The Inside Story of Political Vetting
by Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor
The Hogarth Press
Published 1988 ISBN 0 7012 0811 2
Chapter 5 – MI5 and the BBC: Stamping the ‘Christmas Tree’ Files
‘One thing I can state quite categorically is that there has never been any victimisation of anyone for their political views at the BBC.’
Sir Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC 1960-69, reported in the Sunday Times, 20 February 1977.
‘On employment, our policy is to appoint the best people we can.’
Sir Ian Trethowan, Director-General of the BBC 1977 – 82, in a letter to Lord Avebury, 13 November 1980.
If ever there was an example of ‘security’ factors being used as a pretext for political vetting, it is at the BBC. When their security procedures were revealed in 1985, the corporation said that vetting was restricted to a relatively small number of people who had access to ‘sensitive information’. But in reality a large number of BBC employees – ranging from Graduate Trainees and journalists to arts producers and drama directors – were vetted by MI5 via the Personnel Department.
Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this was the attempt to blacklist Roland Joffe, probably Britain’s most distinguished film and television director. His track record includes The Killing Fields, for which Joffe received an Academy Award nomination, and The Mission which won the top prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.
In the spring of 1977 he was commissioned by the BBC to direct The Spongers, a new play about the failures of the welfare state and the desperate struggle of one woman caught in the poverty trap. The play’s author was Jim Allen and its producer was Tony Garnett. Garnett informed the BBC’s Drama Department that he wanted to hire Joffe as the director. But there was an unusually long delay in confirming his appointment. Eventually Garnett was summoned by Shaun Sutton, Head of Drama, to his fifth-floor office at the Television Centre, Wood Lane. Garnett had always had a frosty relationship with the corporation’s top executives. He had deliberately chosen an office on top of the East Tower – ‘to be as far away from management as possible.’ But as he walked into Sutton’s office that afternoon he was little prepared for what his Head of Drama was about to tell him.
Sutton looked distinctly uncomfortable. ‘There is a problem with Joffe’s contract,’ he said. ‘He hasn’t got BH (Broadcasting House) clearance.’ Astonished, Garnett asked why. Sutton refused to give a reason except to mutter: ‘It was the man in the mac in Broadcasting House.’
Garnett stormed out and went straight to see Alasdair Milne, then Managing Director of BBC TV. Milne confirmed there was a problem and tried to placate Garnett by offering him a glass of whisky. But Garnett was seething, and said he would ‘go public’ if the veto on Joffe’s appointment was not withdrawn: ‘If you want all this business to come out then it’s in your hands. If you don’t hire Joffe then I’m off as well and imagine what it would look like if I walked out in the middle of my contract.’ Milne said nothing, so Garnett continued, ‘If this continues to happen then I won’t be able to hire the people I want, which is my job as a producer.’ Milne didn’t argue. He picked up the phone and rang Sutton. ‘Hire Joffe,’ he snapped. Joffe’s contract was confirmed and The Spongers became a big success, winning that year’s prestigious Prix Italia award.
The ‘problem’ with Joffe’s appointment was that the BBC’s Personnel Department had, according to Garnett and the then Head of Plays, James Cellan-Jones, branded the director a ‘security risk’ because of his political views. This accusation was based on the fact that Joffe had attended Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) meetings in the early 1970s. Like many dramatists at the time he was briefly interested in the WRP, but he was never a party member, and by 1977 he had long severed his association with it. Joffe describes himself as a left winger, and says, ‘I was very interested in politics at that time. But I was interested in what all the political parties were doing, not just the WRP, and I was never actively involved.’
Film producer and SDP supporter David Puttnam says of Joffe’s politics: ‘Roland would have nothing to do with the ideologies of the hard left. He detests that kind of imposition on the human spirit. He’s a member of the Labour Party, and a socialist in the humanist sense. His heart is in sync with his mind.’
The attempt to blacklist Joffe had nothing to do with the BBC’s Drama Department. The recommendation had come from the Personnel Office at Broadcasting House on the advice of MI5. It was part of the highly secretive political vetting which the BBC had been practising since 1937, a situation only reformed in 1986, after considerable public and trade union pressure.
The system meant that all news and current affairs journalists, film editors, directors and producers in every department were vetted by the Security Services. Vetting was run from Room 105, a secluded office on the first floor of Broadcasting House – a part of the same network of corridors on which George Orwell modelled his Ministry of Truth in 1984. There the BBC employed a Security Liaison Officer who received the names of all successful job applicants from the chairmen of interviewing boards. Then the vetting, which in BBC-speak became known as ‘colleging’ or ‘the formalities’, took place.
All BBC employees had a personnel file which included their basic personal details and work record. But there was also a second file. This included ‘security information’ collected by Special Branch and MI5, who have always kept political surveillance on ‘subversives in the media’. If a staff member was shortlisted for a job this second file was handed to the department head, who had to sign for it. The file was a buff folder with a round red sticker, stamped with the legend SECRET and a symbol which looked like a Christmas tree. On the basis of information in this file, the Personnel Office recommended whether the person in question should be given the job or not. A former senior BBC executive recalls seeing one journalist’s security file, stamped with a Christmas tree symbol: ‘For about twelve years it had recorded notes such as “has subscription to Daily Worker” or “our friends say he associates with communists and CND activists.” It is fair to say that there were contemporary memos from personnel officials adding they thought this was ridiculous. But it was still on file.‘
The names of outside job applicants were submitted directly to C Branch of M5. They were then passed on to the F Branch ‘domestic subversion’, whose F7 section looks at political ‘extremists’, MP’s, lawyers, teachers and journalists. After consulting the registry of files, the names were fed into MI5’s computer, which contains the identities of about a million ‘subversives’.
Once MI5 had vetted an applicant their decision was given in writing to the BBC’s Personnel Office. MI5 never gave reasons for their recommendations. But, quite often, if they said a person was a ‘security risk’, that was enough to blacklist him or her permanently. Members of board interviews were advised not to ask questions. And it was only when an executive or editor put pressure on the Personnel Department that MI5’s decision was overruled.
