Private from 2000 on MI6 and the Observer

This is another ominous piece from Private Eye for Friday, 16th June 2000.

Two years ago, a dozen hacks from the Observer sent an indignant letter to the Eye protesting at our suggestion that the paper’s foreign editor, Len Doyle, was “rather too close to British intelligence for comfort.”

Doyle, they insisted, “is a respected friend and highly regarded journalist and innuendo about his lack of impartiality does him a grave injustice”.

Lo and behold, in this Monday’s Guardian, ex-Observer hack David Leigh belatedly confirmed that Doyle was indeed “in contact with MI6”, and encouraged his staff to pursue leads provided by “the men in shiny suits”, as he called them. “We … had ended up, in effect, acting as government agents,” Leigh concluded, though he hastily added that Doyle always “behaved scrupulously”.

This doesn’t quite tally with the experience of the Observer’s former diplomatic editor, shyam Bhatia, who on 24 September 1997 was taken to lunch by Doyle with one of the shiny-suit brigade, a senior MI6 officer called Peter Noonan. They had barely ordered their drinks before Noonan revealed that MI6 boss Sir David Sedding was furious at a piece about him in that day’s Grauniad by Francis Wheen. Noonan was determined to find out everything he could about the wretched Wheen. Where did he live? Was he married? Did he have children?

To Bhatia’s astonishment and dismay, Doyle did his best to provide the information required. It may or may not be coincidence that Bhatia left the Observer soon afterwards.

Meanwhile Doyle is now foreign editor of the Independent (sic). Do the paper’s editor and directors share his apparent view that journalists should inform on their colleagues to the spooks of Vauxhall Cross?

Now British intelligence has long had connections in Fleet Street. Ken Livingstone mentions in his book, Livingstone’s Labour, that a former head of the Mirror was one. I’ve also read rumours, but no actual proof, that Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neil, now of the Daily Politics, also had intelligence connections when he was at the Sunday Times.

The piece was sinister enough when it was published, with the implication that the heads of the intelligence services would devote resources and manpower into monitoring and manipulating the press, and pursuing personal vendettas against journalists, who they considered troublesome. It’s even more sinister when you take into account the revelations that MI5 at one point in the 1970s were looking at opening an internment camp for subversives, including ’50 MPs, not all Labour’, in Shetland or one of the other Scots Islands.

It is even more troubling sixteen years later, after governments have passed successive acts vastly expanding the powers of the surveillance state and providing for a system of secret courts, in which you can be tried without the public and your family knowing your location, and from which the press and public are excluded. These courts also allow witnesses to present their evidence anonymously, and that evidence itself may not be disclosed to you. All in the name of national security and combating terrorism. All this makes you wonder how free the press truly is, and for how long.

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