Margaret Thatcher threatened to veto BBC programme about MI5 and MI6
The Conservative government threatened to “veto” a BBC Panorama programme about MI5 and MI6 because it planned to reveal details about how they operated and question their public accountability.
In a letter marked “top secret and personal”, the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, recommended that Margaret Thatcher consider invoking the rarely used power.
His typed note, contained in the latest releases to the National Archives at Kew, London, set out the risks. “The government has the power to ban any programme,” he said.
The power had been used to prevent political programmes in the two-week period before an election but never deployed to “ban a particular programme”. Its use, he added, “would produce a tremendous hoo-ha, inside the BBC, the press and in parliament, about censorship.
“But if we were convinced that the programme was likely to cause grave damage to the intelligence services, it might be right to risk the hoo-ha and use the power.”
Thatcher wrote on the note: “I would be prepared to use the veto.”
In the event most of the contents were leaked to the Guardian and the programme was subjected to severe cuts following intensive government lobbying of the BBC.
A cabinet file detailing the hunt for a missing wartime diary from Winston Churchill’s office triggered an even more bizarre pursuit through the intelligence services.
The documents include letters from the heads of MI5 and MI6, speculation about Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby’s role in the death of the wartime Polish emigre leader General Sikorski, the Holocaust denier David Irving and suggestions that the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn was a Nazi agent.
Churchill’s grandson, the Conservative MP Winston Churchill, wrote to Armstong worried that “my grandfather’s wartime diary appears to have fallen into the hands of this meretricious historian, David Irving.”
Irving was said to be renting the lost diary for £5,000 a year.
Churchill claimed it was state property. The MP also used his letter to ask the cabinet secretary whether there was any truth in suspicions that Philby and Blunt [who passed secrets to the Soviets] had colluded to arrange for the plane carrying Sikorski to crash in Gibraltar in July 1943.
Such a request from any other source would surely have been denied but coming from a Churchill, it was indulged. Armstrong forwarded the request to the head of MI5.
The letter back from Sir Howard Smith, then director general of the Security Service, states that Blunt was not tasked during the war to keep an eye on the emigre community and that Philby, then in Spain, would not have known in advance of the flight schedule of Sikorski’s plane. Smith advised, however, that such details should not be passed on to Churchill.
Unsatisfied, the MP wrote back with a cutting from a US magazine, sent to him by the “president and founder of the International Errol Flynn Society” which claimed that the Hollywood actor had been suspected by British intelligence of being a Nazi agent.
This time the head of MI6 was asked to check to see if any such suspicions or records were recorded in intelligence files. Signed “C”, it said: “We have no record of Errol Flynn’s name in our archives and consequently nothing to support or refute the suggestion that he was a German agent.”
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