For many years a BBC staff member was used as the Security Liaison Officer. But in 1982 Brigadier Ronald L. Stonham, a retired army officer, moved into Room 105 as ‘Special Assistant’ to the Director of Personnel, Christopher Martin, himself a former Royal Marine. Stonham began his working life in the Post Office Engineering Department during the Second World War. In 1948 he was commissioned into the Royal Signals Regiment, and by 1963 he had worked his way through the ranks to Major. He also had a spell in the intelligence section of the Chief of General Staff in 1971. Six years later he was promoted to Brigadier of the Signals Regiment.
Stonham saw security vetting as part of his responsibility to co-ordinate BBC’s contingency plans for a wartime and emergency broadcasting service. This was the official line taken after the Observer revealed the corporation’s blacklisting policies in 1985. The BBC stated: ‘Only relatively few members of staff go through this [vetting] procedure. They are necessarily involved in sensitive areas or require access to classified information.’
This was untrue. The evidence shows that vetting was used in a much wider context – and for political, not security, reasons.
Vetting-a Reithian Legacy
Security vetting was set up in 1937, at a time when the BBC was almost taken over by the government as a State propaganda outlet. The corporation was under constant political pressure, particularly from the Foreign Office. But Sir John Reith, the BBC’s founder and first Director-General, was also keen on including vetting as part of his vision of a wartime BBC. In 1935 Reith was a member of a sub-committee of the Government Committee of Imperial Defence which included military personnel. The sub-committee decided that ‘in time of war or when the threat of an emergency was imminent the government should assume effective control over broadcasting and the BBC’. Two years later, in 1937, the Ullswater Committee on the future of broadcasting recommended that ‘in serious or national emergencies … full government control over the BBC would be necessary.’
Reith wanted to be actively involved in the government’s defence preparations in case of war. On 5 March 1937 he went to the Home Office to see Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, and Geoffrey Lloyd, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, and a contract was negotiated between the BBC and the government ‘in case of war’. It seems highly likely that the implementation of security vetting was part of this agreement.
By 1937 the security services were certainly geared up for vetting BBC staff. In 1935 the Secret Service budget – including both MI5 and MI6 was increased by secret vote from £180,000 to £350,000. By 1939 it was £500,000. But early BBC liaison with MI5 was often sluggish and inefficient, as the then Director-General, Frederick Ogilvie, a former Tory MP, revealed in a note written in late 1939. Among the problems he was encountering was ‘the failure of MI5 to okay our artists at reasonable speed.’ Sir Hugh Greene, later to be Director-General himself, was one of the first to encounter ‘security clearance’ when he joined the BBC as head of their German Service: ‘I was vetted in 1940. MI5 thought I was a communist, but it turned out to be a mistake.’ The following year the actor Michael Redgrave encountered more serious problems when he signed the ‘People’s Convention’. This was a socialist manifesto which called for ‘a people’s war’ and ‘a people’s peace’. It was not long before Redgrave was summoned to Broadcasting House. On 25 February 1941 he was met by a Mr Streeton and another BBC official. They told him that the ‘People’s Convention’ was ‘not in the national interest’ and asked him where he stood regarding it. Redgrave replied that since it was not an illegal or seditious document he supported it and it was not for. the BBC to censure him. The official thanked him for making his position clear and told him he would no longer be allowed to broadcast for the BBC. Three weeks later, after angry protests from MP’s and fellow actors, the ban was lifted.’
During the Cold War of the late 1940s and early 1950s, MI5 vetting of BBC staff was expanded, and the secrecy of the operation frequently laid it open to abuse. Sir Hugh Greene recalled one victim in the External Services while he was Controller of Broadcasting in the German Zone: ‘He wasn’t a security risk at all. It turned out he had worked for MI6, the rival secret service, and there had been an internal quarrel.’
Other blacklists were also being compiled by the BBC hierarchy. This was confirmed by General Sir Ian Jacob, former Military Assistant to the War Cabinet, who was appointed Director-General of the BBC by Winston Churchill in 1952 after being Director of the Overseas Services. He recalled: ‘I was shown lists of communists in the BBC. It was handled by the Controller of Administration. A relative of mine was actually on the list because he had a communist wife.’
That relative was his second cousin Alaric Jacob, who had joined the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham in August 1948. In February 1951 he was suddenly refused establishment rights, which meant he would receive no pension. He went to see his relative Sir Ian Jacob at Broadcasting House to complain.
‘Are you in the Communist Party?’ the Director of Overseas Services asked.‘No,’ replied Alaric Jacob.
‘What about your wife?’
‘You have no business to put that question. The BBC knows perfectly well that I hope to become a Labour MP. I am not prepared to discuss Iris’s politics with any BBC official. They have nothing whatever to do with my professional ability which no one at the BBC has ever questioned.‘
The ‘communist wife’ was Iris Morley, the novelist and Marxist historian. She had been the Moscow Correspondent of the Observer during the Second World War, and Alaric Jacob did the same job for the Daily Express. The discrimination against Jacob was only resolved in 1953 when his wife died from cancer. Just after her obituary appeared in The Times he was told by a BBC administrator that he could now receive full establishment and pension rights.
By the 1950s and early 1960s political vetting was so well entrenched that BBC interviews were resembling Civil Service selection boards. At one time, according to former senior BBC executive Stuart Hood, a Civil Service commissioner even attended the interviews. Hood recalls the selection boards using Whitehall euphemisms for vetting during their post-interview discussions. ‘Does he play with a straight bat?’ or ‘Does he have snow on the right foot?’ were typical BBC expressions for political suitability.
Hood was a key witness of vetting during this period. He had joined the BBC in 1946 and was head of the World Service throughout the 1950s. He became Controller of Programmes in 1961 before leaving in 1964. He recalls attending BBC Board of Management meetings: ‘During those meetings senior administrative officials used to approach me, show me these slips of paper and say, “I think you should know this,” and then show me an article in Peace News.’ Hood also saw the security files: ‘The investigative reports produced on staff and performers by the security services are testimony to the amount of petty espionage and surveillance to which citizens of our society are subjected.’
