THE BLACKLIST IN ROOM 105David Leigh, Paul Lashmar, Observer, 18 August 1985, page 9
Today 'The Observer' reveals that MI5 have been vetting BBC appointments, basing their operations in Room 105 in Broadcasting House. DAVID LEIGH and PAUL LASHMAR report.
ONLY A YEAR after he had graduated from his art college in London, John Goldschmidt, a bright, young film director, was asked to make a film for the BBC 'Omnibus' series. Goldschmidt could not believe his luck. The year was 1969 and the film was to be about the occupation by students of the Hornsey Art College.
One day during filming he discovered that police had been checking the details of a car he had hired and had also been watching his house. Soon after, without warning, the BBC cancelled Goldschmidt's film on Hornsey without explanation.
Two years later the BBC once again asked him to make a film -this time a 'Play for Today' about school-leavers based on an existing script. He was intalled in an office in Television Centre and set about his business. Once again he was stopped from working. An embarrassed executive told him: 'You're not supposed to be allowed to work here.'
A major row erupted in the BBC drama department about Goldschmidt's treatment and the truth of his double sacking was revealed. He had been blacklisted by a BBC 'personnel officer' working with MI5. Goldschmidt's 'offence' was to have taken part in an exchange of students between his art college and a Czech film school, spending a few weeks in Czechoslovakia. He was not, nor ever had been, a Communist.
After an outraged deputation went to see Huw Wheldon, at that time Managing Director, Television, the banning was eventually lifted. But Goldschmidt was by no means the only victim of the BBC's secret blacklisting system. The Observer has compiled detailed evidence of how the BBC vetting system, backed by MI5, has barred individuals from employment by the BBC or stopped their advancement in the organisation. In each case the victims were oblivious of their place on the blacklist - and therefore unable to challenge the often untrue or fanciful evidence against them. The man currently in charge of MI5 vetting is Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, formerly of the Signals Regiment, operating from Room 105 on the first floor of Broadcasting House.
In 1965 the distinguished documentary director Stephen Peet was prevented by MI5 from being awarded a BBC staff job. Two BBC executives, Stuart Hood, BBC Controller of Programmes 1961-64, and Hallam Tennyson, a BBC careers officer at the time, disclosed how the MI5 operated in Peet's case.
Peet's brother John was a Communist. In 1950, 15 years before Peet's application for a BBC job was considered, his brother had caused a sensation in Reuters by leaving his job as their West Berlin correspondent and moving to East Germany, where he still lives.
Stephen Peet was neither a Communist nor politically active in any way. MI5's only assertion was that he maintained links with his brother and sometimes met him. Peet was persistently turned down for full-time BBC jobs. All he was told by the BBC was that he had failed to be accepted. After some time, sympathetic executives tipped him off that he was being blacklisted.
He appealed to his MP, Kenneth Robinson, at that time a Minister in the Wilson Government. Robinson remembers: 'I went to see a Minister-I think it was the Home Secretary-and I made representations on Peet's behalf.' This approach worked. The blacklisting disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. Peet went on, with the BBC, to make the much-acclaimed 'Yesterday's Witness' series and to win a Royal Television Society special award.
With the international flowering of the 'New Left' and student activism at the end of the Sixties, MI5 detected ever-wider potential conspiracies within the BBC. All the young graduate general trainees had their names passed on to Curzon Street, although there was little to help them on the files. John Laird, responsible for graduate recruitment, remembers one particular graduate's case: 'They said his father, who had left Hungary in 1956, was suspect. I had to write a letter saying we had not chosen him, although in fact we had.'
It was at about this time that John Goldschmidt was hired- then vetoed by MI5. After his 'rehabilitation' by Wheldon he made no complaint and went on to a solid career as a film director.
But at about the same time that Goldschmidt had been cleared, one of the BBC's brightest graduate trainees, Michael Rosen, known as an Oxford student activist, was blacklisted by MI5. Rosen had caused ripples during his BBC training by making a radio documentary about the French Marxist, Regis Debray, and the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square had complained about another Rosen project which used film clips of US soldiers being tested with the drug LSD.
In 1972, Rosen was sacked. He was told that no department was prepared to offer him a job. This was quite untrue. John Laird says: 'I was called by the chairman of one board, who said "You'll be glad to know we've appointed Rosen." Then he called again, embarrassed, and said it had been "blocked."'
