Secret Society and Zircon

The former Zircon assembly plant in Portsmouth (photo credit: Matt Fowler)

Duncan's reporting has often caused controversy, but one of the most significant events of his career was the BBC Secret Society series which resulted in the Zircon Affair.


In 1985, BBC Scotland commissioned Duncan to produce a six-part investigative series, Secret Society. The programmes were old fashioned journalism - assaulting the traditions of secrecy perpetuated by the powerful - traditions heavily prevalent in British society. 


In 1986, the series was ready for broadcast. Two episodes, however, were very controversial. The first, 'Zircon,' revealed the existence of a secret £500m spy satellite programme being implemented behind the backs of MPs and the Public Accounts Committee - the body responsible for overseeing government spending. The second exposed the culture of secret cabinet committees - committees made up of MPs, Lords and civil servants, who were making decisions on government policy, yet operating wholly unaccountably and void of public scrutiny. 


The Conservative government became aware of the programmes' contents and ordered Special Branch to raid Duncan's home and BBC Scotland's headquarters.  The two episodes were confiscated. Duncan exposed the contents of the episodes in stories for the New Statesman. The tapes were later returned and the BBC broadcast the 'Zircon' investigation along with a discussion in a programme called The Zircon Affair.  The 'Secret Cabinet Committees' was held in a vault by the BBC, who refused to release or broadcast it.  After numerous failed attempts to access the tapes, the episode was remade for Channel 4 in 1991.


Here you can watch the original Zircon and Cabinet Committees episodes, as well as the The Zircon Affair programme and Channel 4's remake. You will also find additional material on the subject, included Duncan's New Statesman Stories, press clippings and confidential documents released by the BBC.


The parliamentary bypass operation

The government has failed to account to Parliament for expenditure of half a billion pounds on a secret 'spy' satellite. In doing so, it has flagrantly breached a solemn promise to inform Parliament, through its public Accounts Committee, of all major defence expenditure

23 January, 1987

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Parliament stands on its rights

Last week saw unprecedented and highly publicised moves by the government to prevent parliament and the press following up the New Statesman's now famous secret satellite story.

30 January, 1987

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How Zircon was launched

The government has handed back material from the five Secret Society films seized from BBC Scotland in January. The Special Branch are now settling down  to a long investigation of how the BBC2 Zircon programme was made.

13 February, 1987

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The cost of Zircon

A 'get-out' clause now supposedly allows the government to keep Parliament in the dark about projects like Zircon. Duncan Campbell explains why the get-out doesn't work.

27 February, 1987

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Filing Cabinet

The banned Zircon programme in the series "Secret Society" will finally be shown by the BBC next month. Another in the series-about election dirty tricks-will not.

26 August, 1988

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Debate stifled on Zircon

BBC's decision to broadcast the Secret Society episode, 'Zircon,' has been marred by allegations that the broadcaster attempted to influence the programme-makers to stifle the discussions.

30 September, 1988

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Spy in the sky

Zircon, the controversial British spy satellite, may now be spying on the Soviet Union.

22 December, 1989

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The day Cook saved the New Statesman

The full story of how Robin Cook thwarted Margaret Thatcher and prevented the government from suppressing an important intelligence revelation has not previously been published.

22 August, 2005

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Centre for Investigative Reporting

The 10 year anniversary of the launch of the CIR, they showed Secret Society at a 'Investigative Reporting and Government Secrecy' forum in San Francisco.

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The BBC Story: Zircon

"An investigative programme into a 'state secret' about the funding of a spy satellite proved too hot for the BBC to handle..."

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Campbell's Coup

1987 Radio Times interview with Duncan about the Zircon Affair and Secret Society.

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Radio Times

Original Radio Times listing for Secret Society series, 29 April 1987.

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Secret Society: Zircon

The original Zircon episode.

Secret Cabinet Committees

The original Secret Cabinet Committees episode

The Zircon Affair [part one]


The Zircon Affair [part two]


Cabinet Committees remake for Channel 4

The Secret Society 'Secret Cabinet Committees' episode was remade for Channel 4 in 1991.

BBC news report on the Zircon Affair


Watching Ourselves

The Zircon affair featured on BBC Scotland's Watching Ourselves. Includes interview with Duncan.