Although Sir Hugh Greene’s Director-Generalship of the 1960s led to a liberalisation of the rather stuffy BBC, vetting continued. A notable subject was the distinguished documentary director Stephen Peet. In 1965 he was appointed to a senior position in the BBC’s Documentary and Features Department after several years of successful freelance work. According to Hallam Tennyson, a BBC Careers Officer, and Stuart Hood, the offer was suddenly withdrawn because of an adverse security report.
MI5 had told the BBC that Peet could not be allowed on the staff because he continued to contact and meet his communist brother John, who lived and worked in East Germany. In 1950, fifteen years before Stephen Peet’s job application, his brother had left his post as Reuters’ West Berlin Correspondent and defected to East Germany, where he still lives. Stephen Peet was not and never has been a communist or politically active in any way. Yet he was consistently rejected for full-time BBC jobs. Eventually, when some BBC executives told him informally about the blacklisting, he appealed to his MP, Kenneth Robinson, then Minister for Health in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Robinson lobbied the Home Office: ‘I went to see a Minister and I made representations on Peet‘s behalf.’ About four months later Peet received a letter from Robinson, which told him he could now join the BBC staff: ‘There is now no barrier.’ Sure enough., Peet was soon recruited, and he went on to make the highly praised series Yesterday’s Witness, winner of’ a Royal Television Society special award.
By the early 1970s many BBC executives were taking the view that the secret vetting procedures had little to do with security’. Politics were much more relevant. John Laird, a former External Services producer who worked in the Appointments Department, was one such executive. He was also chairman of many interview boards. He points to one conversation he had with Sir Ian Trethowan, then Managing Director of BBC Radio and later Director-General, as indicative of the situation. Trethowan, a Conservative and a close friend of the then Prime Minister Edward Heath, asked Laird why he had appointed so many ‘reds’ and ‘commies’ as general trainees.
‘They’re not communists,’ replied Laird. ‘They’re independent socialists and dissidents. Besides, all the bright young people are left wing these days.’‘Oh, they’re all the same to me,’ said Trethowan. ‘They’re all commies. I can’t believe that there weren’t some bright right wing people.’
One of the bright young people Laird appointed as a Graduate Trainee at the time was Michael Rosen. He had been a student activist and well-known actor and dramatist at Oxford University in the late 1960s. During his interviews with the BBC Rosen made no secret of his Marxist views. And during his training he was equally uncompromising, making a radio documentary about the French Marxist Regis Debray.
In 1972 Rosen was sacked and told that no department would offer him a job. He was offered a £330 ex-gratia payment by Owen Reed, head of Staff Training, and told. “We think it would be better if you went freelance.’ In fact, at least two departments, Arts Features and Further Education, wanted to employ him but were prevented from doing so because there was a ‘security problem’. According to John Laird, who was in charge of Graduate Trainees, ‘I was called by the chairman of one board who said: “You’ll be glad to know we’ve appointed Rosen.” Then he called again, embarrassed, and said it had been “blocked”.’ Fortunately for Rosen he was sufficiently talented to overcome being blacklisted. He has since become a successful writer of plays and children’s poetry books, and frequently appears on television.
In 1975 a special desk was set up within MI5 to look at ‘subversives in the media’. Based in F Branch, one of the desk’s first tasks was to compile a report on ‘bias in the media’. This was inspired by the notion that Trotskyists had infiltrated the press and broadcasting, The strategy was to recruit journalists as agents for MI5 and to persuade them to spy on their left-wing colleagues. MI5 officers were told to list possible recruits in the monthly ‘Resources Index’ and pass the names on to FX Division.
One reporter who was approached was Tim Jones, a labour correspondent on The Times. In 1975 he was taken out to lunch at Simpsons in the Strand by an MI5 officer and told that the security services were worried about ‘Soviet penetration of the industrial correspondents group’. Jones was asked to provide ‘intelligence’ about certain journalists, but he refused.”
MI5 tried harder the following year with Jon Snow, a senior ITN correspondent. He was approached as a possible agent because his background as the son of the Bishop of Whitby was thought promising. At first he was asked to give information about the Communist Party. But he was then asked to spy on certain ‘left-wing people’ working in television. In return MI5 would make secret monthly tax-free payments into his bank account. Snow rejected the approach.’
It was clear that this intelligence-gathering operation was for blacklisting purposes. Evidence for this was revealed by MI5’s attempts to block the career of Anna Ford, the former ITN news reader and darling of the popular press. In 1974 she had joined Granada Television and became a journalist for their daily news programme Granada Reports. There she met fellow-journalist Trevor Hyett, and they soon began living together. It was then that the Security Services began their operation against her. Although she had been an outspoken student politician at Manchester University in the late 1960s, Ford was not politically active. Yet she was logged in intelligence records as ‘an associate of a subversive’. For Trevor Hyett was a former member of the Communist Party. He had joined the Young Communist League in 1962, and three years later was appointed Editor of the YCL newspaper Challenge. Under Hyett’s editorship it was the first Western communist publication to criticise the Soviet Union over its treatment of artists and writers. And in 1968 Hyett led a YCL delegation to Moscow to protest at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was becoming increasingly disillusioned by the British Communist Party’s refusal to change its internal structure and its unwillingness to criticise Soviet policy. In 1972 Hyett resigned and returned his party card.
Despite his resignation, Special Branch officers in Manchester kept a file on Hyett, details of which were relayed to MI5 in London. The file showed that he was living with Anna Ford. In 1975, in an attempt to discover more information about the couple, particularly Hyett, Special Branch tried to recruit Granada journalists as office spies. One such reporter was Geoffrey Seed, who was then working with Ford and Hyett on Granada Reports. He was approached by a Special Branch officer, Constable Kevin Moore.
‘I had met Moore two or three times,’ Seed recalls. ‘To me he was just another contact, a police contact. Then one evening, when I was having a drink with him, he started saying that he could help me with information if I would help him. He said he was interested in some people who worked for Granada – “lefties and communists”. And he specifically mentioned Trevor Hyett, who was sharing a house with Anna. He wanted me to give him information. I had a feeling of revulsion. It had nothing to do with national security. This was pure Eastern Europe. I simply refused and finished my drink.’
