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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Breakthrough in Institute campaign to end absolute exclusion of access to security body historical archives

There’s been a breakthrough in the Chartered Institute of Journalists’ campaign to end absolute exclusion of access to security body historical archives.

This follows a full First Tier Tribunal Information Right appeal launched and advocated by Institute President Professor Tim Crook attended by general secretary Dom Cooper on January 21st 2020.

Professor Crook wants access to MI5 Security Service files on BBC writers and producers responsible for political radio drama during the 1920s and 1930s.

The work of Reginald Berkeley, E.A. ‘Archie’ Harding, D.G. Bridson, Olive Shapley and Joan Littlewood is the subject of a long-term research project which led to the award of his PhD in Media Arts by Royal Holloway, University of London and is going to be published in a book commissioned by Palgrave MacMillan.

Audio Drama and Modernism: The missing link between descriptive phonograph sketches and microphone plays on the radio is expected to be published later this year.

A key part of the investigation is on whether ‘Colleging’, the euphemism used by the BBC for political monitoring by the Security Service of its staff, had any effect on the careers and censorship of the left-wing writers and producers.

Joan Littlewood walked to BBC Manchester in 1930s to work as a writer and actor. She married Jimmy Miller, later known as Ewan McColl. MI5 kept a file on her political activities and affiliations when working at the BBC. Image: Stratfordeast CC BY-SA 3.0

The extent of BBC, Security Service and Metropolitan Police Special Branch monitoring of the broadcasting activities of Joan Littlewood and her husband Ewan MacColl became apparent with the release to the National Archives first of MacColl’s file KV 2/2175 (1932-1951). The public release in 2006 disclosed that:

‘A watch was initiated on his activities, and steps were taken to ascertain his exact status (i.e. whether directly employed by the BBC or not). ‘

In January 1939 the Lancashire police reported Miller´s performance at a rally:

…my officer has been making enquiries regarding a youth named Jimmy MILLER who was the MC for the dancing…and showed exceptional ability as a singer and musical organiser.’ A watch was kept on Miller and Littlewood’s broadcasting activities, and police mounted a ´discreet supervision´ of Oak Cottage in Higham Lane, Hyde, where the Millers were living, and reports of activities and visitors are on the file.

The content of this file and that relating to Joan Littlewood inevitably gives rise to supposition that MI5 and Special Branch may have also been monitoring and keeping under surveillance the political and broadcasting activities of D.G. Bridson, Archie Harding and Olive Shapley who worked closely with her.

They each had various Marxist, Communist Party and socialist allegiances and backgrounds.

D.G. Bridson had his first application for a staff job turned down because of his political attitudes.

He had the dubious reputation for being a freelance writer who had two plays commissioned and going into rehearsal with schedules for broadcast announced in the Radio Times before they were banned.

The verse play written by D.G. Bridson- scheduled for broadcast by the BBC in the Radio Times, but censored at the last minute while in rehearsal. Image: Scan from Radio Times archive held by Goldsmiths, University of London.

Prometheus was a verse-play on the problems of capitalism and Scourge was a human-interest story judged to have some indecent content unacceptable for public consumption.

Harding had been exiled to head features in Manchester after writing and producing features that upset foreign governments.

BBC Manchester feature makers would use the BBC’s seven ton outside broadcasting truck to record interviews and actuality outside the studio and in the workplace. Image: BBC 1936 Yearbook

They all variously and together pioneered the political radio feature that gave voice to the working classes and used early outside broadcast recording technology to capture actuality and people in their places of work.

D.G Bridson’s censorship battles in the BBC and the culture of left-wing writers and producers at BBC Manchester during the 1930s is vividly described in his autobiography published in 1971. Image Scan by Tim Crook.

The research, therefore, embraced a strategy of seeking Freedom of Information Act requests to the BBC and Security Service for any ‘security surveillance’ files maintained on key subjects of this academic enquiry namely Reginald Berkeley, D.G. Bridson, Archie Harding, and Olive Shapley.

