Secret police and the media

March 15, 1995

The war against the British miners, and the smearing of Arthur Scargill, are the subject of an important new book. JOHN PILGER examines the relations between governments, secret police and the media.

Shortly before Christmas, Jonathan Dimbleby's book about Prince Charles, one of the current royalty "blockbusters", sold 4000 copies in a week. In the same week, Seumas Milne's book, The Enemy Within: MI5, Maxwell and the Scargill Affair, sold 3000 copies. The Dimbleby book was preceded by extraordinary publicity, including a much-hyped television film and columns of newspaper space devoted to the usual manufactured controversies.

The treatment given to the Seumas Milne book could not have been more different. The publisher, Verso, ran out of copies after a week; and most of the media ignored it. Perversely it seems, Milne's own paper, the Guardian, put it out to review to a former home secretary, Merlyn Rees, who misrepresented and trivialised Milne's evidence that the intelligence and security agencies had helped to defeat the miners during the 1984-5 coal strike.

Although the Guardian Weekend published an extract, as did New Statesman & Society, the public has bought the Milne book largely on word of mouth; and if Verso can now meet the demand, it will have a best-seller. Such is the hunger now in this country for truth; or at the very least, for antidotes to the "culture of lying", as the former Foreign Office official, Mark Higson, described the Thatcher and post-Thatcher establishment's law-bending and breaking in this country and abroad.

The Enemy Within is the story of a Conservative government's war against a section of the British people, whom it sought to crush without regard to the justice of their grievance or to democracy, and its use of the secret cells of the state. Milne documents how Margaret Thatcher and her house fanatics set out to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, even if that meant destroying the coal industry.

Their assault, when it came, was fuelled by a mighty paranoia; the miners, up to 1972, were among the most politically docile and the lowest paid primary industrial workers in the western world, having not struck nationally for almost half a century. When Robert Maxwell told Arthur Scargill, at a meeting I arranged at the height of the strike, of his "fears for the country", of a "breakdown in law and order and civilised values" and of the spectre of revolution on the streets, he was speaking for his heroine, Thatcher. (At one point, as Maxwell served up this tripe, thumping the table and jabbing his giant finger, the incredulity that had slipped across Scargill's face gave way to the expression of a man wanting to tell a joke. "Could I have a cup of tea?", he said, instead.)

The centrepiece of Milne's book is an expose of a "Get Scargill" campaign which was personally authorised by Thatcher and executed by, among others, MI5, and specifically its trade union specialist Stella Rimington, later to become the first public director of MI5. The getting of Scargill and the miners could not have worked without an obtuse and malleable media, notably the part played by the one newspaper supporting Labour, the Daily Mirror.

With Central Television's Cook Report, the Mirror claimed that Scargill had paid off a Lstg25,000 mortgage with Libyan money meant for the miners' hardship fund. This was entirely false; its source was Roger Windsor, formerly chief executive of the NUM, who was paid Lstg80,000 by Robert Maxwell and later named in parliament as an MI5 agent. Indeed, all the principal "revelations" against Scargill, and his general secretary, Peter Heathfield, have since been shown to be untrue. (Last November Windsor, who now lives in France, was found by a French court to have personally signed home loan documents he had claimed were forged by Scargill.)

When the mortgage story collapsed, the Mirror fell back on the claim that Scargill had diverted millions of pounds from funds donated by Soviet miners in order to further his personal political ambitions. This, too, was found to be false in most of its detail. The Mirror editor at the time, Roy Greenslade, admitted recently on television that it was "constantly on our minds ... even as the stories were going in" that the paper may have been "the victim of an MI5 sting". He published the stories nevertheless. Whatever happened to the principle that you are innocent until proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt?

What is vivid in the Milne book is that most of the media assumed Scargill's guilt. This was especially so of "pundits" in the serious press who, without any original inquiry of their own, attacked Scargill with, wrote Milne, "a level of vituperation verging on the unhinged". Scargill was a "despicable braggart" who had "squeezed the miners dry". The efforts of his lawyers were dismissed as "classic Comintern stuff". He was even compared to Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator who had been summarily shot a few months earlier.

To this day, there has not been a single apology from any of those who participated in the smearing of a man Milne describes as "ferociously principled". Journalism owes Seumas Milne a debt for elevating the craft of fine reporting, and truth, above vicious untruth and windbaggery.

Minimising the culpability of the establishment of the day is standard media practice, of course, and the revelations of the Milne book are immensely valuable not only for what they say about the real "enemy within" — that is, an unaccountable, secret elite — but in illuminating the media as essentially an extension of the state. Journalists, imbued with Macaulay's myth of an independent "fourth estate", should reflect on this important work.

You didn't have to be meeting an MI5 man in a Fleet Street pub to be one of Thatcher's "front-line troops", as the miners called the media. Like a good Murdoch editor, you didn't have to be told about the spin required and the facts to be omitted.

The indelible impression of the coal strike given by the British media was one of unrelenting picket-line violence by miners. This was mainly because most camera crews and reporters operated on the police side, from behind police lines, accepting police and authority "facts".

When the strike was over, a report by the National Council for Civil Liberties found that contrary to the impression created by the media, most of the picketing during the strike has been orderly and on a modest scale". This was mostly ignored or suppressed. Indeed, only when scores of bogus assault and riot charges against miners were eventually thrown out by magistrates did a few journalists, and only a few, realise the extent to which they had become the voice not of the truth, but of the state.

Although dealing only with the campaign against the miners, Milne's book raises the issue of the kind of media we have over a much wider landscape. Why, apart from the work of an honourable few, was the war in Ireland so inadequately reported? Why did broadcasters go along with the disgraceful "Sinn Fein ban"? Why was the Falklands war notable for its lack of real critical inquiry? Why was the "coverage" of the Gulf War largely undiluted state propaganda, with war celebrated as a new kind of video game and the unnecessary slaughter of as many as 200,000 people misrepresented as "miraculously few casualties"?

