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Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism and Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism. His PhD was published as Secret State, Silent Press: New Militarism, the Gulf and the Modern...
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The Reality of Big Brother
Written by Richard Keeble
Professor of Journalism

Published: 08 Feb 2012
One of the most intriguing revelations to emerge from the endlessly twisting and turning Hackgate controversy is that Neville Thurlbeck, former chief crime reporter of the News of the World, arrested on suspicion of illegally hacking into voicemail messages, allegedly worked also as a paid informant for the police and security services.

This should not really come as a surprise. Phillip Knightley, the eminent investigative journalist and Visiting Professor at the Lincoln School of Journalism, has suggested that at least one intelligence agent is working on every Fleet Street newspaper.

Indeed, while spies – from Somerset Maughan’s Ashenden, through James Bond, and television’s Spooks to John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (now a blockbuster film) – are an ever-present feature of our world of entertainment and fiction, paradoxically the ‘reality’ of Big Brother is little acknowledged.

For behind the democratic state (conventionally celebrated with all the rhetoric about freedom, human rights, the rule of the law, the free press and so on) lies a far more powerful and vastly over-resourced secret state – with its secret diplomacy, secret prisons, military bases, surveillance, assassinations, secret coups and secret wars.

Take for instance, journalism and the dominant ideological/propaganda system: while it might be difficult to identify precisely the impact of the spooks (variously represented in the press as ‘intelligence’, ‘security’, ‘Whitehall’ or ‘Home Office’ sources) on mainstream politics and media, from the limited evidence available it looks to be enormous. As Roy Greenslade, media blogger at the Guardian and journalism professor at City University, London, commented: ‘Most tabloid newspapers – or even newspapers in general – are playthings of MI5.’ And John le Carré, who worked for MI6 between 1960 and 1964, has even claimed that the British secret service then controlled large parts of the press – just as they may do today.

The Guardian’s David Leigh says reporters are routinely approached by intelligence agents: ‘I think the cause of honest journalism is best served by candour. We all ought to come clean about these approaches and devise some ethics to deal with them. In our vanity, we imagine that we control these sources. But the truth is that they are very deliberately seeking to control us.’ Leigh identifies three ways in which spooks manipulate hacks:
  • They attempt to recruit journalists to spy on other people or to go themselves under journalistic ‘cover’.
  • Intelligence officers are allowed to pose as journalists ‘to write tendentious articles under false names’.
  • And ‘the most malicious form: when intelligence agency propaganda stories are planted on willing journalists who disguise their origin from readers’.
Many journalists have admitted wanting actually to become spies: Taki, the Spectator’s ‘High Life’ correspondent, has confessed he tried to become a CIA agent after he found out that his father had been one. The BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman approached a security service recruiter at university but was turned down. On the other hand, journalist and later playwright Michael Frayn was invited to join M16 – but turned them down. So too the Observer’s Neal Ascherson who reported in the Observer of 11 September 2011, that, while a correspondent in Berlin and Warsaw during the 1960s and 1970s, he had to ward off approaches by spooks of both sides: ‘It wasn’t just knowing that the other lot would be aware of my recruitment – in leak-riddled Berlin, within days. It was also my guess that a mere hack informant was dispensable.’ He continued:

An attempt to recruit me ended almost instantly when the recruiter tried to seize me by the penis. On another occasion, a top MI6 officer described to me in detail how he had tortured Jewish suspects in Palestine. In Germany, a drunk British diplomat suddenly disclosed to me his true profession and several names in his West Berlin network, one of whom was a colleague.

Jonathan Bloch and Patrick Fitzgerald, in their examination of covert UK warfare, report the editor of ‘one of Britain’s most distinguished journals’ as believing that more than half its foreign correspondents were on the MI6 payroll. And so on.

It could be argued, then, that the lies about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction– fed by the spooks to the dominant press and political class – did more than hoodwink the country into an illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 – they culminated a process in which the democratic state has been taken over by the secret state. Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the threat of an emergent, super-powerful Big Brother has not been heeded.

The Hutton Inquiry, which followed the mysterious death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, missed the opportunity to investigate mainstream journalists’ too often over-cosy relationship with the spooks. Will Leveson now do the necessary probing? Hardly.
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