Secret Empire

Research academic, investigative journalist, author and TV Producer, Dr Paul Lashmar talks to Fergus Byrne about his groundbreaking account of the turbulent relationship between British Intelligence and the media.

Just weeks after the publication of a new book about the British intelligence services, the new Director-General of MI5 has promised more ‘visibility’ from his organisation.

Speaking at his first media briefing since taking the top spot at MI5, Ken McCallum detailed the threats facing Britain, including State interference by Russia. He also suggested that although his organisation needed to be ‘invisible’ in much of what it does, he wanted parts of MI5 to be more visible and open to the public.

However, after a lifetime of studying the intelligence services, Dr Paul Lashmar, author of the recently published, Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate, takes these comments with a large amount of scepticism. Pointing, for example, to McCallum’s comments about Russia being a threat to British democracy Paul says: ‘For those of us that have been calling for an inquiry into the impact of online disinformation by Russia and other hostile forces on the 2016 Brexit vote, we are told by MI5 and government “move along here, there is nothing to see”—they can’t have it both ways.’

Head of the Department of Journalism at City University and an investigative journalist for over forty years, Dorchester based Paul makes the point in Spies, Spin and The Fourth Estate that there is much to be concerned about for British democracy from within the security services themselves. Increasingly invasive powers, a lack of accountability and oversight, and ‘massive’ reliance on private contractors are some of the points that he believes need to be addressed to make sure the intelligence services are not only robust enough to do their jobs, but also to protect the freedom of the people they are there to safeguard.

In his book, Paul traces the activities of various organisations tasked with protecting the country through The Great War, the inter-war years, the Second World War and the Cold War, right up to the present day and the ‘War on Terror’.
His detailed account, drawing on years of research and experience writing about the security services, and especially their reliance on and interaction with journalists, paints a fascinating picture of a powerful force. One that, in general, he believes is a force for good. But he is concerned that it may have already amassed data way beyond its needs. Speaking about GCHQ, for example, Paul explains: ‘I don’t think people understand how powerful GCHQ working with the Americans now is. It’s not about what they might get about you in the future. They already have in their files a huge amount of detail about everybody in the country—it’s sitting in computers. It’s frightening. They build huge warehouses full of servers where they download metadata, phone calls etc. With an increasingly authoritarian air to the current government, that’s frightening, really frightening.’

Despite new regulations attempting to monitor and regulate intelligence services, Paul’s depth of frustration with their intrusive activity is mirrored by his concerns about whether we have the ability to monitor these organisations the way we should. ‘If you are critical of the intelligence services you are perceived to be anti-intelligence’ he says. ‘I am not at all anti-intelligence. But I believe they should be properly accountable. And they are not properly accountable, even with the new regulations. The fact that the Government tried to put Chris Grayling in as the chair of the Intelligence Security Committee (ISC) demonstrates the appallingly poor accountability that currently exists and there’s lots of evidence in the book that supports that.’

In their defence, Paul is quick to point out some ‘extraordinary good work’ done by Dominic Grieve as Chair of the ISC. But he also says that ‘by and large since 1996 the ISC has been a cheerleader for intelligence, rather than a critical independent oversight mechanism. We haven’t had effective oversight for just about all that time really, except for a short period around 2016 to 18.’ Paul questions whether we have the manpower and resources to monitor such secretive organisations properly. ‘We don’t have the skill base in accountability to deal with it’ says Paul. ‘They just don’t have enough inspectors and people who understand what is going on at GCHQ to do that. It’s a really interesting question. This isn’t me saying that GCHQ and other amazing agencies aren’t doing great work in monitoring terrorists and protecting us, but it’s the most powerful secret tool in the country by a long shot—and it needs to be regulated properly with oversight. The history of intelligence, as laid out in my book, shows that if you give people who are operating in secret, ‘power’, they will always push the edges of the envelope—push it that bit further—interfere with this or that bit of politics—push the people that their politics supports—embarrass people…’

From undermining ‘isolationists’ opposed to America entering the Second World War to intensive propaganda efforts in Northern Ireland, as well as the promotion of moderate Islam, Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate offers no shortage of detail about security services tactics and ‘tradecraft’ over many years. The word ‘Spin’ in the title alludes to the many occasions where journalists and writers were co-opted to perform as propagandists. Despite the fact that a journalist’s role should be, as Paul puts it, to act as a ‘challenge to the presuppositions that exist in the intelligence world as elsewhere’, from Daniel Dafoe to Roald Dahl, many journalists’ talents have been used to assist when necessary. In fact, there were those that made their careers by being a pair of ‘safe hands’ and therefore were granted early access to information—as long as they spun it with the required angle. In the main, these were more establishment oriented than left-wing. They tended to be ‘people from the right or centre-right, certainly not from the left’ said Paul. ‘Those journalists, academics and politicians appeared to have a level of knowledge that other people from the left didn’t have and therefore their careers blossomed. It was a very effective mechanism for isolating people from the left because they couldn’t get that information.’

Making the point that intelligence gathering and investigative journalism utilises similar techniques Paul reminds us that ‘the fourth estate’ or journalism, has another aspiration: ‘the concept of the freedom of the press within a democracy suggests that the news media preserve the citizen’s liberties from an overbearing state and corporate sector.’ However, he says that ‘reporting critically on the world of intelligence is regarded as one of the most difficult specialist beats in journalism as it is, by definition, a world of secrets.’ Today, the ability to simply report, let alone investigate, has become more than difficult. Not least due to the suborning of journalists over many years. Today the game has changed says Paul. ‘When I started out, if you were sent to a trouble spot as a journalist, you could rush around and wave your press card and people would think “oh, that’s a journalist” and not touch you. These days, the assumption is that you are a spy, or you’re up to no good, or you’re just a lackey of the bourgeois media. We both know journalists who are now much more cautious about going to danger spots because they might get kidnapped or taken hostage. Or even worse beheaded and killed.’

Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate shines a light onto activities that may have been undertaken with the intention of protecting western democracies but the long term result is an abuse of power that makes it increasingly difficult to hold to account. ‘Intelligence agencies will tell you they are there to defend democracy, so why is it they have had a hundred years of subverting journalism and the media?’ asks Paul. ‘It seems to me, the notion of the freedom of the press is a fundamental aspect of democracy. And no one ever asks that question. Why do intelligence agencies consistently misuse the media for their own benefit? Given that they are interfering with the freedom of the press and the free flow of information. They have always interfered with it. I think that’s a big question that’s never been properly answered.’