The following year, in September 1976, Anna Ford was offered a job on Man Alive, the BBC2 documentary programme. But soon after putting forward her contract for approval, Michael Latham, Man Alive’s editor, received a phone call from the BBC Personnel Secretariat. ‘We don’t think you should give this woman a contract,’ said the caller. He refused to give a reason. Latham then approached his superior, Desmond Wilcox, then Head of Features, who took up the matter. ‘When I approached the Personnel Department,’ said Wilcox, ‘they told me their opposition was because she had been living with a former communist. I was outraged.’ Wilcox then protested to his boss, Aubrey Singer, Controller of BBC2, who told him: ‘Don’t worry. Take no notice of them.’ But Wilcox was indignant: ‘At that time I, and 99 per cent of the BBC staff, had no idea that MI5 vetting was taking place. Anna Ford was an excellent journalist and presenter whom we wanted to take on. I could not care less who she used to live with and I could not understand why any opposition had been raised against her.’”
Eventually MI5’s objections were overruled and Ford was able to join Man Alive in January 1977. By that time she and Hyett had separated. In 1978 she became ITN’s first female news-caster. Hyett went on to become a successful freelance TV producer. He reflects ruefully on the criteria MI5 used for trying to wreck Ford’s career – that she had once had a boyfriend who used to be in the Communist Party. ‘Along with Sir Alfred Sherman, Lord Chapple and Denis Healy, I belong to the biggest party in the world – the ex-communists,’ said Hyett. ‘Taxpayers didn’t get much for their money from this surveillance and activity.’
Another young journalist, who applied for a BBC job in the same month as Anna Ford, was not so lucky. In September 1976 Isabel Hilton was interviewed for a reporter’s job on BBC Scotland’s current affairs programme Current Account. The board agreed unanimously that she was the best candidate and appointed her. The decision was then relayed to the London Personnel Office.
About a week later Alastair Hetherington, then Controller of BBC Scotland, received a phone call from the BBC’s Security Liaison Officer in London. Hilton could not be appointed, he said. When asked why, the official replied ‘procedures’. Hetherington couldn’t believe it. ‘I knew she couldn’t have been a security risk,’ he recalls. He told the Security Officer that he was not prepared to accept the blacklisting of Hilton without reasons. The Security Officer said this was unprecedented. But Hetherington insisted. So the Security Officer visited Hetherington at his BBC Scotland office in Glasgow. The cautious BBC mandarin said ‘it was not done’ for Personnel to give reasons why an individual had failed ‘procedures’. Hetherington replied that he had been dealing with security people for over twenty years, as a defence correspondent from 1953 to 1956 and later as editor of the Guardian. He said he was not satisfied and wanted to know the reasons for their decision. The Security Officer said he was shocked by his attitude. It was the first time a BBC executive had challenged a security assessment, he added. Nothing was resolved by the meeting. But about two weeks later the Security Officer rang Hetherington and agreed to give the reason. He said Hilton had been rejected because she had been Secretary of the Scottish-China Association. ‘It is regarded as suspect and so she cannot be appointed,’ he added. ‘There is a risk of subversive influences in the organisation.’ According to government sources, MI5 had advised the BBC that while Hilton remained Secretary of that Association she should not be appointed – unless the BBC had very good reasons otherwise.
Hetherington was not happy with these reasons. He telephoned Kay Carmichael, a fellow member of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland who was then an advisor to 10 Downing Street on social policy. She was also a member of the Scottish-China Association. He told her what had happened and asked her whether the Association was a subversive organisation. Carmichael couldn’t believe it. She told Hetherington that the idea of the Scottish-China Association being subversive was so ludicrous that MI5 must have mixed it up with another organisation… the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, perhaps.
In fact, MI5 had got the ‘right’ organisation. But in no way was it subversive. The Scottish-China Association was a small cultural group based at Edinburgh University. Its main activity was being addressed by eminent Chinese scholars, and Hilton spent most of her time organising conferences on issues like population control. The Association never took any political position on events in China. Nor did it discuss politics.
Hetherington continued to protest. But it was not until January 1977 that he was finally told by the BBC Security Liaison Officer that Hilton could now be employed. Meanwhile, Hilton had been waiting in Edinburgh for four months and had not even received a rejection letter from the BBC, so she accepted a job as a feature writer on the Daily Express in London.
Before leaving Scotland Hilton threw a farewell party and rang Hetherington, a personal friend, to invite him. Hetherington was puzzled as to why she was leaving. ‘Why didn’t you accept the BBC job?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t been offered it,’ she replied. Hetherington was upset: ‘I’ll make some enquiries.’ Ten minutes later Hilton was telephoned by a BBC Personnel Officer who offered her the job and apologised for the delay. But it was too late. She was already committed to theDaily Express job.
Hilton was unable to pursue her chosen career as a television journalist, and she had not wanted to leave Edinburgh, particularly as her future husband Neal Ascherson was then working there for the Scotsman. She is now Latin America Editor of the Independent, but she remains resentful about her experience: ‘I was extremely distressed to discover that a citizen can be maligned and damaged by the security services without his or her knowledge and without any means of redress. It is a squalid system and greatly to the discredit of the BBC that they should have been party to it.’
Another young journalist to be targeted was given a three-month contract as a Researcher for Nationwide, the now defunct daily magazine programme, in February 1982. One of the incidents he reported concerned a rape by a Saudi Arabian army officer being concealed by Manchester police because of diplomatic pressure.
A few days after the item was broadcast he received a memo from his editor congratulating him on ‘an excellent story’ and a fine start to his career at the BBC. But a week before his contract expired, he received a letter from the Personnel Department informing him that it would not be renewed. His editor, who had planned to retain him, protested to Personnel, who eventually conceded there were ‘security reasons’. The journalist had been a student activist at Manchester University, and then, briefly, a member of the small Maoist group, Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
Eventually the Personnel Department agreed to compromise. He could work at the BBC – but not on politically sensitive current affairs programmes. He was then offered an eight-month contract on the consumer series That’s Life. He refused. Fortunately, his editor felt so aggrieved about his treatment that he continued to employ him privately for four months, but he then had to leave the BBC.
Perhaps the most bizarre case of journalist blacklisting was that of Richard Gott, who had applied to be Editor of the Listener, the BBC’s weekly magazine. According to Sir Hugh Greene, Director-General from 1960 to 1969, MI5 vetting of this position was introduced in the mid-1970s.
