Critical examination of the view that mainstream journalists are too close to the intelligence and security services

Essay, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Origins

3. Spying Hacks

4. Hacking Spies

5. Planted Stories: The Use of Intelligence Sources

6. Positive Aspects

7. Conclusion

8. Appendix
8.1. Bibliography
8.2. Diagram

1. Introduction

“Intelligence sources in Pakistan have said that Miss al-Sadah, and the other relatives of bin Laden currently in hospital will be returned to their countries of origin when they have recovered” (Daily Telegraph, May 5 2011).

“Intelligence sources revealed terrorists intend to target Belfast or Derry to send out their anti-British message on the day Prince William and Kate Middleton marry” (The Mirror, April 25 2011).

“UK spooks were last night in a desperate race to track ten terrorists recruited for a Mumbai-style attack in Europe. A Sun probe reveals intelligence sources believe the cell is committed to a strike before Christmas” (The Sun, October 9 2010).

These three quotes from major British newspapers depict the ongoing willingness of journalists to use information from anonymous sources. Whoever thinks that the information disaster during the build-up of the Iraq War, when the UK press regularly published wrong reports based on intelligence sources, has stopped them from continuing this practice, is wrong. But of course this is nothing new. This procedure has been going on for the last sixty years, and not even the most outlandish disinformation campaigns in the past have kept the press from going to bed with spies.

In this essay, I want to explore the reasons that lie behind this behaviour. Why do journalists accept information from intelligence sources so willingly? What are the dangers, but also the benefits of this behaviour? What happens if journalists cross the line and work for the intelligence services? And what reasons do spooks have to disguise themselves as hacks? And last, but not least: What has James Bond got to do with it?

2. Origins

Phillip Knightley traces the origins of the links between spies and journalists back to the Second World War. Back then, "many journalists thought they could best help defeat Hitler by writing propaganda for one of the information offices or by serving in one of the secret services" (2006:7). The problem was, that some of them kept this ill-fated pseudo-patriotic alliance even after the war had finished.

Soon, the trade of journalism was actively used by the intelligence services, as it provided an excellent cover. MI6 agents disguised themselves as journalists, and a willing press "even took on MI6 operatives as foreign correspondents", as Knightley cites former SIS officer Anthony Cavendish. But that was not all. The intelligence services also wanted journalists to become more active. Eric Downton, a Canadian war correspondent, stated, that upon his deployment to Moscow for the Daily Telegraph in 1945, he "was briefed by Six [MI 6] officials on what they wanted me to do" (Knightley ibid:8).

3. Spying Hacks

The number of journalists who had links to spies in the past sixty years is substantial. Richard Keeble, in his book Ethics for Journalists, fills three pages with the names of British journalists from George Orwell to Dominic Lawson, who were linked to the intelligence services (2008:275-277).

And Philip Knightley once said that there is not much of a difference between journalists and spies. "Both are in the information business." Only that the journalist publishes his reports and expects the world to take notice of it, while the spy is keen on the opposite. There are even more similarities between the two trades: Both have contributors around the world, both visit conferences, in which their material is sighted and discussed. But again the difference, as Knightley argues, is that while intelligence services are aware of the links between their work and the one of the journalist, the latter is often not. In fact, Knightley says, journalists are sometimes not even aware that many of them "are recruited early in their career by intelligence services and then do a dual job - spy/journalist” (2006 op cit:7).

The many ways, by which intelligence services keep their journalistic contacts in line, are explained by British journalist David Rose. He describes how his contacts with MI5 and MI6 took place in expensive restaurants, and how the agents always insisted on paying the bill. One of his colleagues was even "plied with champagne and strawberries as a guest of MI6 at the centre court for the Wimbledon men's semi-final." Journalists are escorted with MI6 limousines, and many succumb to the exciting sinister atmosphere that the trade still has (Rose 2007).

But it is not only the UK where journalists and spies mix. Knightley describes the Journalisten-Skandal, which shook the German newspaper scene in 2005. The German foreign intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) was being accused of keeping files of journalists which had reported critical about the BND, and which they surveyed with the help of other journalists to expose the moles in their own service. According to Knightley, the BND paid journalists "to spy and report on their colleagues." In one case, a journalist was paid $375000 over a time span of 16 years. Spies were also accused of having placed articles in German magazines (2006 op cit:9).

And in the India of the sixties no less a figure than Knightley himself became some sort of spying journalist. The Australian wrote for the literary magazine IMPRINT, which actually was "one of [the] little operations" of Harry Rositzke, then-CIA station chief in New Delhi, as the latter confessed to a dumbfounded Knightley when they met a few years later (1998:91). The magazine was an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Indian population by painting a positive picture of the American way of life. Knightley concludes: "I suppose that, as intelligence operations go, it was one of the more begnin ones, but it was still something of a shock to learn that, however unwittingly, I had been an employee of the CIA" (ibid:91).

