Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Spy stories (1987)

From the January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Does it matter whether or not Roger Hollis and Lord Rothschild were Russian spies? The fact that Hollis was the head of MI5 and Rothschild also worked for the security services makes no difference. In fact it only goes to prove what 1 had always thought anyway. Either MI5 and M16 are staffed by incompetents: after all if Hollis was a spy then he (not to mention Blunt, Maclean, Burgess and Philby) couldn’t have been very good since the information that he gave to the Russians doesn't appear to have done much to help them gain the upper hand. Also to have appointed one double agent might have been an oversight, to appoint two was certainly careless but to appoint five and then put one of them in charge is simply astounding. Or maybe the security services are only a form of job creation for the otherwise unemployed and, no doubt unemployable, members of the international ruling class. Some take up horse-breeding or art history, others do "good works" and some go to work for the security services.

Here they can play a game that has rules of etiquette as complicated as those of cricket, is more exciting than polo, and uses a language more cryptic than that in clues to The Times crossword. What’s more you can make up the rules as you go along, swap sides half way through the game or even be on both sides at the same time. And when you're too old to play any more then you can write a book about it all and take part in a new and even more exciting game which is played by lawyers and politicians for high stakes but again with rules that are made up as they go along, conducted in coded language and with rules of etiquette beyond the grasp of us in the lower classes.

So why is it that the British government is so anxious to stop the publication of one ex-MI5 agent's reminiscences? After all it can't be for reasons of "national security" (secret code for the interests of the British capitalist class) since Peter Wright worked for the security services at the very time when they had let a group of young wags from that other refuge for the unemployed ruling class — Cambridge University — join the club. They had thought that it might be a bit of a hoot, rather a jolly jape in fact, to play for the Russians while they were still in the British team. So if there was anything in Peter Wright's book worth knowing then someone would undoubtedly have told the Russians already.

So if it's not the Russians that they don't want to see the book what's the problem? Well of course there is the difficulty that Peter Wright's behaviour just isn't cricket. After all when a chap is allowed to join the club it simply isn't the done thing to go and spill the beans about the high jinks and pranks that some of the other chaps get up to just because he's financially embarrassed. And besides it might give some of the other chaps the idea that they can break the club oath that they took when they were allowed to join. After all signing the Official Secrets Act was meant to stop the members breathing a word to anyone, about anything that goes on inside the club no matter how trivial, cross your heart and hope to die.

But it's not just a case of the ruling class stamping their feet and getting petulant because someone's not playing the game properly. It's more serious than that. It's not because of the Russians that the government is trying to ban Wright's book. Neither is it acting in a fit of pique: no government would be prepared to put its most senior civil servant through the mill in the way that Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, has been in the Australian court over the past few weeks just because of pique. No. the only plausible reason to explain why the government wants so badly to ban Wright's book is that it contains things that are politically embarrassing, that it doesn't want us—workers in Britain—to find out about. (However, if the source of the embarrassment is simply the revelations that the security services put Harold Wilson under surveillance while he was Prime Minister, then I will be forced to accept the "incompetent" theory rather than the "job creation" theory. Only a bunch of totally incompetent security agents could possibly think of Harold Wilson as a political subversive). After all this is supposed to be a liberal democratic country and plots hatched in secret by security agents don't quite fit the picture. Also it might get workers thinking about who else MI5 is watching: it was only last year that another ex-MI5 operative. Cathy Massiter, told how she had been instructed to spy on members of CND, the National Council for Civil Liberties and trade unionists. That didn't fit very well with the liberal democratic rhetoric either.

The truth is that knowledge is power, and control of information is an important source of that power. To talk about freedom of information or even a free press or freedom of expression in Britain gives a highly incomplete and partial picture of the way things really are. The government controls the information that we, the working class, have access to in a number of different ways. Firstly there is the Official Secrets Act that not only makes it an offence to give information to "the enemy" but also makes it a crime for any civil servant or contractor to disclose any information learned in the course of his or her job or for anyone to receive such unauthorised disclosures. In other words there is no right to know anything at all about the work of the government or civil service. It is entirely at the discretion of the government and senior civil servants whether or not to release information. Obviously they will try, wherever possible, to only release information that shows them in a good light. And they can do that through, for example, reports and government statistics selectively made public at the most opportune time and through timely briefings during which truths, half-truths and outright lies are fed to tame Lobby journalists and then regurgitated as "news" for our benefit. But newspapers collude with the state in other ways too. For example they have representatives on the "D-Notice" committee which designates certain areas—especially relating to defence and the security services—as no-go areas for the media and sends out guidelines to that effect to all newspaper editors.

Secondly, the government can influence the broadcasting media through its powers of patronage, which means that it decides who sits on the nominally independent Board of Governors of the BBC and its ultimate control of the airwaves which enables politicians to lean very heavily on broadcasters as was the case with the Real Lives programme, or more recently when Norman Tebbit, on behalf of the Tory party, accused the BBC of bias. In certain instances, as was the case during the Falklands War, it will use outright censorship in order to ensure that only approved information reaches us.

Thirdly, the content of newspapers and television programmes is affected by the fact that ownership of the press and broadcasting media is concentrated in the hands of a small number of media moguls, notorious for their reactionary views and often working hand in glove with politicians who periodically reward them with knighthoods and peerages for their loyalty.

So the antics of Robert Armstrong in court in Sydney may appear to be just another daft ruling class parlour game but the fact that the government is deadly serious about it suggests that we should also take it seriously. It is, to use Armstrong's own memorable euphemism, symptomatic of the way the ruling class is always "economical with the truth".
Janie Percy-Smith

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