July 3, 2006
IT IS a tale of secret agents and surveillance that could have come straight out of the BBC’s classic John le Carre spy drama, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Confidential papers show that the BBC allowed Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, to investigate the backgrounds and political affiliations of thousands of its employees, including newsreaders, reporters and continuity announcers.
The files, which shed light on the BBC’s hitherto secret links with MI5, show that at one stage it was responsible for vetting 6300 BBC posts – almost a third of the total workforce.
They also confirm that the corporation held a list of “subversive organisations” and that evidence of certain kinds of political activity could be a bar to appointment or promotion.
The BBC’s reliance on MI5 reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The papers show that senior BBC figures covered up these links in the face of awkward questions from trade unions and the press. The documents refer to a “defensive strategy” based on “categorical denial”. One file note, dated March 1, 1985, states: “Keep head down and stonewall all questions.”
It is only now, after a request by London’s The Sunday Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act, that it has finally been willing to release details of the vetting operation.
Another internal BBC document, dated 1983, confirms: “We supply personal details to the Security Service.
If there is any adverse information known, we receive this information and also, where necessary, an assessment based upon the involvement of the individual. This is presented to us as advice; line management then make the decision as to action.”
The documents do not name any of those subjected to vetting.
Senior officials were checked because they had access to confidential government information in relation to their jobs. Thousands of employees were vetted because they were involved in live broadcasts and the BBC was worried about the possibility of on-air bias.
The vetting system, which was phased out in the late 1980s, also applied to television producers, directors, sound engineers, secretaries and researchers and even the spouses of applicants.
The BBC tried on several occasions to be more open about the system, but was blocked by MI5. A memo, dated March 7, 1985, states: “Secrecy of the complete vetting operation is imposed upon us by the Security Service – it is not of our making.”
For their part, the security services were increasingly concerned about the number of people being referred to them by the BBC. During the first four months of 1983, they were asked to investigate 619 people.
The BBC declined to comment on the documents.