Berkeley was a Liberal Party politician and it seems incongruous that his political activism as a writer would attract Security Service attention, but historical research necessitates establishing the exculpatory as much as seeking access to archive documentation that has been retained.

Cover of the BBC’s Handbook for 1938. Image scan of original book by Tim Crook.

The statutory exclusions present in the UK Freedom of Information Act and reluctance of state security bodies to disclose such information, even in an historical context, have been longstanding.

BBC security vetting of its employees began informally from 1934 and by official agreement from 1937.

This was first exposed by the Observer newspaper in 1985 in a report disclosing that staff and contributors being monitored as potential subversives had a triangular red tag known as ‘the Christmas tree’ stamped, or rather drawn, on their files.

A retired Brigadier Ronnie Stonham operated the system part-time behind the door of Room 105 in old Broadcasting House.

Examination of BBC personnel files accessible to researchers at BBC Written Archives reveals that Harding, Littlewood and her husband Jimmy Miller/Ewan MacColl had red ‘Christmas tree’ stamps, but they are not apparently present in the surviving files and papers relating to Bridson, and Shapley, or indeed Berkeley.

The notorious red ‘Christmas Tree’ symbol on BBC staff files that would indicate the employee was being security vetted by MI5. Image: BBC Written Archives.

The process of referring BBC staff and contributors to MI5 if political security issues were triggered by their ideological beliefs and political activism was known as ‘Colleging’ because ‘College’ was a BBC institutional code for MI5.

Freedom of Information requests for MI5/Security Service files were placed with the Home Office on the basis that under the Security Service Act 1989, it is the government Department operating for the Secretary of State for the Home Office to which the Security Service is statutorily accountable in government.

The strategy is also founded on the fact that the Security Service, like other named ‘Security Bodies’ is not justiciable in FOI applications and appeal process.

The requests to the Home Office have been rejected, appealed by internal review, rejected after appeal to the Information Commissioner and were considered on an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal for Information Rights with a full hearing on 21st January 2020.

The key motivation and impetus for the appeal is a ruling from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, in Magyar Helsinki v Hungary 2016, that declared a standing right to public interest information under Article 10 Freedom of Expression for historical research purposes.

Ruling of Judge Hazel Oliver in First Tier Tribunal Information Rights appeal over access to BBC producer and writer files held by MI5, the Security Service.

The ruling of Judge Hazel Oliver 17th February 2020 represents a significant breakthrough in advancing the cause of Article 10 freedom of expression human rights and English common law right to historical state information.

The judge concluded:

In any event, the appellant does have the remedy of judicial review if he requests information directly from the Security Service. This is potentially more expensive than this type of appeal, but nevertheless an available and effective remedy. The appellant can also complain to the Information Commissioner if a public authority relies on section 23 FOIA, and raise human rights arguments about the application of that exemption. He may also be able to complain using human rights arguments about a refusal by the Security Service to engage with a FOIA request.

Judge Oliver followed the reasoning of Judge Alexandra Marks in the parallel FOI case that the Security Service prior to 1989 was not part of the Home Office and as the Home Office did not hold the information requested, the freedom of expression right to the historical state information could not be considered.

However, she went further in explicitly recognizing that a historical researcher under the Magyar ruling did have a legal route via judicial review and, more particularly, directly putting in requests to the Security Service and then challenging the denial of Article 10 FOI rights in an appeal to the Information Commissioner.

This case is now at the stage of an application for permission to appeal before the Upper Chamber.

And Professor Crook has made a direct request to the Director-General of the Security Service for access to the BBC’s artists’ files, should they exist, under the Freedom of Information Act.

So far there has been no reply whatsoever and an appeal process to the Information Commissioner and then to the First Tier Tribunal Information Rights is now being planned.

The Institute is playing a leading role in the campaign to have journalist and historical researcher rights to state information properly recognised and the next steps will be covered in detail in future editions of the Journal.