Were the security services on to me after I spoke to the KGB? Revel Barker is relieved to find the answer…
Joe Haines’ review of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew (Tribune, November 20) started the old grey cells churning when he reported the names of people who were identified as “Soviet agents” in the official history of MI5. Because I could have been on that list.
When I was appointed foreign editor of the Sunday Mirror at the end of the 1970s, the big story was Anthony Blunt, regurgitating the Burgess-Maclean-Philby saga that had been running spasmodically for nearly 30 years. I interviewed the author Andrew Boyle, who had exposed Blunt in his book Climate of Treason, and Malcolm Muggeridge who knew them all and had worked with Philby (and Graham Greene) in the secret service during the war.
The big prize, still alive, would of course have been an interview with Kim Philby. The Sunday Mirror’s assistant editor, John Knight, got close during a visit to Moscow, ostensibly to cover the 1980 Olympics, by finding a phone number and calling him.
“What do you want?”
“I’d very much like to meet you, and to interview you…”
“Of course you would.” Click.
The nearest I got was meeting and getting to know Philby’s son John, who lived in Tufnell Park and occasionally visited Moscow and fed me with tit-bits of information. I had feelers out everywhere, and eventually got a call from somebody who said he represented something called the Soviet Copyright Agency.
We met in a bar and he told me that an interview was “not impossible” to arrange, subject to a few rules. First, the interview, once written, would need to be approved by the authorities, but solely on the grounds of security; and, second, there would have to be a nominal payment to his agency because everything that “Colonel Philby” said for publication was their copyright, and they would want a share of the money if the interview was syndicated – as it surely would be, worldwide.
It all sounded very positive. I said I thought I could live with that.
Fine, said my new contact. It would take some time to set up, but in the meantime was I allowed by my employers to write freelance articles? His agency would very much like somebody in a position like mine to write for it, chiefly about the political attitudes of the British press, and probably also about the relationships between politicians and Fleet Street.
To avoid any potential embarrassment when depositing Russian cheques in my bank account he could, he said, pay in cash at whatever was the Fleet Street rate, which he would expect me to advise him on.
I said I thought I could live with that, too.
But, back in the office, when I told the Sunday Mirror’s political editor Victor Knight about this interesting offer to enlighten a hungry and uninformed Russian readership and explain the British press and politics to them, his reaction was swift.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “Of course they will pay you in cash, but you’ll obviously have to sign a receipt. Once they have your signature on a document accepting payment for information they can wave it at you for the rest of your life. They can ask for more sensitive information that you might not want to give. For God’s sake, the next Soviet defector could name you to the British authorities as a source!”
Even if I appeared only on a Soviet agent’s expenses, he said – and my man had done the decent thing and paid for alternate rounds of drinks in a pub – my name would be on a list, somewhere, for accepting hospitality as “an informant”, for how else could he claim reimbursement? (The reciprocal side of this was that the man would not be named on my Mirror expense docket, appearing merely as a “diplomatic contact” for, frankly, the editor didn’t want to know who any of these shadowy sources actually were).
So I prevaricated over writing articles for the Soviet Copyright Agency and, possibly as a result of that, the promised interview with Philby never took place.
Perhaps it never would have happened, anyway.
But not everybody had the advantage of a wise mentor like Victor Knight.
Trade union leader Jack Jones was apparently on a KGB list of agents; it was said that he provided them with information about the Labour Party and TUC contacts. Scores of his contemporaries are outed in this book on similar grounds. But who wouldn’t have done the same, in those days, for anybody who would share a drink at a bar, and listen to what they thought of things?
For my part, I have no idea after this length of time what information I may have disclosed to my would-be benefactor – although I am certain that it would not have been anything that I wouldn’t have written, or couldn’t have written, for publication in my own paper. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that I told him anything he didn’t already know, and assuming that he was a KGB man (as, of course, was every Russian who was permitted to talk to foreigners in London), I probably told him far less than he already knew.
Nevertheless, after reading Joe’s review of The Defence of the Realm, I thought I should check the index.
I’m not in it.