There was a resonance of this in the reaction to the recent disclosure that the literary editor of the Guardian had accepted trips from the Soviet embassy in London. According to the Times, Richard Gott is guilty of "treachery". The hypocrisy is quite breathtaking. What Gott did was utterly wrong; but what he did not do was to provide the kind of service that was and is the stuff of the routine collaboration of journalists with the aims, lies and violence of rapacious western power, or "our side", as they would call it.

The "Gott affair", declared the Times, "has resurrected the pernicious doctrine of moral equivalence between the west and the Soviet Union. It has been suggested that Mr Gott's links with the KGB were no different to reporters' contacts with western intelligence. The two are not the same. Many British journalists benefited from CIA or MI6 largesse during the cold war; none was supporting a totalitarian regime devoted to the overthrow of their own country ..."

This is a very important statement. When did the establishment press last admit that "many British journalists benefited from CIA or MI6 largesse ..."? What exactly was this "largesse"? What did they have to do to "benefit"? And who are they? Surely, if there is no "moral equivalence" with the agents of Stalinism, they have nothing to fear? They must be proud of their part in the great triumph of good over the evil empire. Surely the Times owes its readers a post-Cold War roll of honour!

In 1991, Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian disclosed the existence of a list of some 500 prominent Britons, including 90 media people, many in "senior positions", who were paid by the CIA through the corrupt and now defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) in London. I wonder how this compares with the list given to MI6 by Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB man who named Gott?

In 1975, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that numerous "mainstream" journalists were in bed with the very "totalitarian regimes devoted to the overthrow" of freedom, if I may paraphrase the Times, notably that old Anglo-American favourite, the torturer's regime of the shah of Iran. Central America, where millions of dollars were spent killing tens of thousands of people, was another destination.

The propaganda bought with free trips to these and other blood-soaked dominions of the west's Cold War empire, together with "largesse", flattery and "access" (the latter a Foreign Office speciality) reinforced the big lie that western power was morally superior; it might have been at times "mistaken" (as in Vietnam), but it was certainly not "morally equivalent" to the Stalinists in Moscow.

As Guatemalan journalist Julio Godoy has pointed out, Europeans under the heel of the Soviet Union were "in a way luckier than Central Americans ... while the Moscow-imposed government in Prague would degrade and humiliate reformers, the Washington-made government in Guatemala would kill them. It still does [and] has taken more than 150,000 victims."

In the mid-1960s, trips, "contacts" and "access" preceded what the US State Department described as the "new and constructive set of links" with Indonesia. These "links" led to the slaughter of a million Indonesians by a group of Washington-funded generals. Declassified American documents have since revealed that the United States not only supported the slaughter, but helped the generals plan and execute it. The CIA gave them a "hit list" of 5000 Communist Party supporters, including heads of trade unions and women's and youth groups, who were hunted down.

None of this was reported at the time. Instead, it was reported as a "communist coup". The US press greeted these barbaric events in the world's fourth largest nation as the "gleam of light in Asia", "the west's best news for years in Asia", "hope where there once was none". The British press spoke of the "good understanding" between the new regime and Whitehall and praised the "new stability" in Indonesia.

Thereafter, one of the bloodiest chapters of the 20th century was erased from the historical record, just as Stalin's mass murders were erased. And when Suharto invaded Portuguese Timor in 1975,extinguishing a third of the East Timorese population over the next decade, there was mostly silence.

Philip Liechty, the CIA desk officer in the Jakarta embassy at the time of the invasion, told me recently, "We all knew that atrocities, amounting to genocide, were happening there, in many ways directed by us. The media knew, too; but East Timor had to be sacrificed, you see, in case it went communist. It was shameful." (One reporter who broke the silence was David Watts of the Times.)

If distinctions can be drawn between the method of work of the trained liars of the Cold War regimes of east and west, none can be detected between the monstrous events that their lies serve. Only a contortion of intellect and morality can deny "moral equivalence" in the blood-fest in Indonesia and East Timor, and in the unending suffering and ruin caused by the "humanitarian" US adventures in Latin America and Indochina, with Soviet crimes. But then Stalinists and the far right have always had a similar world view. Brezhnev and Nixon were almost interchangeable, and that old party thug, Yeltsin, demonstrates this today.

It is understandable that those in the western media compromised by their support for the Anglo-American juggernaut should now seek to represent this "cause" as better than the Soviet "cause" and to demand that the rest of us sign some retrospective loyalty oath. Their servility to the myths of the Cold War helped to sustain it.

The truth of the Cold War was that it was fought principally by the United States, its allies and surrogates for control of resources and strategic gain in the Third World, and with the blood of expendable brown- and black-skinned people. It was seldom reported that way. And the economic war now being waged by the west against the poorest of humanity, using international financial institutions and the new "free trade" cartels as weapons, is the Cold War fought by other means. And, of course, it is not reported that way.

The gunfire in this new war may seem distant in Britain; but that will change as the old warriors who are the crusaders of the new "market" order continue their advance. The war against the miners was an early, important battle and a local version of bloodier adventures elsewhere, fought by the ideologues and agents of the same western power, dependent upon the same Faustian pact with those whose job it should have been to keep the record straight.

It was entirely appropriate that Margaret Thatcher should compare the miners with the "Argies" and label them "the enemy within". To her and to those who fought alongside her, the only difference was the method of destruction of an enemy who was, and remains, Britain at its best.
[This review first appeared in New Statesman & Society. The Enemy Within: MI5, Maxwell and the Scargill Affair by Seumas Milne is published by Verso and distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin at $49.95 hb.

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