In 1981 Gott was interviewed by a BBC Board and was chosen for the post. But MI5 vetoed the appointment. According to a senior executive who was on the Board, ‘His file went off for “colleging” and it was blocked. They said he was an ultra-leftist and that “he digs with the wrong foot”.’ This was confirmed by Alasdair Milne, then Deputy Director-General and Managing Director of BBC TV, who also sat on the Board. ‘That was a classic case,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel very happy.’
After a ten-day delay during which Gott was vetted, Russell Twisk was appointed Editor. MI5’s specific objection to Gott was his support for revolutionary movements in Latin America and South-East Asia. In 1966 he had resigned from the Labour Party to stand as an independent candidate in the Hull by-election in protest at the British government’s support for American involvement in Vietnam. He had also openly supported Che Guevara and his guerrillas in Bolivia, which resulted in his imprisonment by the Bolivian government for ‘communist’ activities. In addition, he had caused ripples among .the establishment while broadcasting on the Foreign Office-funded BBC World Service for supporting trade unionists in the then British colony of Aden. Gott is now Features Editor of the Guardian.
Open Space – Closed Door
The BBC has always been proud of its Community Programmes Unit. Based in Hammersmith Grove, west London, some distance from the main Television Centre, the unit has always seen itself as having considerable autonomy within the vast BBC corporate structure. But even this independence did not exempt it from the B B C s vetting procedures.
Paul Turner is one person who found his way blocked to the BBC’s ‘access’ programmes department. He had joined BBC Wales in 1971, as an assistant film editor, while an active member of the Young Liberals. Soon afterwards he joined the Communist Party, and it was then that his troubles began. He began applying for jobs elsewhere in the BBC but was consistently rejected.
One of his applications in 1975 was as a film editor on a six-month attachment to the Community Programmes Unit. Again he was unsuccessful. A senior executive, who sat on one of his interview boards, explained why: ‘He was interviewed, but as soon as he left the room, the Appointments Officer said there had been a mistake. His file had a Christmas tree (i.e. a security file was held) and he should not have even been allowed an interview. He was a “security risk” because of something to do with Welsh nationalism.’
His Communist Party membership was also a problem; although Turner had left the party in 1973 because of its apologetic attitude towards the Soviet Union, he remained blacklisted. This became obvious when he was asked by a BBC Wales executive at one board in 1980: ‘Do you feel being in the Communist Party would interfere with your work?’ Turner told him he had stopped being a communist in 1973 – seven years earlier. He didn’t get the job.
His Welsh nationalist activities amounted to learning the Welsh language because he was working on programmes of Welsh interest. He does now vote Plaid Cymru, but this hardly qualifies him as a ‘security risk’. ‘
Turner, who now runs a successful independent production company, was actually relieved when he was told of the blacklisting: ‘For years I had worried my career at the B B C never blossomed because I was somehow second rate, applying for those jobs and not getting them.’”
The door to BBC’s ‘access’ programmes was similarly closed to Yvette Vanson. In 1979 she applied for a job at the Community Programmes Unit and was offered the position of Production Assistant on Open Space. She was delighted as she had only just left college. But five days before she was due to start an executive was told by a Personnel Officer: ‘We can’t give her a contract. She was an active member of the WRP (Workers’Revolutionary Party) and so we cannot employ her.’ The executive then rang Vanson: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. The Personnel Department have said I can’t employ you.’
Vanson was distraught, as she had just turned down other job offers and places at the University of Kent and the Central London Polytechnic. She appealed against the decision, and went to see Christopher Storey, a Personnel Officer at Television Centre. Storey told her there had been a ‘misunderstanding’. He agreed that she had been offered a job, but added that the editor ‘was not aware that there was a suitably qualified person already on the staff who was available to do the work. I am very sorry that that meant we were not in a position to offer you a formal contract.’
This official line was nonsense, according to the executive concerned. He was told he couldn’t hire her because she had been a ‘WRP organiser’. Although she had been active in the WRP in the early 1970s while working as an actress, Vanson had left the party in 1975 – four years before applying for the BBC job.
Eventually the BBC agreed to give her £500 as an ex-gratia payment. Vanson accepted the money, as by then she was penniless. But the blacklisting had a severe impact on her life: she was unemployed for the next five months, despite applying for nearly 200 jobs, and was forced to return to college. ‘It was a very traumatic experience for me,’ she recalls. ‘I was on the crest of a wave about getting a job at the BBC so soon after leaving college … The WRP is not an illegal or proscribed organisation. It’s ridiculous that just because you’re politically active you are victimised in this way.’
Five years later, in‘July 1984, Vanson again approached the BBC and was again interviewed for Open Space, this time as an Assistant Producer. Once again she was appointed, and once again Personnel objected because of her past political affiliations. ‘Wasn’t she in the WRP?’ an executive was asked. But this time the executive angrily stood his ground and she was able to join Open Space. Vanson has since become a successful freelance director.
Moves Against the Arts and Drama
When the B B C acknowledged the existence of MI5 vetting, after its public disclosure in 1985, much was made of the claim that it was restricted to a relatively small number of staff. Alasdair Milne, then Director-General, said: ‘It may sometimes look foolish, but it is another source of information when you are trying to work out whether people are up to certain jobs; Clearly we are involved, a number of us, in very sensitive areas of material and the process of establishing that people can handle that sort of material is important, even in a democratic society.’“
But many of the victims of the BBC blacklist were working in areas which had nothing remotely to do with ‘handling sensitive material’, for instance the Arts and Drama Departments.
One arts programme affected was Omnibus, whose editor from 1975 to 1982 was Barrie Gavin. In February 1976, he received a detailed and well-presented proposal for a document-ary from the young director Jeff Perks. Gavin, who remembered his work as a graduate director at the British Film Institute, found Perks’s proposal – about the poster maker Ken Sprague – interesting and exciting. He agreed to make the programme, and a three-month contract was passed to the Personnel Office for approval.
A week later, in his office at Kensington House, Gavin received a telephone call from Christopher Storey, Senior Personnel Officer for BBC TV, who was based at Threshold House, Shepherds Bush Green.
