MI6 fed Cold War propaganda to BBC

Michael Evans, Times, 20 October 1997, page 8

Michael Evans reports on evidence that the corporation collaborated in anti-communist broadcasts to East

BBC correspondents in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, including the veteran broadcaster Charles Wheeler, were fed classified material gleaned from covert intercepts of Soviet bloc communications in a secret government operation to generate anti-communist propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War.

In another private arrangement between the BBC and the Foreign Office, confidential letters written to BBC correspondents by people living in the communist bloc at the start of the Cold War were passed on to MI6

The extent of the secret collaboration between the BBC and the Government in transmitting propaganda into Eastern Europe in the 1950s is disclosed by Michael Nelson, formerly of the news agency Reuters, who has been allowed full access to BBC archives. "The Foreign Office regarded the BBC as by far the most important propaganda weapon it had in Eastern Europe," he says.

He discloses that a Foreign Office unit called the Information Research Department (IRD), which was linked to MI6 and funded from the secret vote, used to give details of clandestine intercepts of East German and Russian communications to Wheeler when he was based in Berlin in the early 1950s.

Wheeler would send the material, selected to cast East Germany in a bad light, to London for the BBC's German Service programmes, Mr Nelson says in War of the Black Heavens, published by Brassey's next month.

The Cabinet approved the creation of the IRD for propaganda operations that would "emphasise the weakness of communism". The BBC agreed to co-operate.

A Foreign Office telegram sent to all British Embassies said that the new policy was "of particular secrecy". In fact, the Russians were fully aware of it. Kim Philby was the MI6 representative on the Russia Committee of the Foreign Office and Guy Burgess worked, briefly, for the IRD.

Ernest Bevin, then Foreign Secretary, wrote a secret memo in April 1948 in which he said that the Government's views should be made clear in Iron Curtain countries principally through the BBC. Mr Nelson says: "The correspondent of the BBC External Services in Berlin was an important channel."

The post had been established with the title BBC European Service liaison officer. Wheeler was assigned to the Berlin post in 1949. Mr Nelson says: "One of the two IRD men in Berlin would visit him in his office armed with cyclostyled sheets of information. He was not allowed to look at them, but the IRD man paraphrased the contents."

They were mostly "gossipy news items" about East Germany which Wheeler sent to the German Service in London. "The IRD had access to the clandestine British intercepts of domestic East German communications, so it was not too difficult to find items that put the regime in a bad light or stories that made it look foolish." Mr Nelson says.

From the end of 1954 the BBC also agreed to pass letters from East European countries "to a secret department of the Foreign Office" (MI6).

Wheeler, who left Berlin in 1953, knowingly gave information to MI6 on only one occasion. This was at the request of a young West German engineer who had been advised to contact Wheeler by a BBC engineer. He gave Wheeler information and asked to be put in touch with MI6

Mr Nelson says "Wheeler discouraged the idea, but agreed to pass on to British Intelligence what the engineer told him."