UK press riddled with spooks, conduits for intelligence agencies keen to score one for the Empire

John Wight
John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.
UK press riddled with spooks, conduits for intelligence agencies keen to score one for the Empire
That a free press underpins British democracy is an enduring myth that has been allowed to go unchallenged, up there with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

Because if a clutch of right-wing reactionary billionaires owning the bulk of a nation's major newspaper titles and media constitutes a free press, the word 'free' has been stripped and shorn of all meaning. 

Yet, while the aforementioned – let's be kind here – 'anomaly' has long been understood by anyone of adult years with the ability to put their underpants on the right way round in the morning, the extent to which the British establishment press and media has been penetrated by intelligence services and acts as a conduit for their agenda is less well known.

That it is less well known remains one of life's great mysteries nonetheless. Scratch your average British journalist and you have yourself a frustrated spook; someone who would be on their toes at the sound of a car door slamming shut in the street, while harbouring fantasies of coming across Vladimir Putin in a dark alley one night and scoring one for the Empire.

Take Con Coughlin, for example, Defence Editor at The Daily Telegraph (more colloquially and accurately known as The Daily Torygraph). Coughlin is a product of a private school production line that has unleashed more knaves on the world than spittle on a dentist's chair. While his outing as an MI6 asset may have been a long time coming, now that it has, it marks yet another nail in the coffin of a media class whose relationship to truth and objectivity belongs in the box marked non-existent.

Though I hold no candle for Guardian columnist, Owen Jones, it remains a truism that even a blind chicken gets a piece of corn sometimes; and on this basis Jones has rendered us a service in outing Coughlin in a recent series of devastating tweets. Also providing an invaluable service in helping join the dots of the story is The Canary, independent left-wing news and views web journal that currently boasts a larger readership than a growing section of the mainstream media.

As it turns out, Mr Coughlin's links to MI6 (Britain's foreign intelligence agency) go back some time. As Jones writes: "A 2000 article reveals Coughlin was fed material by MI6 for years, which he then turned into Telegraph news articles." 

The Guardian article Jones is referring to was published at a time when the centre-left newspaper was a worthy source of information and analysis, home to the likes of Seumas Milne, one of Britain's finest-ever columnists currently plying his trade as chief press adviser to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. It just goes to show that whoever said evolution only moves in one direction had never taken the time to follow the trajectory of The Guardian in recent years.  

But that's another story.

We are informed in the aforesaid 2000 Guardian article that "There is - or has been until recently - a very active programme by the secret agencies to colour what appears in the British press, called, if publications by various defectors can be believed, information operations, or 'I/Ops'."

Further on: "A colourful example of the way these techniques expanded to meet the exigencies of the hour came in the early 70s, when the readers of the News of the World were treated to a front-page splash, "Russian sub in IRA plot sensation", complete with aerial photograph of the conning tower of a Soviet sub awash off the coast of Donegal."

This story was of course entirely bogus, as was one published in the Sunday Telegraph, sister paper of the aforementioned Daily Telegraph, over two decades later, written by – you guessed it – Con Coughlin.

From the article: "he [Coughlin] regaled [the newspaper's] readers with the dramatic story of the son of Libya's Colonel Gadafy (sic) and his alleged connection to a currency counterfeiting plan. The story [implicating Saif Gaddafi] was… falsely attributed to a 'British banking official.' In fact, it had been given to him by officers of MI6, who, it transpired, had been supplying Coughlin with material for years."

Coughlin, by the way, is also revealed, according to Jones, to have been an eager shill for the Saudis.

In the wake of the disappearance of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, whom according to Turkish authorities was brutally murdered and dismembered by a group of Saudis, who, equipped with a bone saw, flew in to the country from the Kingdom to carry out the deed especially, Coughlin went to work shrouding matters in a fog of benign uncertainty. Consider: "It could well be, therefore, that the unfortunate Mr Khashoggi has become the victim of the region's dangerous and conflicting currents." Ahem… indeed.

Coughlin also saw fit to describe current Saudi tyrant - sorry Crown Prince - Muhammad Bin Salman (affectionately known as MbS) as a "human dynamo," after he was afforded the privilege of a sit down interview.

At the risk of focusing too much on Mr Coughlin and his work, however, we are obliged to make the point that he is merely one among many British establishment journalists who have eagerly embraced the role of conduit of the nation's intelligence services over the years.

In his classic work on the 1984-85 miners' strike, The Enemy Within, Seumas Milne writes: "The incestuous relationship between the intelligence services and sections of the [British] media is, of course, nothing new. The connection is notoriously close in the case of foreign correspondents… Sandy Gall, the ITN reporter and newsreader, boasted of his work for MI6 in Afghanistan during the 1980s."

Milne, in the same passage, goes on to reveal how "After US Senate hearings in 1975 revealed the extent of CIA recruitment of both American and British journalists, 'sources' let it be known that half the foreign staff of a British daily [newspaper] were on the MI6 payroll."

So there you have it, the murky relationship between British intelligence and the country's establishment journalists is one that reaches far back in time and continues in the present, as redoubtable and reliable as Big Ben itself.

In fact considering where we are, the indefensible positions taken by prominent newspaper journalists and columnists at not only The Telegraph but also The Times and, yes, The Guardian over Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela et al. – in other words, the way that almost to a man and woman they have fallen into line behind their own government when it comes to who the officially designated enemies of the moment should be – the question we need to ask ourselves is not how many of them might be in the pay of MI6 and MI5, but how many of them might not?

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