Banning Panorama

Documents released by the National Archives in December, 2011, reveal the level of concern at the highest echelons of government regarding Duncan Campbell’s perceived inspiration for and influence on a proposed 1981 Panorama investigation into the intelligence services.

The documents – a personal file prepared for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – are marked ‘Top Secret and Personal’.  The memoranda detail how Sir Ian Trethowan, then Director General of the BBC, secretly co-ordinated with government officials to stymie the programme, including permitting a senior SIS legal advisor to view the report in advance of broadcast and suggest changes, an event the BBC claimed at the time never took place.

The debacle began in June 1980, when the BBC informed the Conservative administration that the Panorama team, led by Tom Mangold, had proposed to start work on an investigation into the inner-workings of Britain’s intelligence organisations – whose existence at the time was still disavowed. The Whitehall theory was that the idea had been invented, or at least inspired, by a series of ground-breaking and controversial reports Campbell had published in the New Statesman magazine at the start of 1980.

The reports included identifying the then location of Britain’s telephone tapping centre, and all the major offices of the intelligence and security services.

In a minute to the Prime Minister dated 21 July 1980, Permanent Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong notified Thatcher of “continuing contacts” between Trethowan and Mr. Bernard Sheldon, Legal Advisor to the Security Services, and of the Director’s “goodwill and readiness to co-operate.”

Armstrong also relayed to the PM Threthowan’s understanding of the “dangers of lending respectability to a campaign by Duncan Campbell, Robin Cook, Robert Cryer and others, and the possible need to expose their motives.”  

Many of the memos are annotated by Thatcher

It was for this reason, it seems, that Campbell’s name repeatedly appears in the early months of the secret Panorama dossier, painted very much as a radical left-wing aggravator, hell-bent on destroying the “morale and effectiveness” of the agencies in question.

It is has since been reported that the Security Service (MI5) had opened an official surveillance file on Campbell, in the exotic category of “unaffiliated revolutionary”. 

Armstrong even goes so far as to warn the BBC of the possibility that it, and Panorama investigator Tom Mangold, were being “unconsciously exploited” by Campbell – a risk Director General Trethowan replied he was “acutely conscious of.”

The documents show that Trethowan routinely informed the government of the nature of interviews conducted by BBC reporters.  He reported to Whitehall that he had countermanded editorial decisions by instructing Panorama “not to seek further to interview past and present members of MI5 or MI6.”

The papers unfold an extraordinary year epic of fear and uncertainty at the heart of government.  Thatcher, and her closest advisors drove considerations to the extreme. Even by the government’s own admission, a programme questioning the accountability of the services could ‘arguably be in the public interest.”  Yet, Thatcher clearly demonstrates in her annotations that she is unwilling to permit any programme on the subject of intelligence and would be “prepared to use the veto” – a power afforded to the Home Secretary under the BBC Royal Charter.

Much subsequent discussion is given over to managing the impression and the ensuing fall-out in the press and parliament of using the veto.

What is clear is how out of step the government was towards a more open democracy. Their determination to dig in behind the oft-repeated mantra that any revelations concerning, or even confirming of the existence of, the security services would have a grave effect upon ‘national security’ was all concept and no reality.    

Before the end of the decade, the Security Services Act 1989 would come into effect, finally cementing the MI5 and MI6 into legislative consciousness and making accountable some of their actions. A few years later, the intelligence services ACT 1994 would again retroactively relegate any earlier hysteria to the hallways of historical paranoia.

Over the decades, attitudes have changed. The furore surrounding Campbell revealing images of security agency HQs no longer applies. A quick search for ‘GCHQ’ on the likes of Google Maps will give even the most inefficient of citizens’ the address and coordinates for British Intelligence’s most secretive agency.

Sir David Pepper, Director of GCHQ from 2003 to 2008, has advocated – at least in principal – the idea that openness. He stated in a 2009 interview for BBC’s ‘Who’s Watching You?’ – a blandish programme on Britain’s surveillance community  - that it is “very healthy in society that people do understand what agencies there are to protect them, what the powers are that they have, and what the controls are.”

Robin Cook, mentioned repeatedly in the memos as a left-leaning crazy borne out of the same womb as Campbell, would, in 1997, become Secretary of the Foreign Office under Tony Blair’s New Labour government – the cabinet position responsible for MI6, one of the very agencies Cook was accused of trying to “discredit and damage” 17 years earlier.

“In the lens of how Mrs Thatcher and her advisors saw it in 1980,” said Duncan Campbell, “you would have to think that I was the most powerful person because not only had I managed to steer several acts through parliament to force the intelligence services into the light of day, I had managed to get my man in pole position as the Head of the Intelligence services, or two of them, as the Foreign Secretary.”

The more serious and less quirky machinations appear in the tail end of the seven month saga, when the extent of Trethowan's deference towards the tired political adages of secrecy takes place.

On 13 January, 1981, Sir Ian Trethowan sat down privately with Bernard Sheldon to view the content of the 100-minute programme. “Following Mr Sheldon’s comments,” Trethowan instructs Dick Frances – the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs and member of the D’ Notice Committee (the organisation responsible for censoring national security stories in the British press) – to reduce the programme by half, to 50 minutes.

By the end of January, the story had been leaked to Guardian journalist, David Leigh, who reported in a Guardian piece, 'Film dropped after Trethowan intervenes,' that the film was to be scrapped on Trethowan’s authority.  The Conservative Party member and ex-journalist, who had been knighted in early 1980, maintained that no-one from the government had viewed the film and that the BBC had not experienced and pressure to censor – claims now shown to be false. MangoldIn an interview with the BBC's PM programme, Mangold claimed that Trethoan informed him of his intention to allow MI5 to view his programme script and the BBC would be "happy" to accept any changes made by the security service.

History has largely vindicated the press against charges of journalistic irresponsibility in matters of intelligence. The tactic, however, has changed. In the wake of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and revelations by Wikileaks, the responses are geared towards the threat to the lives of the good men and women in the military and intelligence community. It seems that in 1980, the government didn’t need that kind of rhetoric, particularly in respect to the BBC – they had something better: Sir Ian Trethowan.


Read the memos

Click here to see part 1 of the memos

Click here to see part 2 of the memos

Further info and reporting

Mangold on the Panorama SIS invesigation

Ex-Panorama journalist, Tom Mangold, talks to BBC's PM Programme about his encounter with BBC DG Sir Ian Trethowan.

'Margaret Thatcher threatened to veto BBC programme about MI5 and MI6'


Secret service pressed BBC to censor Panorama - papers