Posts Tagged ‘Chris Mullins’

Tony Benn on the Security Service’s Hostility to the Labour Movement

February 28, 2020

The revelation last year that Tweezer’s government was funding the Democracy Initiative and its parent organisation, the Institute for Statecraft, revealed that the British secret state was still hostile to the Labour movement and determined to attack and disrupt any political figure standing for radical change. The Initiative was supposed to combat pro-Russian propaganda on the Net, but instead focused on smearing and trying to discredit British and foreign political leaders, of whom it disapproved. One of them was, surprise, surprise!, Jeremy Corbyn. Although supposedly a private company, the Democracy Initiative had extensive links to the British secret state and the cyberwarfare section of the SAS. As the election rolled on, we also saw various army chiefs and spokespeople for the intelligence agencies tell the Tory papers that they regarded Corbyn as a threat to national security.

In fact the British secret services were always suspicious of the Labour Party. They’re part of the establishment, and so regarded the Labour movement as a whole as subversive. There is considerable evidence that MI5 was behind the rumours in the 1970s smearing the Labour premier Harold Wilson as a KGB spy. Lobster has published a series of articles about British intelligence’s campaign of disinformation against Labour, including how the IRD – a now defunct intelligence department – published fake documents and news during the 1970s to smear Labour politicos like Tony Benn as IRA sympathisers and Communists.

Benn was very much aware of this, and discusses it and the establishment’s general animosity towards the Labour movement in many of his books, including the volume: Tony Benn: Arguments for Democracy, edited by Chris Mullin. Benn wrote

The security services, or at least an element within them, regard those who work within the Labour movement, especially its socialist activists, as being a security risk for that reason alone. Conservatives would not be so classified.

This interpretation of a security risk has never been publicly discussed by ministers, although, if it is as widespread as I believe it to be, it raises major issues of public policy and civil liberties. For it means that the security services, far from being limited in their work to the discovery of direct external and internal threats to our democracy, are also active indirectly as the upholders of the status quo in our society and are treating socialists who wish to change that status quo by democratic means as potential enemies of that democracy.

In the long run this is the biggest threat to political freedom from the state. In the short run it is used to justify a degree of surveillance of certain organisations and individuals in Britain which goes far beyond what is publicly admitted.

The methods used include the widespread interception of communications, the extensive tapping of telephones, and the maintenance of a bar upon employment for people in both government and sensitive industrial work against whom no conceivable charge of treason or subversion would stand up for one moment in any court of law, nor would it command public support if it had to be justified publicly. Hence the secrecy.

The trade unions are of course a special target for surveillance by the security services. The evidence recently published by the Post Office Engineering Union must be taken seriously in this context. There is no room for doubt that active trade unionists do have their telephone calls regularly intercepted,. and this surveillance is redoubled during industrial disputes, as in the miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. I was present on one social occasion when a former Labour prime minister indicated this quite clearly.

Twide, as a minister, I was told categorically that the candidates I had proposed for major public appointments were not acceptable on security grounds. The two men concerned were senior members of the General Council of the TUC, active in the Labour Party, and each was then playing a key role in supporting the policies of the then Labour Government. In each case it took a letter from me to the prime minister personally, and in one case a request for a meeting with him, to discuss the matter, to have these objections overruled. Had I not done so, the men would have remained disqualified from public service on security grounds.

Ministers who have direct responsibility for the work of the security services, if asked about the way they exercise their responsibilities, always insist that their control is direct, personal and complete. I very much doubt whether this is the case. If it is so, the Labour ministers must have authorised the incidents of which I have personal knowledge, and this they certainly should not have done. But in my view it is much more likely that the security services do not inform the ministers of what is going on, or cover up their activities in phrases designed to secure acquiescence. (pp. 75-6).

He adds further details to this description of the activities of the British secret state in note 5 to that chapter, ‘Civil Liberties and the Security Services’ on pp. 241-2. This states

According to Mr Chapman Pincher in his book Inside Story, Sidgwick and Jackson 1978, MI5 have files on more than two million people and our security services apparently believe that 59 Labour MPs in the 1974-9 Parliament had ‘current or recent connections with Communist, Trotskyite and other Marxist organisations’. The Special Branch also appear to take a close interest in politics and trade union affairs. For example, during an occupation to prevent closure of a British Steel subsidiary in Greenwich, workers came across Special Branch reports on two of their colleagues. For details of this and other cases see Crispin Aubrey, Who’s Watching You, Pelican, 1981, pp. 36-7.

