The spies who hated us: testimony of two British journalists reporting on state secrets

It’s coffee time in the morning and Richard Norton-Taylor and I chat about secrecy, deception and brown envelopes, something that comes naturally to us. He was a defence and security correspondent for The Guardian and I am now.

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Norton-Taylor joined the paper in January 1973 (when, coincidentally, he was not yet two years old), started in Brussels and moved to security a few years later. The first part of his career was marked by a series of memorable battles over official secrets.

“Brussels was great for watching spies – NATO was there, as was the young European Economic Community,” he recalls, noting that there was no shortage of Russian spies in the area. Back in the UK in 1975, and armed with experience, the Guardian’ s editor at the time, Peter Preston, created a post for him: he would initially cover “confidential and government issues”.

At the time, the British state made what turned out to be a mistake, trying to stop leaks through the judicial system. “There were tremendous cases and the government’s behaviour was very counterproductive,” he says. It was an ideal scenario for journalists covering confidential state affairs.

Trials of that kind are less frequent today and the action usually happens in Parliament, which at the time, more than 30 years ago, was not involved in intelligence work. Today, I tell Norton-Taylor, it is critical to stay plugged into the Westminster gossip from which so much news emerges over coffee, WhatsApp or drinks.

There is no shortage of highlights in my predecessor’s golden age. “There was the Clive Ponting trial,” he says, referring to the acquittal of the public official accused of violating the Official Secrets Act by leaking documents related to the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano during the Falkland Islands War.

“But the glorious thing was that the day Ponting was acquitted, The Guardian went on strike. So it wasn’t until the day after that that we were able to report it – two broadsheets on the Belgrano case.” Was it frustrating? “Well, we had a couple more drinks (typical Guardian stuff).”

Denounced by the government

Soon after came the Spycatcher case – which involved successive and increasingly embarrassing attempts by the British government to prevent the publication of former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s memoirs. Norton-Taylor recalls publishing a summary of the book’s contents, which led to an injunction.

The battle then shifted to Australia, where the book’s publishers hoped to publish Wright’s account. And Norton-Taylor went there. “The trial was in Sydney and lasted six weeks,” she recalls, forcing the Guardian journalist to stay at the Sheraton, at a time when expense covers were a little more generous.

Malcolm Turnbull, later to become prime minister of Australia, defended the editor, “giving a kicking to strict British institutions”, while Robert Armstrong, the British cabinet secretary, provided evidence in which, rather than admitting he was lying, he claimed to have “economised the truth”.

The British government lost, Spychatcher was published in Australia and copies immediately arrived in the UK. “The Australian judges loved kicking the Brits, so did I and I think the Guardian readers loved it,” says Norton Taylor enthusiastically.

Institutional pressures

The Sarah Tisdall case was one of the most difficult situations ever faced by The Guardian – because it strained relations between the paper and the authorities. It began with a brown envelope delivered anonymously on a Friday night in 1983. It contained the confidential timetable for the deployment of US missile cruisers on Greenahm Common. An extraordinary scoop.

But under enormous pressure and after a court ruling that threatened stiff fines, the documents were returned to the leaker, Tisdall, who spent six months in prison. Norton-Taylor was tangentially involved in the story, but recalls the pressures faced by the editor, Preston, when he said he feared the fines would sink the Guardian.

The Ponting and Spycatcher episodes triggered a modest opening up of security institutions, and here we can compare experiences. Today, MI5 and MI6 have something akin to spokespersons, people whom journalists can contact (though they must remain anonymous and generally cannot be quoted).

Norton-Taylor says that, by the late 1980s, this was an innovation – when The Guardian and The Times were the first to be given authorised phone numbers to call. “Ken Clarke, who was the Home Secretary, said it would be like the dance of the seven veils: if you gave them a bit, they would want more and more. That’s why sometimes ministers are reluctant to answer more questions,” adds Norton-Taylor.

But who benefits from these exchanges? There is a risk that journalists become too dependent on their contacts and meetings on benches in squares where passers-by can’t easily listen in. The only way to deal with that is to read widely, to cultivate a variety of independent sources and to step back and always be prepared to critically evaluate what they say. It’s not a job for the gullible or the unskeptical.

Norton-Taylor argues that “they need us as much as we need them,” adding, “If they say they have a good story and it turns out they were wrong or exaggerated, you’ll lose trust, and they don’t want that. In that sense, it’s not that hard.

However, relationships like this can easily get complicated. I tell my predecessor that a spy helped me on a recent article – I can’t say which one – only to warn me later that, if it leaked out that he had helped me, he would not only deny having assisted me, but would haveI had to imply that my conclusions were wrong. What I had presented with conviction suddenly turned gray.

MI6 and the Iraq war

This prompted Norton-Taylor to tell me an anecdote linked to the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. An MI6 officer had told him that the reason some people in the intelligence agency opposed the invasion of Iraq was that “some of the rumours about the alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were ridiculous. Saddam Hussein was a secular dictator; he was not enchanted by Islamist extremism.

A particular concern was that “the Foreign Office and the British government accepted whatever the CIA and the Americans said” – even some members of MI6 were prepared to do so, because war in Iraq was what US President George Bush and his British counterpart, Tony Blair, wanted.

Shortly afterwards, an article published in The Guardian summarized the information from that conversation, which merited a complaint from the source the day after. Norton-Taylor, somewhat puzzled, recalls asking, “Was the article correct?” To which he replied, “Yes, it was correct, but that shouldn’t have been in the public domain.”

This is an astonishingly common response from British security institutions, who seem to be surprised when journalists write articles based on information that was disclosed to them. It is also a reminder of why writing a story and then dealing with the consequences is often the best thing to do: it pays to have a sense of your own judgment and stand your ground.

Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies

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