‘There may be a problem about employing Jeff Perks,’ said Storey.’Why?’ asked Gavin.
‘He may not be acceptable.’
‘What do you mean by not acceptable?’
Gavin then asked for a reason. But Storey refused to give him one. ‘I presume Leslie Page [Head of Personnel] will tell me why,’ said Gavin impatiently.
‘Not necessarily,’ replied Storey.
‘Well, if you don’t tell me, I’m going to do two things. One,
I’m going straight to the head of my department and two, I’m going public and will make sure that every newspaper and television station knows about this.’
‘I would strongly advise you not to do that.’
As editor of a major programme with a large budget, Gavin resented being prevented from choosing his own staff. As soon as he put the phone down, he went to see Humphrey Burton, head of the Arts Department. At first Burton’s attitude was flippant: ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s a communist or maybe he has a foreign background or name.’ Gavin told Burton he wanted to take the matter further. Two weeks later he saw Sir Ian Trethowan, then Managing Director of BBC TV. It was a strange conversation – rather like two civil servants discussing a sensitive issue, but without specifically referring to the heart of the matter. Trethowan wrung his hands and was clearly uncomfortable. ‘Yes, well, these kind of cases are very difficult,’ he said.
‘I don’t see what’s so difficult about this,’ replied Gavin. ‘I am asking him [Perks] to make a film about a poster maker in the middle of Exmoor. I’m not sending him out on a Poseidon nuclear submarine.’
Trethowan agreed to look into the matter. Three weeks later Perks was given a contract, and his film went on to secure the highest ratings of any Omnibus programme that year. Humphrey Burton also liked it. ‘That was a very good film,’ he remarked to Gavin. ‘I think you should pursue this combination further.’ So, in December 1976, Gavin asked Perks and Sprague to make a series of pilot programmes for Omnibus.
But once again MI5 objected. A Personnel Officer told Gavin it was not possible to use him. Now he was outraged. Not only was this unjust, it was also unnecessary and a complete waste of time. Angry memos flew between departments. The matter was referred to Alasdair Milne, then Director of Programmes, who supported the ban. So Burton went higher – to Sir Ian Trethowan. Eventually, three days before Christmas, Gavin got a call at home from Burton, who told him: ‘It’s OK now, you can use Jeff Perks.’
MI5 objected to Perks for a simple reason. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1971. But to Gavin this did not make him a legitimate target: ‘The Communist Party is not a proscribed or illegal organisation. And anyway, the notion that the modern Communist Party is revolutionary is laughable.’ Perks would also have been put on MI5’s files in 1973 after making a film with Michael Rosen at the National Film School about the ‘Shrewsbury Three’, three building workers who had been jailed for picketing offences during a strike. Part of the film was shown on Thames Television’s This Week, and caused a storm of protest from Tory MP’s in the Commons.
It was lucky for Perks that he had an editor of such integrity as Gavin. If he had been turned down by the BBC, it would have been hard for him to find work because at the time the independent sector was very limited for young film makers. Perks left the Communist Party in 1977. Since then he has had no employment problems in the BBC.
As well as vetting directors on BBC arts programmes, MI5 were also keeping a close eye on the corporation’s Drama Department. Actors, actresses, producers and directors were all vetted. According to Stuart Hood: ‘Actors and performers were blacklisted. I went to one meeting in the early 1960s where slips of paper were being handed out about an actress. They said: “Not to be used on sensitive programmes.” I knew the woman. She was not political, but her husband was a pre-war left-wing Austrian refugee. I strongly protested at the time.’
But MI5 reserved their strongest objections to BBC drama producers in the early and mid-1970s. It was a period of great political turmoil and activity. And television drama reflected the new radical mood with plays like Cathy Come Home,Leeds United, Law and Order and others. These were hard-hitting, naturalistic dramas which portrayed working-class people in a sympathetic light. They also sparked off political controversy. As Kenith Trodd recalled: ‘There was a general view at the time that drama has a powerful hold on people’s hearts and minds and that it was a source of political influence.’
Many of the producers, writers and directors of these plays were also politically active. They included Ken Loach, Roy Battersby, Trevor Griffiths, Kenith Trodd, Roland Joffe and Tony Garnett. As well as being active in their trades unions,’they held regular Friday night meetings – either at Tony Garnett’s flat in Notting Hill Gate or Roy Battersby’s house in Maida Vale. In the early 1970s they also attended meetings of the Socialist Labour League (later the WRP), although only a few actually became members.
The head of BBC Drama during this crucial period – 1969-81 – was Shaun Sutton, a former theatre and television director who had been at the BBC since 1952. He believed that good television drama should be controversial, and was a strong backer of his producers and directors.
On MI5 vetting of his staff he said: ‘I suppose it happened because the BBC had the system and we had to apply to it.’ But, to his credit, Sutton did stand up to the Personnel Department. ‘One needs to be quietly firm with these people,’ he remarked to James Cellan-Jones, his Head of Plays, during the attempts to blacklist Roland Joffe.
One of Sutton’s first battles occurred in 1970, when he tried to employ Tony Garnett, producer of Cathy Come Home. A Personnel Officer objected, ‘Isn’t he a bit of a left winger?’ Sutton then talked to Garnett, and decided that his professional ability was more important than his political views. A more significant episode occurred the following year. In 1971 John Goldschmidt was commissioned to direct a Play for Today about school leavers. He was much relieved, as two years previously his contract as a director on Omnibus had been abruptly terminated without explanation. He was soon installed in an office in the BBC Drama Department, and began work on the play. But once again he was blacklisted. An embarrassed executive came into his office and told him: ‘You’re not supposed to be allowed to work here.’ A Personnel Officer had said he could not be employed. A major row erupted in the Drama Department and an angry deputation went to see Huw Weldon, then Managing Director of BBC TV. Weldon took the matter up, and Goldschmidt was reinstated.’ His ‘offence’ was that he had taken part in an exchange of students between his art college in Hornsey, north London, and a Czech film school, spending a few weeks in Czechoslovakia. He was not, and never had been, a communist.
