Why spies and scribes have a lot in common

WHAT’S the difference between a spy and a journalist? Not much. Both are in the information business. Both go out into the world and try to find out what’s really going on. They look, listen and ask people questions. They assess the reliability of what they are told.



By Phillip Knightley

Published: Fri 11 Aug 2006, 10:03 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:36 PM

They try to decide what is likely to happen next. Then they write a report for their bosses. Only now do their paths diverge. The journalist sends his or her report off expecting it will be published for the world to read. The spy sends his report off knowing it will not be published but instead will be used for political advantage. My point is that intelligence services are well aware of the similarities between journalism and spying and take full advantage them. But journalists are not so aware.

Spies infiltrate media offices and tip off their bosses about what journalists are up to. Spies tip off selected journalists about stories. And naive journalists believe that there are no strings attached. Journalists are recruited early in their careers by intelligence services and then do a dual job--spy/journalist. In general, the traffic is all one way. There are no more avid readers of newspapers than spies, both because newspapers are a good source of objective information and because agents working for spies often dress up information they have obtained from newspapers and magazines to make it appear that they have obtained it secretly and their controllers don’t want to be caught out by this deception. In fact, I suspect that much of the so-called secret information all intelligence services gather has already been published somewhere.

The accepted wisdom is that the Western atom spies gave the KGB the secret of the atomic bomb. But the Smythe Report on Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, published by the American government itself in August 1945 and freely available (Moscow ordered 30,000 copies) gave the KGB more than all the atom spies put together. A KGB boss once told me that if he had to chose between a mole in the American administration and a lifetime subscription to the New York Times, he would chose the New York Times. With the mole there would be the constant fear that he was really a CIA plant. The information from the New York Times would be objective, tested by editorial processes and verifiable from other newspapers.

I think the problem about journalists/spies began during the second world war. By the end of the war there were dozens of journalists coming back into Fleet Street who had patriotically served Britain in one or another secret service. It is therefore understandable, but maybe not forgivable, that some of them carried over their wartime work into their peace-time profession. What are we to make, for instance of the Mercury News Service, part of the Kemsley and then Thomson chain of newspapers--which provided foreign news and features for the chain. The head of Mercury was Ian Fleming, the man who invented James Bond. Fleming had served in British naval intelligence during the war. Mercury’s manager was Donald McCormick, writer of non-fiction spy books, who had also served in wartime intelligence. The Mercury correspondent in Germany was Antony Terry who had served in military intelligence. Many, perhaps a majority, of Mercury correspondents around the world had some sort of intelligence background. It seems to me highly unlikely that Ian Fleming did not share with his old colleagues in Naval Intelligence any choice items that his network of foreign correspondents came up with.

Eric Downton, a legendary Canadian war correspondent, who worked with Reuters and spent 24 years on the Daily Telegraph’s foreign staff has said: "During my time with Reuters and the Telegraph I was appalled by the extent to which the British news media co-operated with MI5 [the Security Service] and MI6 [the Secret Intelligence Service] and the widespread use made of British foreign correspondents by Six. Roy Pawley, foreign editor and later managing editor of the Telegraph was a servile lackey of Five and Six. Telegraph foreign correspondents were given direct orders to work with Six. When I went to Moscow for the Telegraph shortly after Stalin’s death, I was ordered to work for the Six man in the embassy who had the usual cover of Press attaché. Before I left London for Moscow I was briefed by Six officials on what they wanted me to do. The Times and the Telegraph, as I observed it, were particularly close to the intelligence services but all the major British newspapers, and the BBC apparently, had degrees of symbiosis. Presumably this sort of thing still goes on."

Probably. TV journalist and presenter Jon Snow has told how early in his career MI6 tried to recruit him, offering to match his salary and pay it into a secret bank account. All Snow had to do was to report regularly on the political inclinations of his fellow journalists. Snow turned the offer down. In May this year Germany was rocked by a scandal when its foreign intelligence service was accused of keeping files on journalists (all intelligence and security services do that, so nothing new there) but also of paying journalists to spy and report on their colleagues. One reporter was said to have been paid more than $375,000 for snooping on fellow reporters for sixteen years. Spies were accused of planting articles in major magazines. Terry Pattinson, formerly of the Daily Mirror, has said that in the 1970s Fleet Street’s Ye Old Cheshire Cheese pub was crammed with KGB officers entertaining the nation’s top journalists. "I know of three senior industrial correspondents who enjoyed all-expenses-paid trips to the USSR." But according to Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, three quarters of Fleet Street’s industrial correspondents were at that time actually agents for MI5 or for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. It’s a shocking story that reflects no credit on journalists and their employers.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist


More news from OPINION