Rosen had made no secret of his political attitudes when he was originally appointed, telling the board he had Marxist views. He had a subsequent successful career as a writer of plays and children's books.
By the mid-Seventies the categories of staff vetted were growing wider and so were the definitions of subversion. In 1975, a 29-year-old assistant film editor in Wales, Paul Turner, was becoming increasingly depressed at his repeated rejection for jobs.
Last week, a senior executive who sat on one of his interview boards told us why: 'He was applying for a six-month attachment with the Community Programmes Unit. He was interviewed, but as soon as he left the room, the appointments officer said there'd been a mistake. His file had a Christmas tree (meaning a security file was held) and he should not have even been allowed an interview. He was a "security risk" because of something to do with Welsh nationalism.'
Turner's reaction when we told him he had been blacklisted 10 years ago was immense relief. 'I feel I want to go out and celebrate. For years I'd worried my career at the BBC never blossomed because I was somehow second-rate.'
Turner's blacklisting - he now helps run a successful independent production company in Wales, Teliesyn - easy to explain. As a young man, he joined the Welsh Communist Party for two years, he was an active ACTT shop steward and attended two World Festivals of Youth, in Berlin and Cuba.
The following year, MI5 attempted to blacklist Isabel Hilton from a job as a TV reporter in Scotland. Their secret allegations were, as it turns out, completely false.
By chance the then controller of BBC Scotland, Alastair Hetherington, former editor of the Guardian, knew her personally. Last week, when we put Ms Hilton's name to him, he confirmed the case.
'I refused to accept it. It was inconceivable. There was obviously some mistake. As a result of my protests, eventually a personnel man came up from London and said she was an organiser of a pro-Chinese group-SACU, the society for Anglo-Chinese understanding.
'It was a clerical error. She was a Chinese linguist and had agreed to act as secretary to a completely different academic body based in the Chinese Department at Edinburgh University: SCA, the Scottish China Association.'
Ms Hilton, having despaired of delays lasting weeks described by the BBC as 'administrative referral to London,' decided to leave Scotland and accepted a job elsewhere. She is now a journalist on the Sunday Times.
She was shocked when we told her last week why she had been denied the Scottish job: 'I suppose what those people did changed my life without me ever knowing.' She was lucky -had Hetherington not discovered the mistake and followed it up, she would have been permanently blacklisted -and kept in ignorance of it.
Things did not work out as happily for Yvette Vanson. In 1979 she was considered of sufficient talent and integrity to be hired to help make 'access' films in the BBC's community programmes unit. But days before she was to start, an embarrassed executive told her the job had been withdrawn.
In a series of letters now held by The Observer, the BBC wrote telling her that 'the job should have gone to an internal candidate.' She was told she could apply for other jobs and offered £500 for her 'inconvenience.'
We traced one of the senior officials concerned who admitted that the BBC had been telling lies. She had been blacklisted by MI5 as 'an organiser of the Workers Revolutionary Party.' Indeed, she had been a member of the WRP when, five years earlier, she was an actress. Although she had subsequently left the party, she made no bones about her left-wing opinions.
The blacklisting is intended to be permanent. Last year, 10 years since Yvette Vanson stopped being a member of any political group, another BBC producer wished to hire her. An executive told us : 'Personnel said: "But wasn't she in the WRP?"' This time there were protests, the blacklisting was withdrawn and she has successfully worked for the BBC.
In 1982 a similar attempt was made to blight the career of a young journalist-the only one we traced who is too worried to be named. A former student activist and briefly a member of the small and eccentric Maoist group, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), he joined the BBC on an informal three-month contract and reported an incident, based on leaks from policemen, that a rape by a Saudi in Britain had been concealed for diplomatic reasons.
His producer was delighted and congratulated the young man on a successful start to his journalistic career. But there were complaints from the local police establishment and within three weeks, word came from personnel in Broadcasting House, London, that his contract was not to be renewed because he was 'subversive.'
Once again the blacklisting was challenged by indignant superiors and their appeal was successful.
The final example of MI5 blacklisting of potential BBC personnel is both the most comic and the most sinister. In 1981 a board met to consider whom to appoint as editor of the Listener. After a brilliant presentation from Richard Gott, the Guardian's features editor, he was chosen.