Benn produced a list of his own suggestions for combating the threat to British democracy from the security services, the civil service establishment and new technology. These were

  1. An analysis of the dangers to the security of the state, external and internal.
  2. A study of the technology now available and the use to which it is being put by other comparable countries.
  3. To consider the case for publishing every year all information that could be published without endangering security, including: i, The budget and staffing of the security services. ii. The names of those in charge of them, as in the USA. iii The guidelines issued to those services relating to their objectives and methods. iv The numbers of dossiers in existence relating to political activities. v A report on the reasons for collecting these dossiers and an account of what happens to the information acquired for inclusion in them. vi An annual report on the total number of interceptions of communications by telephone or mail. vii The full list of foreign security services with which UK security services have arrangements for reciprocal exchange of information, or with which they work.
  4. To argue the case for a special House of Commons select committee, meeting, when necessary, in secret, composed exclusively of privy councillors empowered to question both the responsible ministers and security chiefs on the whole range of their policy and activities – to report annually to Parliament in a form which can be published.
  5. To press for an appeals procedure for citizens reporting to the select committee on matters concerning their own records only.
  6. To have the same rights to information for citizens about records and files kept on them as are enjoyed by US citizens under contemporary US legislation.
  7. To secure the introduction of a ‘Security Services Annual Act’ under which, as with the Army and the Airforce Acts of earlier years, Parliament gains the ultimate control of the security services. (p. 89).

These are all excellent suggestions, but there is absolutely no chance that they’ll ever get passed in the foreseeable future. Boris has an overwhelming majority, which means that he will have no trouble blocking any attempt to reel in the security services. There would also be strong opposition from the Blairites in the Labour Party. When Blair got into power, he and his cabinet were not at all interested in making the security services more accountable. This was so even when MI5 had kept many of them under surveillance as potential subversives. It is symptomatic of this attitude that although Jack Straw was offered the chance of looking at his MI5 file, he didn’t.

And so unfortunately the security services will continue to work against Labour activists, viewing them as subversives, even when they are no such thing.

Tony Benn’s Suggestions for Media Reform

February 10, 2020

One of the other books I picked up going through the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham last Friday was Tony Benn: Arguments for Democracy, edited by Chris Mullins and published in 1981. Based on Benn’s speeches, articles and lectures over the previous two years, the book was Benn’s observation on the profoundly undemocratic nature of British society, and his suggestions for reform. He wanted to create a more democratic society that would empower ordinary people and move towards the establishment of socialism.

Although it was written forty years ago, the book and its arguments are still tremendously relevant. One of the chapters is on media bias against the working class and the Labour party. As we’ve seen over the past five years and particularly during the last election in December, this is very much a live issue because of the unrelenting hostility by nearly all of the media, including and especially the Beeb, against Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters and the Labour party as a whole. Benn discusses right-wing media bias in the chapter, ‘The Case for a Free Press’, and on pages 118 to 120 he makes his suggestions for its reform.  Benn wrote

‘Some Proposals for Reform

Reform of the media has only recently come to be taken seriously. The Glasgow University Media Group, the Campaign for Press Freedom, the Minority Press Group and academics such as James Curran at the Polytechnic of Central London have produced a wealth of carefully researched analysis and proposals for reform which would reward seriously study. At the time of writing the Labour Party National Executive Committee has a working party considering what must be done to obtain a media responsive to the needs of a twentieth-century democracy rather than an arm of the British establishment. I do not wish to anticipate the proposals of the working party, but in the interests of stimulating debate on this important subject I set out below some of the possibilities for reform which are now being discussed in the Labour Party and elsewhere.

  1. An Open Press Authority

This has been suggested by James Curran and Jean Seaton in their book Power Without Responsibility. This would be a public agency accountable to Parliament and it would aim to extend the freedom to publish. The OPA objectives would include the following:

i Provision off a launch fund, raised partly from a tax on media advertising expenditure, to assist new publications.

ii Grants to assist publications that have failed to attract significant advertising.

iii A National Print Corporation to extend modern printing facilities to a wide range of publications.

iv A guarantee of distribution for minority publications through a new wholesale organisation.