He also admits that this was not the only time he was being used by the intelligence services. After having written interview requests to the famous defector Kim Philby for five years, he was finally invited to Moscow and given an interview. Self-critically, Knightley resumes: "Did I take my own advice and ask: 'Why is he telling me all this?' I did, but I still went. Was I used? Yes! The KGB wanted to show the West how well they treated defectors." Knightley highlights with this example that working as a journalist brings with it a constant fight against the temptation to sell your soul to the devil, symbolised here by a source with a story which is too good to be true (2006 op cit:11).

It was thus not easy to escape the influence of intelligence services. One reason for that was that it seemed as if they had people everywhere. Knightley, for example, is convinced from his own experience that MI5 "has agents in most newspaper offices." He recalls an episode from 1973, when he wrote an article for the Sunday Times about a MI6 operation during the Cold War. While even he still had not seen the copy intended for print, which was supposed to be kept under wraps until publication, he was asked by an admiral from the MOD to come to his office. There, he was presented a finished copy of his work and had to listen to complaints that the article was going to "help the KGB fill in gaps in their knowledge of our secret service." When Knightley asked where the article came from, the admiral "implied that MI5 had eyes and ears all over newspaper and TV offices, not just in editorial but in printing and publication departments, and knew in advance about anything being planned that might interest the authorities" (ibid:9).

Upon hearing about this story, a colleague of Knightley admitted to him that he personally knew of a MI5 operative at the BBC. Since this time, Knightley writes, he makes fun of asking colleagues over a drink who the MI5 operative in their publication was. He adds: "If you press them, they usually come up with the name of someone they suspect" (ibid:9). And the BBC also cooperated with the intelligence services in another matter. All applicants who applied for a job at the broadcaster between 1948 and 1985 were vetted by MI5 (Keeble 2010:92). Knightley suspects that this practice still goes on today (Keeble 2003).

Keeble sees the connection between journalists and the intelligence services as a sign of the secret state which exists "alongside the 'democratic' state in Britain", and whose flagships MI5 and MI6, who co-operate with journalists, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger secret intelligence community (2010 op cit:87). This secret society has "agents of influence in the media, ranging from actual agents of the security services, conduits of official leaks, to senior journalists merely lusting after official praise and, perhaps, a knighthood at the end of their career" as Keeble cites Dorril and Ramsay (ibid:88).

But their involvement brings along dangers. Some of them are highlighted by David Leigh, who reminds us of the example of his colleague Farzad Bazoft. The Iranian-British journalist was accused of being a spy, sentenced to death, and hanged by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen a few months before the first Gulf war began (2000). Philip Knightley therefore warns in an interview with Keeble that "there is (...) the risk that if the opposition discovers that one journalist is [sic] (or has) helped an intelligence service, then it is entitled to assume that all journalists are doing the same thing and treat the lot of them as spies (as frequently happens)" (Keeble 2008 op cit:27).

4. Hacking Spies

In reality, some journalists actually are trained spies. British national Kim Philby, who was a KGB spy, a former MI6 officer, and a journalist, has claimed that MI6 had already entered the 'English mass media on a wide scale.' According to him, MI6 had agents in the Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror, The Financial Times and The Observer. While a KGB spy such as Philby could have had his own motives in blaming the British press of being undermined by moles, former MI6 officer John le Carré is more trustworthy when he says that MI6 had 'controlled large parts of the press' (Davies 2008:235).

One of these agents, Richard Tomlinson, who had used the cover of being a journalist, finally exposed himself. He revealed that he had entered Yugoslavia in 1993 under a wrong name to do work for the MI6, and to recruit informants. With a forged NUJ card, which said that he was freelance journalist Ben Presley, he had success in doing so (Tomlinson 2001:92).

Tomlinson cites his MI6 superior Stuart Russel, who asked him in the late 80s "to sift through Russian defence journalists, and [to] recruit one with good access to military secrets." Tomlinson explains: "As you know, journalists do not normally make good agents because their inclination is to publish what they know, which instantly makes it unusable as CX [Cummings Exclusively (Mi6 Intelligence Report)], but they sometimes have good relationships with key decision makers, which occasionally gives them access to confidential information" (ibid:69). Tomlinson claimed in 2001 that in four out of ten missions MI6 officers had posed as journalists (Lashmar 2001). But according to Lashmar this is nothing new. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan four Britons, who had posed as reporters, but were in reality military trainers for the Mujahedeen, were killed by pro-Soviet forces (ibid).

5. Planted stories. The use of intelligence sources

The use of intelligence sources, which according to Keeble also go under the names ""security", "Whitehall" and "Home Office" sources“ (2010 op cit:90), is unfortunately a constant in journalism. Two respected journalists, who have tried this balancing act, warn of it. Knightley admits, that he made the mistake "of believing that you can have an arm's length journalistic relationship with a spy" himself (2006 op cit:10). David Leigh says the same: "In our vanity, we imagine that we control these sources. But the truth is that they are very deliberately seeking to control us" (2000 op cit).

Once again, this method has been used in the past. In the sixties, wrong information, which was leaked to willing Fleet Street journalists by MI5 sources, linked former Prime Minister Wilson to illegal activities including contacts with the KGB.

