conscience at the door and just do 'whatever it takes' to achieve the objectives set for them each week.
This is significant because spying has, at least in Britain, been popularly considered to be an unjust, immoral and ungentlemanly way of carrying on. The notion of men in disguise sneaking into people's houses, eavesdropping on their conversations and general acting like state-sponsored criminal conspirators has, quite rightly, been seen as at best a necessary evil, if not a deliberate intrusion by the state on the privacy of ordinary and innocent citizens. As the policy has shifted from secrecy to open conspiracy and the apparatus of the spy state has begun to be laid bare for scrutiny, shows like Spy are crucial in convincing people that there is nothing morally wrong with what they are seeing.
That is my greatest cause for concern in analysing the 'Overt Ops' trend - that the amoral and often illegal attitudes and actions of the Intelligence Services are being popularised and normalised, to the extent that they do not cause the justifiable outrage that they should. So what can we do about this? We can try to outrun them, try to shed light on these manipulations at a faster rate than they are trying to normalise them. There are many techniques and pratices of the Intelligence Services that still have the capacity to shock people into action, and overt censorship is one of those. If we can accelerate the process by which these tactics and techniques are elucidated then we can stay ahead of the curve and maintain the pressure needed to force these institutions to either adapt, or be abolished.