Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Special blanch

The BBC website has a quite extraordinary take on London's Vietnam demonstrations of 1968, which it now attaches to its preview of the programme on bluenose (though now, more positively, redesignated as "filthbuster") Mary Whitehouse.

He'll get to that in a while, but, for a start, Malcolm was somewhat surprised by this:
The anti-Vietnam war demonstration of March 1968 was a turning point in post-war politics: it turned violent right in front of the world's media; the police were shown throwing punches into the faces of already arrested students, and in general losing control. The police files from that event are considered too sensitive to release.
There's a lot about that period that will remain hidden as long as blue-pencils, with-holding orders and document-shredders exist.

We might start with Peter Wright's formidable testimony:
And we did have fun. For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State's behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.
Clearly, as Wright implies, a main thrust of MI5 at this time was against student militancy:
student militancy in the 1960s gave way to industrial militancy in the 1970s ... intelligence on domestic subversion became the overriding priority.
David Shayler, not necessarily a wholly discredited witness:
was charged with passing documents and information to the Mail on Sunday. On August 24 1997, a year after he left MI5, it published his allegations that MI5 held files on Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw, John Lennon and others it once considered to be subversive.
The other "subversives" included -- gulp, swallow, choke of incredulity -- Harriet Harman.

Piles of files

With supreme irony, it was Jack Straw as Home Secretary who gave a written reply on 29th July, 1998. Spookhunters, if they do not already have it by heart, should refer to its entirety. For now:
The Security Service currently holds in total about 440,000 files which have been opened at some time since its establishment in 1909. Of these, approximately 35,000 files relate to Service administration, policy and staff. A further 40,000 concern subjects and organisations studied by the Service. About 75,000 files relate to people or groups of people who have never been investigated by the Service, such as those who have received protective security advice. This leaves about 290,000 files relating to individuals who, at some time during the last 90 years, may have been the subject of Security Service inquiry or investigation. Of this 290,000, some 40,000 have been reduced to microfilm and placed in a restricted category to which Security Service staff have access only for specific research purposes...

To place it in context, this compares with about 5.7 million records on individuals on the Police National Computer...

It has long been the policy of the Security Service to review its file holdings and to destroy those files which it no longer requires for operational purposes and which do not merit retention on grounds of historical interest. In the period between its formation in 1909 and the early 1970s, the Service destroyed well over 175,000 files. The destruction programme was then halted in response to concern that it had impeded investigations into espionage cases. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of Soviet communism and the associated decline in the threat from subversion, the review and destruction programme was reinstated. Since then, more than 110,000 files have been destroyed or have been earmarked for destruction.
That's worth recapitulation:
  • 290,000 files which, in 1998, were sufficiently valid to be "active" or retained.
  • A further quarter-million-plus which had been shredded (either for their irrelevance or embarrasment factor) during purges.
  • A passing, and deliberately confusing reference to the Police having separate files on a tenth of the population. Anybody who has written multiple-choice exam papers will know the "distractor".
Going on the "offensive"

Malcolm, like others on the Left, was only too conscious of the tendrils of the state apparatus. It was quite remarkable how, for any employment in the public sector (and indeed, by reputation, with the major industrial concerns), interviews took strange turns.

So, back to the original point at issue, and for something new, different and very, very shocking:
Newsnight has obtained, under Freedom of Information, a stack of police files relating to the much bigger anti-war demonstration of October that year... they tell a story of rising panic in the establishment: the creation of Britain's first bomb squad; an intelligence feedback loop between Special Branch and the press that ramped up the tension; and, farcically, the rock group The Doors being mistaken for a group of foreign revolutionaries...

... we now know, from the Secret files, that the London Division of the British Army offered to assist the Met during the so called "Autumn Offensive". An offer that was declined, though it was discussed also at Cabinet level.

In the run up to the demo panic was sparked by press reports that demonstrators were planning to seize key buildings in London, defend them with Molotov cocktails, paralyse London, bringing about the total downfall of law and order and the subsequent collapse of Britain as a financial centre...

Enter the gentlemen of the fourth estate: newspaper articles appeared which gave credence to the prospect of a violent seizure of key installations; the list of "targets" grew - from the BBC, to MI5, the Telecoms tower and even the Playboy Club. When the Times reported the prospect of a violent seizure, Home Secretary Jim Callaghan was grilled in the Commons. The police, reviewing the press reports, concluded privately that they were over the top, a "carefully constructed pastiche of information" based on inspired guesswork and with no proof whatsoever.

Whole sections of the documents were redacted when the Met released them to us this year - so we don't know what they thought were the source of the information. But we now know exactly where it came from. Brian Cashinella, crime reporter on the Times, told [Paul Mason] the whole story had been briefed to him by Special Branch; "not any old plod but a senior fellow; he met us two or three times a week for three weeks". Cashinella says that, after a meeting with Jim Callaghan, his then editor William Rees Mogg assured him that the stories were genuine.

We now have all the little ducks in a neat line: the Met Police and Special Branch, MI5, The Times, and, inevitably, "Mystic" Smug.

Which leaves only two questions:

  • Why is the BBC soft-pedalling this hard-core story under a "plain cover" of The Doors and the ineffable Mrs Mary Whitehouse?
  • Both then and now, cui bono?
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