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I was reading the obituary of the BBC journalist Charles Wheeler in today’s Guardian (5 July) and what’s left of my memory said, ‘Wasn’t Wheeler in intelligence after WW2?’A little Googling plus the index of Stephen Dorril’s MI6 suggests not. Or not really. And the fact that I could write ‘not really’ is a measure of how my view of the murky business of journalists and intelligence has shifted in the years covered by Politics and Paranoia.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, when the game of spook-spotting was developing and we knew hardly anything, any kind of connection seemed significant. The fact that Wheeler, like virtually all British foreign correspondents, was being sent packets of briefings by the Information Research Department (IRD), would have seemed a major discovery in – say – 1984. And I might then have written something like this: ‘IRD-linked Charles Wheeler’, or ‘IRD asset Charles Wheeler’. When it was revealed in the late 1990s I just shrugged. (Google ‘Charles Wheeler + IRD’ for the details.) Because by then I had read enough to understand that many correspondents got the IRD briefings; and, further, the fact that they got them didn’t mean that they either believed or used them (though many did). On the other hand, the fact that Wheeler received the IRD anonymous packages doesn’t mean nothing. It means, for example, that those in IRD thought he was trustworthy enough not to announce the existence of the IRD briefings to his readers or viewers. Which, indeed, he never did. So in a limited sense Wheeler took part in IRD’s conspiracy to manipulate the British (and world) media. For example, when IRD’s existence became news in the late 1970s, Wheeler said nothing about his knowledge of the organisation.
IRD loomed large in the early 1980s to people like me who were interested in the secret state and also part of the wider British labour movement; and it figures in some of the talks in Politics and Paranoia. A secret British government department which was putting out anti-communist briefings? This looked like the mother lode back in the day when the number of books on the British secret state could be counted on two hands. And it may indeed have been the mother lode if the hints about IRD’s activities in the anti-Wilson plots of the 1970s are ever substantiated. But they won’t be substantiated. IRD’s files are subjected to the ‘50 year rule’, which means that the handful of academics who are interested in the organisation are working their way through the official paper record half a century after it was created. So far no wonderful discoveries have been made. But then why would there be wonderful things to be found? So long as the British state is allowed to ‘weed’ – edit, censor – it’s paper history prior to public access, nothing of much significance is going to be released.