However, MI5 had other ideas. 'His file went off for "colleging" (BBC jargon for MI5 vetting),' said one senior executive, 'and it was blocked. They said he was an ultra-leftist. The phrase was: "He digs with the wrong foot".' After an unexplained delay, Russell Twisk was appointed editor of the Listener.
Richard Gott's editorial work on the Guardian is conscientiously fair-minded. However, 20 years ago he stood as a by-election candidate against the Vietnam War. He also spent three years in Latin America where he openly supported Che Guevara and the Bolivian guerrillas. The Bolivian regime arrested him alleging he was engaged in 'Communism.' He had also caused tension when broadcasting on the Foreign Office-funded BBC World Service and supporting trade unionists in the then British colony of Aden. Such activities condemned him 20 years later.
MI5 probably got their toe-hold in the BBC during the war when staff running the external services broadcasting to occupied Europe were vetted. Sir Hugh Greene, later to become director-general of the BBC, remembers: 'I was vetted in 1940. MI5 thought I was a Communist, but it turned out to be a mistake .' During the Cold War, Attlee's Government openly announced that civil servants who were Communists (or Fascists) would not be allowed access to classified material. But the BBC were keeping a secret blacklist. Hugh Greene recalls a case in the external services: 'He wasn't a security risk at all. It turned out he had worked for MI6,the rival secret service, and there had been an internal quarrel.'
In 1952, General Sir Ian Jacob was made director-general by Churchill. He remembers: I was shown lists of Communists in the BBC. It was handled by the controller of administration. A relative of mine was actually on the list:he had a Communist wife.'
Throughout the Sixties, Greene, as director-general, headed a new liberalisation of the stuffy BBC. But behind the scenes vetting continued at that time under the head of administration, John Arkell.
Stuart Hood recalls: "I went one meeting m the early Sixties where slips of paper were being handed out about an actress They said "Not to be used on sensitive programmes." I knew the woman. She was not political, but husband was a pre-war left-wing Austrian refugee. I protested at the time. On another occasion I was brought a slip of paper saying someone had written an article in Peace News.'
By the time Ian Trethowan, a man of known conservative views became director-general in 1975, the vetting system was still elaborate. One senior executive explained: 'Regular digests were being supplied of political surveillance of extremist groups of both left and right.'
Another senior BBC figure tells of the sort of information kept in the secret files. 'There was a journalist's Christmas tree file (security file) I saw. For about 12 years it had recorded notes such as "Has subscription to Daily Worker" or "Our friends say he associates with Communists and CND activists." It is fair to add there were contemporary memos from personnel adding they thought this was ridiculous But it was still in file.'
Trethowan thought the BBC's political balance was too left-wing. John Laird says: 'I recall a conversation when he asked me why I had hired so many reds as general trainees. I said they weren't Communists but Trotskyists, Maoists, all sorts of groups. All the brightest young people were left-wing in those days. Trethowan said "They're all the same to me. They're all Commies."'
So, what do the BBC and MI5 achieve from their secret black- balling? Whatever the reasons, the system is clumsy, dishonest and often very unfair. Whereas government vetting of civil servants is officially acknowledged and those who fail vetting are informed of the fact, the BBC method is secret, allowing no appeal-with often damaging injustice to individuals and careers.
But most important, perhaps, is that even if the system of vetting were cleaned up and acknowledged to those it affects, it would only hamper the activities of those whose radical opinions are above board. The real 'moles' - if they exist - are buried too deep to be discerned by such an inaccurate and incompetent vetting procedure.
Additional reporting by Mark Hollingsworth
Above the headline of the article above, the Observer on page 9 carried the photographs of six people mentioned in the article with a few words in tabular form under each summarising each case. The photographs are labelled, from left to right: Stephen Peet, Isabel Hilton, Richard Gott, Paul Turner, John Goldschmidt, Michael Rosen.
- Observer article: Revealed: How MI5 vets BBC staff David Leigh and Paul Lashmar, Observer, 18 August 1985, page 1
- Times article: MI6 fed Cold War propaganda to BBC Michael Evans, Times, 20 October 1997, page 8
- Saudi Arabia: BBC interviewed a convicted perjurer linked to the ruling family without alerting its audience and then insisted this was acceptable 2001: A BBC interview, a complaint and the BBC's response
- Al-Jazeera television: a compilation of information From 2005 onwards