By the mid-1970s MI5 and the Personnel Department were clearly out to purge the BBC’s radical dramatists. Christopher Morahan, a distinguished director who was Head of Plays from 1972 to 1976, said: ‘There was an opinion expressed at that particular time by Personnel that a number of people should not be used. But I have to say that I won in every argument I was involved in.’
Apart from Roland Joffe, one of the most notable people the Personnel Department objected to was Kenith Trodd, probably the BBC’s most respected and successful drama producer. His credits included Colin Welland’s Leeds United, Days of Hope (about the General Strike) and Coming Out. He also produced much of Dennis Potter’s work, notably Pennies from Heaven and Brimstone and Treacle (banned by the BBC for eleven years). Shaun Sutton said of him: ‘He is absolutely first class. He has done some damn good work.’
Yet, in September 1976, Trodd’s freelance contract as producer on Play for Today was terminated, despite having been renewed annually for the previous four years. There was an immediate storm of protest from Trodd’s colleagues, who suspected that this act was politically motivated. Director Bryan Gibson drafted a letter with the actor Simon Gray registering ‘surprise and dismay that his [Trodd’s] contract is not being renewed.’ It was signed by Dennis Potter, Colin Welland and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, among others, and dispatched to Alasdair Milne. Milne and Sir Ian Trethowan both strongly denied that there was a plot against Trodd. They claimed that the system of freelance contracts was being reorganised in order to phase out one-year renewable deals. Trodd’s contract was simply being renegotiated and he would eventually be invited back as a ‘guest producer’.
In fact the Personnel Office and MI5 had branded Trodd a ‘security risk’ since the early 1970s, when he had attended WRP meetings (although he was never a party member).
In 1976 the management made their move. The key executive involved was James Cellan-Jones, a talented director who had become Head of Plays that autumn. One of his first tasks was to deal with Trodd’s contract. Cellan-Jones didn’t always agree with Trodd, but he had no intention of sacking him. But one day Trethowan came into his office. Cellan-Jones recalls: ‘Ian Trethowan said he wanted to remove Trodd and I was not to renew him because there were “security problems”…He said Trodd was a troublemaker and suspected by the security people.’
Cellan-Jones didn’t like it. He thought about it for a few days and then went to see Trethowan. He argued against sacking Trodd, and Trethowan backed down. But it was a few weeks before Trodd’s contract was renewed. He then went on to make Pennies from Heaven, winner of the 1979 British Academy award for most original programme.
‘ Trodd survived one blacklisting attempt, but director Roy Battersby was a marked man for thirteen years. In 1972 he had been invited by Christopher Morahan, head of plays, to direct The Operation, a satire about a property speculator. MI5 objected: he was an active member of the WRP. ‘Yes, there was an objection to him,’ recalls Morahan. ‘It was indicated to me that they [the Personnel Department] would be happier if he was not engaged. I said he was the best director for the job and I wasn’t prepared to accept it.’
Battersby went on to direct Leeds United, a controversial play about a clothing strike in Leeds. He then left television to work full-time for the WRP. It wasn’t until the spring of 1985 that he next came up against the BBC blacklist. He had been asked by Kenith Trodd to direct a play based on Stuart Hood’s book Pebbles From My Skull, an account of Italian resistance fighters during the Second World War. Battersby was invited to Bologna to start work on the project, but before he could leave, Trodd spoke to Peter Goodchild, Head of Plays, and told him he wanted to employ Battersby. ‘Come on, Ken,’ sighed Goodchild, ‘you know there are always some people we can’t employ on sensitive subjects.’ Battersby was refused a contract.
Within six weeks MI5 again targetted Battersby. In June 1985 he was asked to direct four episodes of the BBC2 series King of the Ghetto. He accepted the offer and went to see the producer, Stephen Gilbert, at his office in Union House, Shepherds Bush Green, to discuss the project. Just as he was about to tell Gilbert to expect problems about his contract because of his political activities, the phone rang, and Gilbert was summoned upstairs to see Ken Riddington, acting Head of Drama while Jonathan Powell was on holiday in Italy. ‘There is a problem,’ an embarrassed Riddington told him. ‘You can’t offer him [Battersby] the job.’ Gilbert was amazed, and returned to his office to break the news to Battersby: ‘They’re not prepared to accept you.’
The blacklisting of the director meant that the production, already well behind schedule, was suspended for four days. Eventually the matter was dealt with by Graeme Macdonald, Controller of BBC2, who overruled the Personnel Department and insisted that Battersby be employed.
For much of the time drama and arts producers and directors like Battersby were able to survive MI5’s attempts to blacklist them. This had little to do with the security services’ or Personnel Office’s magnanimity or flexibility. It was for two reasons. Firstly, some of the victims were sufficiently talented to overcome the blacklist. Secondly, the individualistic, even iconoclastic nature of many arts and drama executives meant that they often refused to accept the recommendations from Room 105 of Broadcasting House.
Not everyone trying to get jobs in the B B C s Arts and Drama Departments was so lucky. They were the victims of a much wider move against radical drama in the mid-1970s
For nearly fifty years the BBC denied that security vetting was taking place. While broadcasting unions constantly raised the issue, particularly at National Joint Council negotiations, senior officials like Michael Bett, Personnel Director from 1977 to 1981 and now a senior British Telecom executive, denied it formally and informally. As recently as February 1985 Alasdair Milne, then Director-General, said, ‘I cannot believe this is true.‘ Seven months later Milne was forced to concede: ‘It is one of those things one knew about, felt a bit grubby about – I think most of us did – but didn’t tackle as radically as we should have done.’”
After public disclosure by the Observer in August 1985, the BBC confirmed the vetting system existed but claimed: ‘Only the BBC decides who to appoint to any post within the corporation, or whether to invoke the vetting procedure. No external agency has a right to veto the appointment or promotion of any member of staff.’
In fact, unless an executive or department head fought the decision, MI5’s recommendation was final. As Alastair Hetherington said: ‘If “only” the BBC decides [on vetting], why did one of Brigadier Stonham’s predecessors tell me that it was “without precedent” that a ruling should be challenged and “impossible” to give me reasons for the decision?’
