Revealed: How MI5 vets BBC staff

David Leigh and Paul Lashmar, The Observer, 18 August 1985, page 1.

EXCLUSIVE by David Leigh and Paul Lashmar

THE OBSERVER has obtained concrete evidence for the first time of the way the security service, MI5, secretly controls the hiring and firing of BBC staff.

Senior executives in the corporation have revealed to us a series of cases in which the careers of journalists, directors and broadcasters have been affected by MI5 blacklisting.

Until now the BBC has always consistently denied any interference, on MI5 instructions.

When we went to see Mr Christopher Martin, Director of Personnel, at the corporation's headquarters in Portland Place, last Friday, and presented him with details of our dossier, he refused to respond to the substance of our evidence, saying that the area was 'confidential.'

The most disturbing aspect of the vetting system, which can make or mar the careers and lives of both BBC radio and television staff is that often the blacklisting is quite misguided or based on simple errors of fact.

On page 9 of today's Observer we detail eight cases where individuals were initially either prevented from getting a job in the BBC or denied promotion.

In one case the security service blocked the appointment of an editor of The Listener.

Others blacklisted for periods of their careers include two television directors, Stephen Peet (who later went on to make the 'Yesterday's Witness' series for BBC) and John Goldschmidt (who recently made a film about the whistle-blower Stanley Adams); journalist Isabel Hilton, who now works for the Sunday Times; and numerous young film editors, reporters and producers accused of having left-wing sympathies.

At the last count, in 1984, the BBC had a staff of almost 30,000. We have discovered that all current affairs appointees, together with many of those involved in the actual making of programmes - including directors and film editors - are vetted.

We have also established who runs the system. It operates, unknown to almost all BBC staff, from Room 105 in an out-of-the way corridor on the first floor of Broadcasting House - a part of that labyrinth on which George Orwell modelled his Ministry of Truth in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.'

The legend on the door - 'Special Duties-Management'- gives little away. Behind that door sits Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, 'Sp.A. to D.Pers.'

As special assistant to Christopher Martin, his job, with a team of three female assistants, is to liaise with MI5.

Brigadier Stonham, a signals officer with an Intelligence background who left the Army in 1982, has signed the Official Secrets Act, like all his BBC colleagues in the appointments department.

Last week, after our initial approaches to the BBC, Brigadier Stonham's office said he would be absent all week. At his Clapham, south London, home, his wife said 'He is not here.'

Brigadier Stonham gets the names of successful candidates from chairmen of the various interviewing boards, or hiring producers. They call what they are doing 'college' or 'the formalities.'

For internal BBC staff applying for promotion, MI5 keeps continuous political surveillance on those it considers 'media subversives' - a category which can include directors, film editors, even actors.

Their files are stamped with a symbol which looks like a Christmas tree. That means that a second, secret file is held in Room 105. Some of these merely contain intimate personal details. Most contain purported 'security' information, collected by local Special Branch policemen.

If a staff member in this category is shortlisted the second file, a buff folder with a round red sticker and the legend 'secret,' is given to the department head, who has to sign for it.

What is happening is concealed from the individuals concerned, who have no idea what is being used against them.

The names of outside applicants are submitted to F Branch 'domestic' subversion desks at MI5, which is headed by the diplomat Sir Antony Duff. They are fed into a computer containing the details of 500,000 'subversives'.

The vetting operation is run by C Branch, who also obtain access to other big private companies.

Cathy Massiter, who was a junior officer at M15 in the mid- 1970s, has described to us how lists of BBC candidates would pass across her desk for approval.

Often the word from MI5 that it regards a person as a 'security risk' is enough to blacklist him or her permanently. Ordinary interviewing board members are not encouraged to ask questions,

A particularly bizarre aspect of the system is that BBC boards, when interviewing candidates, are expressly forbidden to ask them openly about their political views.

We found that senior executives were fearful of speaking out about vetting because of the Official Secrets Act. We also found that victims of blacklisting were generally too frightened to admit it.

Now, however, two former director-generals have described the system to us, and executives holding past and current senior BBC posts have described what happened in eight specific cases.

Sir Hugh Greene, one former director-general, says: 'In my day we would never have allowed jobs like The Listener to go to MI5.'

In every instance when MI5's claims were challenged the allegations dissolved into instances of, at best, over-zealousness, and at worst false information against the applicant, or even political spite.

The blacklist in Room 105 p. 9

Clarion Notes

Clarion obtained the above text directly from a copy of the Observer.