By John Fullerton
The other day someone – a stranger – tweeted that there was a very special place in hell for journalists who work as spies.
It caught my attention partly because there has to be a special place across the Styx reserved in my name because that’s exactly what I did, at least for a couple of years as a ‘contract labourer’ for the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS during the Cold War, a period that forms – very loosely – the basis of my novel Spy Game.
As my contract with SIS drew to an end, I was asked by two senior SIS officers what I intended to do, and it was clear that they were keen to renew my contract, but I had other plans. I told them I was going to work for Reuters.
‘But you do realise that if you do, we can have no further contact.’
I did know. I knew that at that time the BBC, the Financial Times and Reuters prohibited both SIS and the Security Service from using their journalists for intelligence purposes.
How rigorously that policy was applied I can’t say.
It reminds me that within a matter of weeks of taking up a new Reuters post in Cairo as Chief Correspondent Egypt in the mid-80s that I was approached by one of the local staff, a lively and well-connected Egyptian reporter. He wanted to speak to me in private.
He’d been invited in to talk to officers of Egypt’s moukhabarat, or secret police. It’s not an invitation to be declined lightly. They knew all about him, his family, his connections to the presidency, adding that they knew him to be a solid citizen, a loyal Egyptian.
‘Tell us about the farang (foreigner),’ one of the officers said. ‘How does he spend his spare time? Does he drink? Does he do drugs? What were you two talking about outside restaurant X on Wednesday evening? Has he got a girlfriend as well as a wife? They wanted my young colleague to report on me from time to time, to add more details to the foreigner’s growing file.
Something similar happened a while later, this time to one of our female reporters, a highly intelligent person capable of immense persistence and drive. She too was ‘invited’ in for a chat. Once again I had been the prime topic of conversation. The episode had upset her and she felt torn between her need to keep her discussion with the moukhabarat confidential for her own sake, and her duty to me, her employer.
She said she felt contaminated by the discussion, tainted. She pointed out that her hosts could wreck her career, could prevent her from succeeding in any profession.
My advice to them both was the same: do as they ask, don’t lie or hold back and tell them all you know. I have nothing to hide, and if I do, it’s my problem, not yours. Don’t feel bad – do your duty as you see it, as Egyptian citizens.
Of course I already knew I was watched. My driver reported to the moukhabarat on my movements, while my comings and goings at our block of flats in Zamalek where I lived with my wife and two very young children were recorded by the friendly bawabs or doormen. They didn’t have any other option but to contribute to a snowstorm of paper notes all destined for those moukhabarat files.
This brought home to me the fact that a UK national working abroad, and especially a foreign correspondent, is assumed to be an intelligence operative. Undoubtedly it was in part the product of Britain’s colonial past. Was this assumption also based on the fact that so many journalists had in fact worked as spies?
I suspect this was indeed the case.
In other words, journalists who moonlighted for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the CIA, the KGB, the GRU or indeed the Chinese Gouanbu (foreign intelligence) or PLA2 (military intelligence) were doing the business of journalism a good deal of damage by exploiting its access to people of influence as cover for their respective government’s clandestine purposes. They were bringing the bright, truth-seeking vocation of the true journalist into disrepute and harming the latter’s role in speaking truth to power.
Which was presumably the point the tweeter was making.
During the Cold War I came to assume that anyone working for Izvestia, Pravda or Novosti (APN) to be automatically a KGB or GRU officer. Smart, physically fit, good linguists, often funny, they were obviously the best of their generation.
In the UK it used to be a matter of class. In my own family in times past, the eldest traditionally inherited all property. He might spend a few years in the army, but his duty was running the family’s affairs. Younger sons would have to work for a living. They had a choice, as did my father: navy or church.
Working for SIS would have been an extension of this duty to the British establishment.
When I hinted to my father that I was on special duties of some kind, he just grunted. ‘I would hope so,’ was his only response and he went on clipping the roses.
But that world has vanished into the history books.
In this neoliberal culture, with state and government reduced to the status of gatekeepers or enablers of global finance, and with journalists all too willing to be hired by their corporate bosses do the grisly propaganda work of the Murdochs and surviving Barclay brother or indeed the Tory party, working as a spy seems merely a petty and rather old fashioned infringement of ethical standards. There are worse crimes – one only has to read certain newspapers, especially certain tabloids, to see that this is so.
Check out The Guardian, that bastion of liberalism and social democracy, and especially its coverage (or lack of it) of Assange and Corbyn and you’ll see what I mean.
There is some irony, I suppose, in having joined Reuters immediately after working as a ‘contract labourer’ for SIS. No news organisation was more proud of its principles of accuracy, objectivity and neutrality – from the top editor down to the telex operators.
It was said – and still is – that Reuters is fiercely independent despite having been swallowed up Thomson.
Reuters was certainly seen as special. At least, I thought so – along no doubt with all its other correspondents and editors. It had an enviable, maybe unique, esprit de corps.
Yet three famous – or infamous – names spring to mind: John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. All were novelists, they all had connections with Reuters and they all had worked in intelligence in one capacity or another.
In WW2, largely to deflect government pressure to be more ‘on side’, Reuters had become a private company and its owners created a Trust enshrining its all-important principles to which all adhered.
But few, if any of us, knew that during the post-war period Reuters had received a considerable annual subsidy to expand its African and Middle East coverage, and this secret stream of income that continued until 1970 came out of the Information Research Department or IRD, a covert section of the Foreign Office created to combat Soviet influence.
The payments were paid via the BBC to ensure secrecy.
Quite what IRD, the Foreign Office or Whitehall generally thought they were getting in return for their money – or, more accurately, the taxpayers’ money – is still vague.
Maybe those Egyptian moukhabarat officers had a point, after all.