The Semi-Independence of the BBC
So why did the BBC shroud the issue of security vetting in such secrecy – even to the extent of not telling their own Chairman, Stuart Young (1983-86) until early 1985? Apart from their own embarrassment at having to admit to clandestine vetting, the answer lies in the peculiar status of the corporation and its employees.
The BBC’s relationship with the State was outlined in their memorandum to the 1971 Franks Commission on the Official Secrets Act. The BBC referred to a ruling by the Treasury Solicitor in 1943 which said: ‘The official view is that the Governors of the BBC are persons holding office under His Majesty within the meaning of Section 2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act and that the Director-General and staff are persons employed under persons who hold such offices.’ This ruling clearly bound BBC staff as being employed by ‘persons holding office under His Majesty’, and therefore legally in possession of secret information. Hence they would have special obligations to the State. It was on this pretext that security vetting was introduced and preserved with such secrecy. But the BBC’s view was that this did not make them State servants: ‘Their [BBC staff’s] legal status would therefore seem to be neither exactly that of civil servants nor that of men and women employed by commercial organisations.’
Stuart Hood believes this interpretation was spurious. He argues that vetting was a natural consequence of the BBC’s constitution: ‘If the BBC was honest about its role, it would admit that it must support the central political authority by virtue of the State licence-fee system. But the Corporation has always had this fantasy about itself as a totally independent social organisation.’
Given the corporation’s close relationship with the State, the Home Office was well aware of MI5 vetting. Giles Shaw, the Home Office Minister of State, said: ‘The government believes, as have successive governments over a long period, that it is in the national interest for the BBC to apply certain necessary security procedures.’ Tory Home Secretaries William Whitelaw (1979–83) and Leon Brittan (1983-85) both knew about it; Indeed, Whitelaw vigorously defended MI5 vetting: ‘There is nothing wrong in the BBC as an employer taking proper precautions to ensure that sensitive posts or information are not open to subversion. Indeed, it would be failing in its duty to the public if it did not do so.’” The Home Office was also aware of the number of staff being vetted, and as recently as 1982 told the BBC that the figure ‘seemed rather high’.
But what the Home Office and BBC management failed to do was to address the central flaw of the vetting system: that it was used against individuals in non-sensitive jobs. The official line in 1985, according to the then Director-General Alasdair Milne, was: ‘There are about eight people who are positively vetted, including me. And a number of other people, particularly in Bush House, for reasons to do with information and access to the War Book (which lays down rules for wartime broadcasting) who are vetted negatively.’ This was untrue, as actors and producers working in the Drama Department and directors on the arts programme Omnibus were hardly ‘involved in sensitive areas or require access to classified information’.
Politics Not Security
MI5 vetting of BBC staff has always had more to do with politics than security. As John le Carre, the best-selling spy novelist and former MI5 officer, commented. “I’ve always assumed that it [MI5 vetting of BBC staff] happened. I wonder what people would think if the reverse were to occur – if a known or unknown member of the Militant Tendency turned out to be shaping news in the newsroom. There has to be some method of obtaining what we hope will be an objective middle way in reporting. I don’t think it’s irresponsible either to require of a national broadcasting service that, at times at least, it should be ready to fall in with government policy and not alarm people.’
MI5 clearly saw the political objective as the major issue in their role. This was confirmed by the Observer’s disclosure that, as well as vetting, the security services also provided ‘background briefs’ to the BBC on industrial disputes. These secret reports included the alleged involvement of subversives in trade union activity. They were delivered every three months to a small number of senior BBC executives, including the head of news and current affairs. The ‘briefs’ included the activities of radical and subversive political groups and traced their involvement in strikes and campaigns. The BBC confirmed the reports’ existence, but said they had stopped receiving them by 1985.
It is not known whether information from these ‘background briefs’ ever reached the security files of BBC staff in the Personnel Department of Broadcasting House. But perhaps it did not have to. Christopher Martin, Director of Personnel since 1981, and Brigadier Stonham, Security Liaison Officer since 1982, both had their own political criteria for vetting. According to BBC officials who used to work with both of them, they objected to people most strongly if they had a continuing commitment to the ‘extremes’ of the political spectrum. Martin and Stonham took the view that being a member of the Communist Party or CND would be less of a handicap.
Brigadier Stonham has retained his duties as the BBC’s Security Officer, although public disclosure and pressure from the broadcasting unions has drastically reduced the number of jobs vetted (to about 120). In October 1985, the BBC agreed to stop all security vetting except in two areas. Firstly, members of staff involved in the planning and operation of the wartime broadcasting service, as they have access to classified information. Secondly, the External Services. According to Martin, this was due to the threat of infiltration and intimidation of staff by foreign intelligence services. Overseas broadcasters also had access to information from embassies which could be sensitive. In addition, staff would no longer be asked to sign the Official Secrets Act.
In April 1986 the BBC agreed that employees would have access to their personal files, and an independent ombudsman would be appointed to make general inspections of the vetting procedures. It was also disclosed that staff in the Personnel Department had begun to shred the security files and other papers that were kept on BBC employees. Past victims of the blacklist, like Michael Rosen and Isabel Hilton, who asked to see their files, were told they had been destroyed.
But even survivors of vetting remain bitter that information about their political views was secretly kept on file and used against them. And that this data was unchecked, inaccurate and based on second-hand sources because the person concerned was never consulted. As Paddy Leach, a broadcasting union official, commented: ‘What is quite frightening is the degree of incompetence and irresponsibility of political vetting. People could have their careers blotted out on the basis of a wrong coding, or wrong initials, or because of a fortnight’s membership of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party ten years ago.’
Many cases of blacklisting were due to out-of-date information. Take the case of John Dekker. He worked at the BBC from 1962 to 1984. Yet for every job he applied for within the corporation there were long delays, which caused him much distress. MI5 objected every time, particularly when he was appointed Editor of The Money Programme in 1972. The Personnel Department told Brian Wenham, then Head of Current Affairs, that Dekker should not be appointed as he was a member of the Communist Party. In fact, Dekker had resigned from the Communist Party sixteen years earlier, in 1956, in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. That was six years before he even joined the BBC. Wenham refused to accept the decision and persuaded the BBC Chairman Lord Charles Hill to overrule it. Dekker went on to become a successful editor of the programme. Not everyone was so lucky.