And then there was the infamous Information Research Department (IRD), a secret propaganda organization of the British foreign office which planted „forged official documents, smear stories and outright fabrications in the media." Pilger says that the repercussions of this misbehaviour are still noticeable today: "The bloodshed in Malaya was and still is misrepresented as a 'model' of counter-insurgency; the anti-imperial uprising in Kenya was and still is distorted as a Mau Mau terror campaign against whites" (1999:495).

But as much as journalists were influenced in the past, the most outrageous and far-reaching scandals based on corrupt intelligence sources happened during the last ten years.

Especially the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were widely spread by sources from the intelligence services with the help of uncritical journalists (Keeble 2007:206). One of them was Ahmed Kamal from the Observer. His case shows, that especially young and inexperienced journalists often fall prey to the intrigues of the intelligence services. Kamal started his job as the Observer 's political editor with no network of reliable sources in the political world of Westminster (Davies op cit:341). In his desperation, he established good links with Blair’s spin-doctor and secretary Alastair Campbell (who was a former journalist himself), and soon came to see an important part of his job as to "reflect government thinking", and thereby was manipulated by exactly this government (ibid:343). Davies writes that senior journalists at the Observer were convinced, that Alastair Campbell was determined to influence this flagship of the left-wing (ibid:345).

This closeness to the official sources was a main reason for Kamal’s incorrect articles on Iraq. During a flight with the Prime Minister he was apprehended by Campbell, who showed him what Jamal claimed to be a summary of new intelligence about Iraqi weaponry, and which later came to be known as the 'dodgy dossier' (ibid:352). When he wrote his story about this dossier, he willingly and uncritically took over information said to be "new intelligence documents released by Downing Street (...) based on information from MI5, MI6 and the Security Services." Thereby, he spread propaganda such as "Saddam Hussein is using an elaborate network of deception to frustrate the United Nations' weapons inspectors and conceal Iraqi weapons of mass destruction" (Kamal/Walsh 2003).

But he was not the only one who was duped by his contacts. David Rose from the Observer apologised in 2004 for having been a willing tool of a "'calculated set-up'" devised to foster the propaganda case for war" (2004). The MI6 had contributed heavily to Rose's 'Iraqi Connection' story, in which he wrote about links between Saddam’s regime and the 9/11 attacks. Rose had good connections to the MI6, as he was liaised to the service by his then editor, Donald Treford. One of his high-ranking contacts in the authority told him one day that “there was a view in MI 6” that Iraq had something to do with the 9/11 attacks. Rose went to the public affairs officer to justify the story, and was told that it was incorrect. Back at the operational officer's office however, he was told that the official line was only disinformation, which was intended to keep MI6 away from official US policy (Davies op cit:337). As Rose himself had once heard a MI6 officer speaking about “using the press”, he should have been more aware about his contacts and their intentions to feed him with information (ibid:338). Rose later deplored bitterly in an article in the Observer how badly he had been tricked by the "well-researched lies" of the Iraqi defectors of the INC (which was funded and financed by the CIA) (2004 op cit).

How to avoid what happened to David Rose? John Pilger offers simple advice: “Our job is not to be duped” (Davies op cit:339). And of course not to be as blue-eyed when dealing with the services as David Rose frankly admits he was: "As a youngish, ambitious hack, I was enthralled. Bourgeois [his contact], a tall, slim man with an air of effortless urbanity, seemed to exude clandestine glamour - and future scoops" (2007). Still, some journalists cannot resist to use intelligence sources because they lack the understanding or the access to a certain subject, as Martin Bright claims: "Information from intelligence briefings from foreign or the domestic services [about Islamist terrorism] becomes common currency and is then repeated by journalists who are starved of any real information" (2002).

Another example of planted information was the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the sons of the Libyan dictator. A story, which was provided to the Sunday Telegraph by MI6 sources, described Saif as “an untrustworthy maverick”, and accused him of being involved in a plan to flood Iran with counterfeit money. The paper's chief foreign correspondent, Con Coughlin, who ran the story, claimed in front of the court that MI6 officers had shown him photocopies of banking records, which they said would prove Gaddafi’s criminal links. The paper publicly apologized and paid some of Gaddafi’s legal costs (Davies op cit:234).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Critical examination of the view that mainstream journalists are too close to the intelligence and security services
University of Lincoln  (Media and Humanities)
International Human Rights for Journalists
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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510 KB
Spies, spooks, MI6, MI5, GCHQ, Intelligence, Spion, Agent, Geheimdienst, James Bond, Knightley, Hitler, Keeble, David Rose, UK, BND, Kim Philby, Cold War, Kalter Krieg, KGB, BBC, Farzad Bazoft, Saddam Hussein, Tomlinson, Whitehall, Home office, Ahmed Kamal, 10 Downing Street, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Operation Mass Appeal, Deepthroat, Watergate, CIA, Iraq War
Quote paper
MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2011, Critical examination of the view that mainstream journalists are too close to the intelligence and security services, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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