2. Anti-Monopoly Legislation

Considerations will have to be given to legislation to break up the huge newspaper monopolies; existing monopoly legislation has proved wholly ineffective for this purpose. Such legislation should also prohibit or severely limit investment by newspaper chains in television and commercial radio.

3. Reform of the Wholesale Trade

Wholesale and retail distribution of British newspapers and magazines in dominated by just three companies: W.H. Smith, John Menzies and Surridge Dawson. In many areas one or other of these companies has a complete monopoly. The result is that non-consensus publications have great difficulty in reaching the news stands. The French have solved this problem by imposing a legal obligation on wholesalers and retailers to carry, on request, all lawful publications excluding pornography. Publishers have to pay a handling charge on all returns. As a result the French public have access to a far more diverse range of political views than we do in Britain. The French example should be studied.

4 The Right of Reply

Where a newspaper or magazine has published a report about an individual or group which seriously distorts the truth, the person or organisation offended should have the right to set the record straight in the columns of that newspaper. The reply should be allotted adequate space and prominence and it should appear as soon as possible after the original story. It should be made legally enforceable. The Campaign for Press Freedom has set out the case for a right of reply in an excellent pamphlet.

5 Broadcasting

i Instead of being composed of the ‘great and the good’, worthy citizens chosen for their alleged impartiality, the boards of the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority should contain representatives of a wide spectrum of opinion and interest groups.

ii The proceedings of the two boards of governors and all internal directives on policy should be publicly available.

iii The IBA should be given a legal obligation when awarding franchises, to give preference to non-profit-making applications such as cooperatives; at present most franchises got to companies more concerned with profits than quality.

iv The BBC is too big. It should be broken up into separate independent units for television, radio and the overseas service.

v The BBC licence fee, which places the Corporation at the mercy of the government, should be abolished and replaced by a grant awarded by Parliament five years in advance.

vi The Fourth Channel, as presently constituted, is controlled by the IBA and will buy in programmes from commercial companies. It should be reconstituted as a separate, publicly financed cooperative which would act as a ‘publisher’ of programmes made by freelance and independent production groups.

6 Satellite Broadcasting

By the mid-1980s satellite communication systems will make it feasible for American or European commercial television to be relayed into Britain. The result could be a diversion of advertising revenue away from existing publicly regulated services and an end of any chance of creating and maintaining public service broadcasting. As a matter of urgency Britain must contact other European governments with a view to placing under international control all companies using satellites for this purpose.’

He concludes the chapter with this:

These are some of the ways in which the British media could be developed to serve democracy rather than a consensus which has long been overtaken by events. I list these suggestions simply as a basis for consideration in an area where, until recently, there has been very little positive discussion. The free flow of information is the life blood of democracy and the present ownership structure and organisation of our media is incompatible with democracy. At a time of crisis, such as we now face, itis important that people should be able to choose freely between the various alternatives that political parties are seeking to put before them. To do that they need to be properly informed. That should be the role of the media in a democracy.

I’m not sure how many of these suggestions are relevant today, given the expansion of satellite and cable broadcasting,  the establishment of Channel 5 and the rise of the Net. My guess is that much of it is still acutely relevant, and the situation regarding the press monopolies has got worse since Benn wrote this. Murdoch now has an even firmer grip on the press and his own satellite channel, Sky, which he’d like to replace the Beeb. The Beeb has shown itself craven and massively biased towards the Tories, but they’re going to break it up and sell it off if they can in order to please Murdoch and the other commercial broadcasters. I think most of these reforms are still very much needed, but can’t see them ever being put in place given the massive opposition they provoke among the press and media barons, who control public opinion.

Corbyn’s supporters found a way round that with the internet, and Richard Burgon at the recent Labour deputy leadership hustings in Bristol suggested that Labour supporters should look to this and other alternative media rather than the old media. There are problems with this too, as the right have also latched on to the power of the Net. But it might just be the best, or only, way to move forward.